Loss of Innocence

Many of us are remembering where we were 50 years ago today.

For all of us who were old enough to have even a vague idea of the events of Nov. 22, 1963 we can no doubt vividly recall where we were when we heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

I was in the sixth grade at Maple Hill Grade School at the time.  We were in P.E. when our regular classroom teacher, Mrs. Balon, came into the gym and gathered us all up.  We could tell by the pained expression on her face that something was wrong, but she only told us to return to our classroom — to not change or shower, but to go directly back to class.  We exchanged puzzled looks as we quietly walked down the hall and through the classroom door.  Mrs. Balon closed the door behind us and told us to pray.  Then she turned and left before telling us for what we should pray, or why we were to do so.

In 1963 we were still in what was known as the “Cold War” and having spent many “Atomic Bomb Drills” where we were told to hunker down under our desks for safety, we were naturally fearful as well as understandably suspicious.  I believe those drills were the beginning of my generation’s long mistrust of authority.  It’s difficult to trust any adult who tries to convince you that the same desk that tipped over if you put your geography book and dictionary on the same side would somehow protect you from atomic annihilation!

So, most of us in that sixth grade classroom assumed that the Cold War had suddenly heated up and we were minutes away from being blown to bits by Russia.  I’m not sure why we thought that Russia was targeting Maple Hill Grade School, but at that moment most of us believed we would soon die – in our ugly white gym uniforms!  But regardless of our attire, in our last moments we did what we were told and silently bowed our heads and began reciting any and every prayer we could recall.

When Mrs. Balon returned, obviously holding back tears, she told us the President had been shot and that school was being dismissed.  I couldn’t wait to get out of that building, and that gym outfit, and return home where I hoped I might once again feel safe.

Feelings of safety were difficult to come by for a long time after that.  Stores closed, no one really left their homes and televisions and radios broadcast news of the assassination all day, every day.  I was among those watching the broadcast of Lee Harvey Oswald being transferred beneath the Dallas prison when Jack Ruby stepped out of the crowd and shot him.  I had never seen a real person shot before and I sat stunned, not believing what I had just witnessed.

If I were asked when I lost my childhood innocence it wouldn’t be when I learned there was no Easter Bunny, or even when my best friend, Buster the dog, died.  I, and most of my generation, lost our innocence 50 years ago today when we learned the harsh reality that sometimes, for no good reason, bad things can happen that turn your world upside down.  Not even our parents could make sense of any of it for us.  All they could do was try to assure us that we really were safe, all the while unable to convince us that they felt so themselves.

That was my first experience learning how to live with the questions, with the fragility of life.  If this could happen to the President, if this could happen in our country, what else might be waiting?  What else might go wrong?  Would things ever be the same?  Would I be the same?  We had to learn to live with the unknown and the fact that even if we did discover the answers we likely wouldn’t like them much.

We could have stayed in that place; that place of fear, bewilderment, distrust.  But, although our world, our childhood world where our parents could make it all better, where the adults knew what they were doing, where we would always be protected and held safely, was shattered, we eventually moved back into the world.  Maybe we were more wary, more wise and maybe we mourned the loss of innocence, but we went back out into the world.

We still live with questions about safety and trust but we have had to find solace in the fact the answer may be nothing more than to do our best to simply live, despite it all.

Posted in As I see it, Transitions | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

It happened again

          This time it was bombs going off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  As I write this, those responsible for this unbelievable act of cowardice and cruelty have not been identified.  I hope they are soon to be found and the journey to some kind of justice has begun.

            But what is justice in incidents like this?  Nothing can bring back those who were killed or restore those whose lives were changed forever.  No amount of legal maneuvering can heal the emotional wounds of those who witnessed the fear and carnage created by this act.  Lives have been permanently altered.  Even those of us half a continent away, have been affected.

            At times like this our differences matter little. We are one as members of the human species.  Yet, in that feeling of unity and commonality, we must face that one of us, one or more fellow human beings, could somehow perpetrate this unfathomable act.

            But, instead of focusing on the twisted virus that committed this act of evil cruelty, I prefer to focus on the many acts of heroism, help and kindness that followed. Medical, fire and police personnel, even racers and other spectators ran toward the blasts and those injured, giving little thought to the fact that they could have been running into the face of danger.  And many of those who were hurriedly scurried away from the crime scene showed up at Boston hospitals offering to donate blood for the victims.

            After Google set up a page to help people locate loved ones, it was flooded with offers of help, of home, of hearts breaking open with the desire to reach out, to come together, to restore whatever semblance of oneness that remained.

            We can’t let those who wish to fracture our freedom and suppress our sense of safety win.  They may succeed in doing that temporarily.  But what they can’t ever take from us is our compassion and love for one another.  If that is the hope of those who wish to terrorize us, then maybe those images of people running into the smoke and danger to help strangers offers some small piece of justice.

            We will never forget the horror of this cowardly act, but let’s also never forget the bravery and love that followed it.

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Indeed we have come a long way…

There is a lot of basketball going on these days.  This time of year is a basketball lover’s dream.  And Kansas is being well represented with the University of Kansas and Wichita State University men’s teams both in the Sweet 16.  But those are not the only teams having a successful post-regular season run.  Kansas State University women’s team is doing great in the NIT and KU is experiencing an amazing run through the NCAA by also making it to the Sweet 16 on the women’s side.

As someone who played college sports back in the early days I could not be more proud of the way women’s sports have blossomed since the passing of Title IX in 1972.  This was the landmark legislation which prohibited sex discrimination in educational programs or activities receiving federal financial aid.

I played basketball and softball at the University of Kansas before Title IX and can assure you it was sorely needed.  Before that the NCAA didn’t  recognize women’s athletics and few colleges had women’s programs.  However, Kansas and Kansas State were two that did and that was because of coaches like Marlene Mawson of KU and Judy Akers of Kansas State.

These women believed we deserved the opportunity to play athletics despite facing some incredible odds in establishing programs at their respective schools.  They had little or no funding, they weren’t even paid for their coaching duties in those early years and they received little respect from the administrations or those leading the men’s programs. 

One event stands out as a shining example of how little regard women athletes received from our male counterparts.  In the middle of a game between Kansas and Kansas State the then men’s basketball coach, Jack Hartman, walked out on the court and told us to get off because the men needed to practice.  Well, that didn’t sit very well with our coaches, who after a short discussion on the sidelines, walked out to mid-court to have a chat with Hartman. 

I will never forget the image of those two opposing coaches standing shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed, telling the venerable Hartman that we would not be vacating the court for a men’s practice, since we were in the middle of a game and had reserved that time.  Much arm waving and spirited discussion followed, but Mawson and Akers maintained their solidarity and held their ground.  Finally a red-faced Hartman stomped off the court and our coaches turned to us, two groups of very confused and slightly frightened young women, and told us to get back out there and finish our game.  Which we did — in the dark. You see, Hartman, failing to convince our coaches that we should stop, turned out all the lights.

The most ironic piece of this story is that in 1996, twenty-four years after Title IX was enacted, Jack Hartman coached the final seven games for the Kansas State women’s basketball team.  And he did so with the lights on.

Posted in As I see it, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Following footprints in the snow

The winter storms of the last couple of weeks are finally becoming little more than a memory now that March has arrived. But, I admit the words “Snow Day” can still make me feel like a kid again. Do you remember waiting, waiting…waiting to hear that your school was closed on snowy days? As soon as that was announced I couldn’t wait to pull on my warmest coat, boots, hat and mittens and run outside to build snow people and sled down the slope in our front yard.

The day would not be so filled with carefree fun for my father, however. He still had to go out and milk May, our Jersey milk cow, feed the cattle and make sure all of the rest of the animals were safe and tended. Sometimes I would tag along, trying my best to stretch my gait enough for my feet to reach my father’s footsteps in the snow. For me, shadowing my dad was as much fun as flinging myself down a hill on my trusty Western Flyer. For him, it was just another work day, only colder, wetter and with a lot more snow.

These days I prefer to spend my Snow Days inside with a cup of hot chocolate, a toasty fire going and a good book. With plenty of firewood carried in, book in hand, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies nearby and the snow building up outside, I quickly relaxed into not having a set schedule and doing pretty much whatever I wanted. I even enjoyed the first few times I had to shovel my walkways. It was, after all, a good way to burn off those cookies. But by the third day I was so bored I cleaned the house and did my taxes. Things were obviously deteriorating quickly.

Cabin Fever had a grip on me and the best cure I could think of was taking my dog Sam out for a walk. Without consciously planning to do so we ended up wandering along the same path that I had once walked with my dad out to milk May. I never know when memories of growing up here will be triggered. My parents were so much a part of this place that their absence has become a presence. Sometimes I bump into them when I run across an object from my childhood, like a toy or tool. Sometimes it’s as simple as touching a hand-turned candle holder my father made in his shop or looking at one of my mother’s plants that somehow has managed to remain alive despite my not inheriting my her green thumb.

And sometimes it’s a Snow Day and I find my father’s footsteps still leading me through the deepness.

Posted in Farm Report, Nature | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Finding Treasures

My mother use to apologize for leaving me with the task of clearing out her basement. I would quickly suggest that she help me by bearing witness as I pulled each box down from the shelves, opened it and began the arduous journey determining what was to stay and what was to be thrown away. Mother would just as quickly back away from my suggestion, obviously preferring that I take that journey alone, after she was gone.

And that’s what I’ve been doing. Box by box, whenever I felt strong enough, I’ve been going through the many shelves and piles of things left behind from lives well lived.

Sometimes I find things that I know must have been important, and may still be, but I have no idea about the story or the history behind the items. Yet once in awhile I come across something that is pure treasure. That was the case when, in a box of hankies, photographs and unopened bottles of Avon cologne I found an old autograph book. As I carefully opened the worn, fuzzy orange cloth cover with the white plastic flowers on the front I was treated to my Great Aunt Pauline’s carefully scribed name, followed by the year, 1895.

I never knew Pauline. I may have met her, but she died in 1955, three years after I was born, so I have no recollection of her beyond the photographs I’ve seen. To hold something that she once held was humbling, but to read the carefully written friendship poems inside touched me deeply. I felt connected to something much greater than I, much longer lasting than my fleeting lifetime. I can tell by the carefully worn pages that Pauline must have looked through this book of wishes from her cherished friends many times. Inside were “forget me not’s” and lovely rhymes, such as:
“Live for those that love you,
For those whose hearts are true,
For the heavens that shine above you,
And the good that you may do.”

Many of the names signed below the wishes are familiar to me, having heard of the Surdez’s, the Junod’s, the Bonjour’s and the Jeanerret’s, some who were distant relatives, all through my youth.

Pauline Cosandier was my grandfather’s older sister. They, along with their mother and three other siblings came to America from Switzerland in 1888. I’ve heard the stories and I know my mother always had fond memories of Pauline, but holding her autograph book made her come alive to me.

Maybe it’s my age, having just turned 60, but finding this book has somehow deepened my interest in history and the people who have gone before me. When you walk through your local historical museum and see your high school band uniform on display you feel a bit historical, if not hysterical realizing that you are now old enough to have things that were part of your lifetime displayed as though they are artifacts of a bygone era.

Maybe I’ve now lived long enough to have a history. When you drive down the main street of your hometown and can remember what businesses were at each location…over the last 50 years, you have some history in you.

Whatever the reason, Aunt Pauline’s autograph book has prompted me to try to learn more about my family’s history, which I now realize is a significant part of my own history.

To hold something once held by a family member over 100 years ago provides a wider and deeper perspective. Aunt Pauline lived, just like I live, she had friends she loved, just like I do, and she kept this book to remember them by.

And, now, I will keep it too.

Posted in Transitions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Will dance for rain

The heat and dryness of this summer is taking a toll on everyone and everything, but things here on the farm are getting downright crispy!  How dry is it?   Well, when I went out to try to mow the last few stems of grass in my yard I lost my mower when it fell into a crack in the earth.  It’s so dry that ice cubes are melting themselves so they can have a drink. 

Basically, it is so dry that it’s scary!  Fortunately I have pivot irrigation systems on my larger fields, but even with them running 24/7 there is still a chance that the soybeans and corn won’t make it to harvest, or if they do the yields will be ridiculously low.

That’s one of the most challenging things about farming.  You work to get the land ready to plant, you plant your crop, then for the most part, your livelihood and paycheck for the year is completely dependent upon things outside of your control.  Farming is a true partnership with nature.  We do all we can to tend the land and grow our crops, but in the end everything depends upon the weather.  If it rains too much or too little the year’s work, and income, is jeopardized.  I remember years on the farm when a hail storm right before wheat harvest, or other weather related event, meant no new school clothes and no non-essential purchases.  Farming isn’t for sissies.  It’s a gamble every year and this year it feels like the odds may be stacking up against us.

So, although we’ve all suffered through the heat and lack of rain this summer, it has taken a huge toll on farm operators and producers.  I doubt too many of us are getting much sleep these days from wondering when, or even if, we’ll get some rain and if we do, will it be in time to save the year’s crops.  Sure the commodity markets are running high, but that’s mostly an indication of what dire circumstances we are facing as our crops struggle toward maturity.  The heat has kept the corn from developing full heads and the soybeans are now struggling to bloom and pod correctly. 

But crops aren’t the only thing suffering.  The cattle are too.  The grass in the pastures has turned October brown already and the pond north of my house is almost completely dry.  In nearly 60 years I have never seen that happen!  The other ponds are dangerously low as well, and if we don’t get some significant rain soon the cattle will have to be moved out of the pasture.  Even if we do get some rain, it will likely take years to get the ponds full and the moisture level in the soil back to normal.

Water is necessary for all of us to thrive, even survive, but on a farm it is the most precious of resources.  It’s required for everything we do — from growing crops to raising cattle; from having a garden to keeping our sanity.  And many of us who rely on agriculture, wholly or partly, for a living are having that sanity show some wear.  So if you drive by and see me in the yard involved in some kind of free-form frenzy, it could either be the last thread of my mental fabric has unraveled, or you have caught me trying to summon the rain gods with that age-old ritual, the rain dance!

Posted in Farm Report, Lessons from the Land | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Turning 60

            My age odometer will soon turn 60.  That doesn’t seem possible.  Honestly, I’m surprised at how good 60 feels.  It doesn’t feel as old as I thought it would.  As a kid I thought 60 was really old.  And it may be, but it’s not as old now as I thought it was then.  I can still do most of the things I want to do.  Granted, I can’t do them for as long as I once could and, it’s true, there are fewer things I want to do, but overall I don’t feel too many limitations.

            I would like to tell you that turning 60 is no big deal to me and in many ways it isn’t.  I don’t see it as a tragedy.  I’m not particularly upset about it.  How ridiculous it seems to me to be upset about any age you turn.  You can’t do anything about it.  If you’re 60, you’re 60.  Pull up your big girl panties and deal with it.  Besides, life is a journey, right?  Oh sure, there are no Road Atlas’s to help show us the way and there are either few or way too many signs along the way to be certain we are always on the right path.  But no matter how zig zaggy our route, we still go from here to there.  To be honest, in life, that’s birth to death.  We all do it.  No one has ever gotten out of this alive.  Well, not in the physical sense anyway.  As to what happens when we reach our destination after we croak, I like to think we’re given a free fill up, a reliable GPS, maybe a gift certificate for a nice B&B, and are sent back out for another grand adventure.

            The thing about 60 that is getting to me a little bit, though, is that at 40, even at 50, it was still fairly easy to convince myself that I was only halfway through my life.  I still had a good half of my life stretching out ahead of me.  There was plenty of time.  At 60, however, that is no longer possible.  At 60, I am well aware that I have more life behind me than ahead of me.  I have somehow passed the midpoint and I’m now well into my second half. 

            Yet when I look into the mirror the eyes that were reflected back to me when I was a child are the same eyes looking back at me today.  That little girl is still inside of me.  She still dreams of laughter and love, and holds hopes for adventure, and plans for what yet is to be.  What yet is to be, however, remains a mystery and embracing that may be the greatest adventure there is.  That’s one of the gifts of getting older.  By now we realize we don’t always end up where we think we’re going.  There are dreams deferred and great plans diverted.  There are twists and turns along the way that we could have never seen coming.  All of it makes up the minutes and days of our lives, and overall, I have to say I’ve had a good life so far.  I’ve done a lot of things, met a lot of people, and had some successes and a few near misses. 

            So, as my next birthday nears and I wonder how the rest of my life may unfold, I’ve decided to use turning 60 as motivation to laugh more frequently and heartily, to spend more time having fun and less time fretting, and to drink much better wine.

Posted in Health and Well Being | Tagged , , | 4 Comments