Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Three Remarkable Men

I was born in the pew. Not by choice, mind you, it just worked out that way. My mom thought church was important. Really important. So much so, that I was carted to church every Sunday for Sunday school, then the main service, plus Wednesday night’s service, too. This went on pretty much until I left for college.

My dad’s attitude toward this spiritual regimen was, as near as I can recall it, that regular church attendance was necessary and not unreasonable, but only once during the week and only for one hour. He used to say that the family had to go “do our time.” This is not to say that he was opposed to mandatory church attendance as he recognized it as being a necessary tie to the community. He certainly recognized that church attendance went a long way toward building a personal moral compass for those who attended regularly. Needless to say, my parents quarreled frequently about this. Mom said they were not presenting a united front to us kids, whose eternal souls were at stake, and dad had sympathy for us kids who got drug to the services without any say in the matter.

When we moved from Greentown to Kokomo at the start of my seventh grade, my mom selected a Bible-thumping, hellfire and brimstone Baptist church. Having escaped a similar church in Greentown, I briefly held to the hope that the new Kokomo church would be better. No way. If anything, it was even worse. Nearly all the sermons focused on “don’t do this, don’t do that, and if you do, you will burn for eternity.” I had heard most of the sermons before, so I did not get a lot out of them. It always seemed to me that if the preacher was so certain of being in the right, it should be obvious to all of us wretched sinners and he did not need to try and scare us half to death. But no matter, there was a good side to the new church. I was eventually introduced to three remarkable men, who were my Sunday school teachers. They made a positive, life-long impression on me.

My first Sunday school teacher was a man named Howard Lewis. I do not remember a lot about him, but I remember that he was married and had beautiful daughters. I think he worked at a skilled trade job at Delco. He was not a formally educated man and was very soft spoken. I wonder now how he came to be our teacher. It cannot be that he wanted to do it. I suspect that the pastor did a guilt trip on him, as no man in his right mind would want to be the teacher of a bunch of rowdy 12 year olds.

Yet, Mr. Lewis was a very successful teacher. Why? Because he paid us to come to class. Yes, that is right. We got paid. If you showed up for Sunday school, you got a dime. Another dime if you went to the church service. Another dime if you memorized the verse for the week. If you did everything required, you could earn fifty cents per week. That was $26 a year. He paid every six months. We looked forward to payday. You were not going to miss that Sunday, for sure.

Needless to say, if you had to be there anyway, and most of my buddies were in the same boat I was, why not make a buck? My buddies and I were ferociously competitive about making our fifty cents per week. And we learned what we were supposed to learn. Amazing! Mr. Lewis even tried to go through the lesson book with us.

I do not know if the church hierarchy knew what was going on in our class, but I am sure if certain people had found out about it, there would have been a stink. Being paid to learn about the Lord? I can hear it now. “Sacrilege! Outrageous! Give the money back!” But that never happened.

You can buy a lot of Milky Way candy bars and Mad magazines with $26.

My next teacher was George Hoover. Like Mr. Lewis, Mr. Hoover was a skilled tradesman at Delco. He was married to a registered nurse, Virginia, and had several children, one of whom is one of my best friends to this day, David Allan Hoover.

We had Sunday school lesson books. I do not think that we ever cracked them. Looking back, I suspect they were written by some very earnest, good-intentioned, ancient seminarian who was clueless as to how to get the attention of a pack of border-line heathen 14-year-olds. Mr. Hoover knew that. He knew that we were interested in sports, girls, and cars, not necessarily in that order. While we were not into hearing about the Holy Trinity, we were very interested in the Tri-Power carburetors in Pontiac’s new GTO.

Mostly, Mr. Hoover would ask us about school, our athletic endeavors and if we had met any good-looking girls. I know those topics are not very spiritual, but we figured out that he really cared about us, like Mr. Lewis.

Mr. Hoover made it known to us that we were always welcome at his house, where Mrs. Hoover could always be counted on to fix something good to eat. His daughters were pretty, which was another benefit to showing up at his house. We could hang out there and escape our parents. He told us that if we were ever in trouble, no matter what or where, we could call and he would come and get us, day or night, without telling our parents, if that was possible. There were many times when we were going to do something stupid, until one of us commented that Mr. Hoover would be upset if we got caught. Consequently, a lot of stupid things did not get done.

Mr. Hoover was mechanically minded. He always had a derelict car, motorcycle or some other oddball piece of machinery that “just needed one more part” to run perfectly. I do not think that he ever, or at least rarely, found that obscure part, but hanging out in his garage, drinking Cokes, using hand tools, and getting dirty and greasy was infinitely cool.

The bottom line was that Mr. Hoover cleverly figured out how to be a silent, behind-the scenes parent to all of us in his Sunday school class. He had all the authority any our parents had, or wanted to have, without our resentment. We would have rather died than disappoint him.

My last Sunday school teacher was Glen Johnson. He did not want to teach our class of 16-year-olds. How do I know this? Because he told us flat out that was the case and that he had been drafted. I can tell you that our class had a reputation…and it was not a good one, either. Needless to say, we never looked at our Sunday school book, and I seem to recollect that management didn’t even bother to order us any, choosing not to waste money on a wild bunch of unrepentant, backsliding juvenile delinquents, all of whom were on the slippery slope to the hot place. I do not recall Mr. Johnson preparing anything for class, either.

Mr. Johnson was a “man’s man.” He read meters for the gas company. He never walked his daily route. He ran it! He had been a jumpmaster in the 101st Airborne and had 252 jumps. He was an incredible athlete who played catcher for a very serious, fast pitch softball team. He had much experience in the army with trying to supervise young men with not a lick of sense, just like us. I think he remembered what it was like to be sixteen and not have a clue about much of anything.

Mr. Johnson knew that girls were on our minds most of the time. He also understood that they were pretty much a mystery to us. He knew we were all interested in getting to first, second, and third base as often as possible. (A home run was beyond our comprehension at the time, or at least it was for me.) He knew we were going to try anything we could think of with any willing female within range. He also knew that we had discovered alcohol and that we were going to experiment with anything we could get our hands on. He also knew he could not stop us.

So most of our Sunday school class revolved around him asking what each of us did on Saturday night. Sometimes we could tell him and sometimes we tried to avoid answering his probing questions. Somehow, he always knew what we were up to. He repeatedly warned us that alcohol and women were a lethal combination that we did not have the experience to deal with. He was dead on right about that. That is probably still true some forty-five years later, truth be told!

He would often shake his head and ask us what we were going to do when we got caught. This had the effect of making us stop and think about some of our nocturnal activities. He asked us if we had thought about the consequences. Of course, none of us had a serious thought in our heads about anything but having a good time and none of us had an answer, so, like Mr. Hoover, Mr. Johnson said to call him if we were in trouble. Again, he showed us he cared about us. It was what made the difference. It was why we respected him.

All three men have since passed away. I miss them all. I think of them frequently. I remember how calm and quiet Howard Lewis was. He was as close to being a “godly” man as anyone I have ever met. I know he was genuinely concerned about us and prayed for us daily. We needed it. George Hoover had a great laugh that made you want to be around him. When we would do something stupid, which was quite often, he would chuckle and then ask us if we had learned anything. You knew he worked long hours to make a good life for his family and yet he took the time to be a father figure to all of us. Glen Johnson showed us how to be a “man’s man”, as best we could. He knew we were growing up and had potential. He did not want to see us do something stupid and waste our lives. I think that was why he used to grill us each Sunday. He knew our parents did not know what we were up to and somebody needed to talk straight to us before we got into serious trouble. We didn’t and we owe Mr. Johnson for looking out for us.

All three men impacted positively every boy or young man in our class. None of them were Bible scholars and they did not spend a lot of time on religious topics, but they taught us about the important things in life. They taught us about being responsible, to tell the truth, and to think about the consequences of our actions. They taught us respect, to look out for each other, and how to act like men. They were always there to give good advice, gentle reprimands and to show their concern for us. What more could you ask of a volunteer Sunday school teacher? I say we were all blessed.

Mike out.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kayak Update

Details from the wood shop.

Almost ready for the painting of the hull.

Adjustable seat, ready for caning.

How it fits in its home.

And the next project!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

from Mike: Cancer Update

You might as well hear it straight from the source. I had an appointment with Dr. Moore, my oncologist, today. The discussion was not uplifting.

About 5 weeks ago, I reported to her that I was exhausted. She decided that the chemotherapy had worn me down. My therapy consists of taking 6 pills a day for a week, followed by no pills for a week, and so on. On the weeks I am taking pills, I get infused once a week on Monday. On weeks Ido not take any pills, I do not get an infusion.

Dr. Moore suggested that my cancer markers were down and that I could take a vacation from the infusions for a month, but that I should keep on with the pills. Her theory was that the vacation would allow my body time to recover from the poison they pump into me. If all went well, my cancer markers would stay the same or go down. Or they might go up, which is not good, since that means the cancer is active and being fought by the infusion. The tumor is definitely there, but there is no point in going looking for it, as no significant treatment is available, anyway.

Unfortunately, during the vacation, my cancer markers went from 350 to 498, which means that my liver tumor is doing its evil work deep in my liver, as expected. So, I am back on chemo next Monday to hopefully bring the marker number down. She did not think it was promising.

For the first time, she brought up “the end.” She explained that the tumor would grow and the pain would increase. The tumor would take most of the nutrients from my food and I would gradually lose weight. This is already happening. Eventually, the fatigue that I now am experiencing will increase to the point I am bedridden and will require nursing and hospice care.

She told me I should die peaceably and probably as I sleep an exhausted sleep. The pain will be manageable with the drugs.

I asked her if I had one last summer in me. She responded by saying, “Do I look like a gypsy?” For the first time, she seemed downbeat. When pressed, she said that the summer was not out of the question, but it would be dicey. She could make no promises.

So that is where I am. I am not surprised by this information. I am still hoping for one last summer, my last hurrah, if you will. As I have said before, I am going to ride this down to the ground. We shall see.

Mike out.

Monday, March 19, 2012

March 19????

75 degrees in mid-central Indiana. Maybe some scattered showers tonight. Then, expected high of 85.

Nice. Really nice.

The doomsayers shake their collective heads and whisper about global warming. They fear a scorching summer.

Personally, I'd rather hose off than shovel out.

Yesterday, we dusted off the motorcycle and cruised out to a favorite place, The Frozen Custard. No fancy name. No question as to the fare. The only surprise on any given day is the choice of flavors. Chocolate and Butter Pecan are always in the bin.

Mike has fitted the kayak with the top piece. He's measured his sister for a custom paddle. I think the creation will move north by next week.

We drove up to Winona Lake, to visit and to tour the cottage. We had heard that there was a flurry of activity within during the last two weeks. Mike got right out of the truck, unlocked the door and walked in. I, on the other hand, sat and composed myself. Then, I followed him.

Wow. All new floors. The foundation under those floors is secure. The walls are freshly painted. The blinds will be up shortly. Then the carpet and the kitchen flooring. It looks like we'll get to move back in by next month for sure.

We are praying for another summer. Mike would love that. We'll certainly get to spend some more time in our little piece of heaven.

But, honestly, ANYWHERE when the temperatures are nicely warm: that's also a piece of heaven.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

I guess I AM like my mother

We can't wait for another snow to camouflage the yard: mid-March and it's spring here.

I drove in every day after school and could not help but notice the shabby state of our lawn so today was clean-up day. I would rise early, arm myself with clippers and a rake, drag along a trash bin, and begin the process.

Except, wouldn't you know it? All of the yard tools are up at the lake. They are nestled together inside the garage where we've stored the boat. What to do? What to do? Should I drive up or should I drive over to the garden store and purchase duplicates of what we already have?
Shopping. Cheaper. Certainly more fun.

Rake? Check.
Pruning sheers? Check.
First salvo in weed killing? Why, yes.
(LOVE my chemicals)

And then, I decided to get new work gloves. It's so like me to do the work, get all cut up and then realize that I should have worn gloves. I walked to the glove place. Many many many sizes and colors and thicknesses of gloves. And here's where my MOM showed up:

The fluorescent green cottons caught my eye. Wow. Cute. And hard to lose. AND what man in my house would want to take (borrow) them?

Did they fit? Well, kinda. A little small but that's a plus if someone considers taking (borrowing) them.

Alas. My new clippers were orange. A nice, bright orange. But, I remembered that I had passed on a fluorescent green pruning/clipping scissors. So, back I went and switched out the first choice. This will make my mom smile. See, Mom, I really WAS paying attention....I mean there are other factors than just how well things work.

By the way, these clippers were attached to a thick, cardboard sheet that required ANOTHER set of clippers to remove them.

The yard had had its first going over. Time to clean up for supper.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Not as Bad as Swim Practice

None of us has the right to claim whatever success, big or small, we have had in life as being solely of our own making. All of us are the products built in part by those who have influenced us, usually when we were children, teenagers or young adults. For many people the prime influence was a loving parent, a particularly gifted teacher, or a grandparent. I have had the benefit of positive influence from all of those people, and many more. But the person who has had the longest, continuous impact on my life, even to this very minute, was not one of those people. The person most responsible for molding whatever character I have, apart from my dad, was a coach. His name was Mal Cofield.

I do not remember how it came about, but I ended up in the YMCA pool one afternoon when I was six years old to try out for the swimming team. My Dad had been a swimming instructor in the Navy (as well as a fighter pilot), so I know that he thought being able to swim well was important. I suspect that the swimming team idea resulted from the fact that I was a very skinny red head, completely devoid of any discernible muscle, who had displayed no notable athletic promise, so the swim team offered an opportunity to toughen me up, although I am just guessing about that.

The workout was underway when I hesitantly slipped into the pool. I think that Mal had the team running 20 100’s freestyle. This meant that each heat of 6 swimmers would do an in the water start, swim 4 lengths of the pool and recover for the next heat, twenty times. Since there were heats at both ends of the pool, the heat at the other end would chase you home on the fourth length. The faster swimmers, all of them in my case, took great delight in running over me as I struggled to get to the end of the pool. My heat had always left by the time I got to the end of the pool, so I was constantly behind. Within ten minutes I was utterly exhausted, demoralized about how slow I was, and was half-drowned. I dog-paddled over to the side, coughed up half the pool, and hung on desperately.

Looking back on this seemingly miniscule event, which turned out to be monumental in my life, I am sure that Mal did not miss any of what was going on. Immediately, he was on his hands and knees beside me. “Thinking about quitting are you?” he inquired. “Yes”, I gasped. “Your Dad wouldn’t quit, he’s too tough to quit. Are you as tough as your old man?” How did he know exactly the right thing to say to a weak, scared, drowning six year old, who he had never met before? I thought about his question for a few seconds and then defiantly stated “Yes, I am," and I started to swim again. I finished the workout and came back for more.

Swimming is not like basketball, baseball, track or tennis, all of which I did. Those sports involve reliance on and participation with teammates. You can shout at and encourage them. If the team wins, there is a cheering crowd, slaps on the back from your teammates and admiring looks from the spectators.

None of that is true in swimming. You cannot hear anyone cheering. You are looking at the end of the pool coming up, your heart is going 180 beats a minute, at least, and your entire body is screaming for more oxygen. Your body is so stressed that the “red mist” clouds your vision. (If you have not experienced this, you have not maxed yourself athletically. If you have, you know what I mean. Welcome to the club.) And when the race is over, you can barely drag yourself out of the pool. You look over at the coach and he flatly states your time for the event.

I rarely knew in what position I finished a race, nor did I care. Mal didn’t care, either, because only the time for the event counted. Had I gone faster than last time? Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. Weeks of agony in practice sometimes translated into a time one tenth of a second faster than before. Such is how a swimmer’s progress is measured. In fractions of a second.

I dreaded Mal’s daily workouts. Most workouts started the same. 20, 20, 20’s. That meant 20 lengths of kicking, 20 lengths of pull, followed by 20 lengths of freestyle. That is a mile, just to warm up. Of course, Mal had ideas about making the warm up as stressful as possible.

Normally, you used a kickboard to do the kicking. Put an arm along each side of the board, tuck the back end up under your chain and start kicking. It is a pain, but it is doable. When kicking became easy for most of the swimmers, he took the kickboards away, so you had to do it on your back with your arms stretched out in front of you with your fingers interlocked. Try it sometime. It is a good way to take in half the pool up your nose.

Pulling consisted of putting half of a kickboard between your knees, so you had to propel yourself only with your stroke. The board was held in place by a band of old inner tube. Not difficult, particularly if you put the board up close to your knees, so the main part of your body would float high in the water. When Mal figured out that trick, we had to put the board down on our ankles, which served to bend your body like a bow. Try it sometime.

Finally, there would be 20 lengths of freestyle swim. As Mal looked at the team doing the warm up, he could see when the faster swimmers were transitioning to the swim part. As soon as he saw this, he would wait until you had about 15 lengths done and start yelling to pick up the pace as we were loafing. Rarely could anyone finish the warm up and rest before the serious part of the workout started.

The serious part of the workout was always run in heats, with the start of each heat timed to allow almost no rest between heats. If we were swimming 100’s, which is four lengths of the pool, you might get 10 seconds rest before doing the next one. Try 20 100’s. A five or six thousand yard workout was routine, although I swam a lot of them that were ten thousand yards, too.

The large clocks positioned at both ends of the pool mercilessly kept track of your times. Mal patrolled the perimeter of the pool, yelling out times on each heat, which was set off by the staccato shriek of his whistle. Every heat was timed by Mal’s all seeing, omniscient stopwatch and you never knew when you were being individually timed. As you can figure out, he knew how fast you could go and knew immediately when you were loafing. The stopwatch would snitch you out. You did not want to be individually timed. Loafing would get you a thunderous wallop with a kickboard on the top of the head in the middle of a turn. Sometimes the kickboard broke.

There are at least five immutable truths about swimming. One, the stopwatch never lies. Two, since the stopwatch never lies, you can’t delude yourself about your performance. Three, your progress is proportional to the pain endured in practice. Four, nobody is going to do it for you. And five, when you win, or your time is two tenths of a second quicker, it is only you who gets the credit, which is as it should be.

Mal had ways of dealing with swimmers who missed a workout. Bear in mind that we swam 6 days a week, mostly. If you missed a practice, you had to get on the high diving board and dive in. All the team would stand on the pool sides surrounding where you would land. As soon as you hit the water, Mal would blow his whistle and the entire team would be unleashed on you. There were no rules. They could hit you, kick you, try to drag you to the bottom, or just try to keep you under water for as long as possible. The free for all against the malfeasor lasted until Mal blew his whistle, calling off the dogs, as it were. It is a miracle no one died.

Did I ever miss a practice? Was I ever late? Yes, unfortunately. I developed a technique to minimize the damage. I would dive in head first, allowing me to get to the bottom faster. On the bottom of the pool was a metal grate over the drain. I could get a grip on the grate with both hands and curl up in a fetal position, with the biggest breath I could hold and there I would stay, while my tormentors would have to expend energy diving down to get at me. I never surfaced from this punishment damage free, but it was survivable.

At each end of the pool were two buckets. Why? They were there so you did not have to run to the men’s room to throw up. Going to the bathroom would allow you to rest. Completely unacceptable. Throw up if you must, but keep swimming. Over the door to the pool was a sign which read “Hurt, pain, agony. Which have you achieved today?” Need I say more?

Mal was not without a sense of humor. At a dual meet in high school, John Trent was scheduled to swim the 100 yard freestyle event. Unfortunately, John forgot his team swim suit. Furious, Mal detailed a swimmer to go to the locker room and get John a suit. The only suit found was about 8 inches too big. When John got up on the starting block, he had to hold the suit up and told Mal it was going to come off when he dove in. Mal said he didn’t care and to swim the event. The gun went off and John dove in, immediately losing the suit. When it came time to flip the first of three turns, there was a gasp from the crowd, followed by much hilarity, anticipating the remaining two turns. John finished the race in his birthday suit and was handed a towel when he climbed out of the pool. Thank God he wasn’t scheduled for the backstroke events.

I could go on about how radical a coach Mal was, but I won’t. We won the state championship. To Mal’s credit, I will tell you that nearly all my swimming buddies were state champions. Most of them got full rides to swim in college. Even I got paid to swim at Wheaton College. (Lest you think I was good, I wasn’t. I was just better than what they had.) Most all of us were honor students and I do not know of anyone getting into trouble in school. We were all too tired to do that. I do not know of anyone who did not graduate from college. Almost everyone obtained an advanced or professional degree. I think this is remarkable. In my view, most of the credit should go to Mal.

Mal taught us be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. If you were loafing the practice, you knew it. Your times were hard reality. Either they were dropping, or they weren’t. If they weren’t, there was no one to blame but yourself. You could not blame the failure, and that is exactly what it was, a personal failure, on a teammate who dropped the ball or bungled a play. Nobody was in that pool but you. You were responsible, no one else. What an incredibly important life lesson to learn so young.

I cannot overemphasize how difficult the daily practices were for me. To merely say they were hard does not do it justice. I threw up often. Routinely, I could hardly get out of the pool without resting at the end of the workout. But I wouldn’t quit. Quitting would have been dishonorable. Quitting would be admitting defeat. I knew I couldn’t live with being thought of as a quitter. Another important life lesson learned young, before things started to count when you were an adult.

So, what’s the point of all this? It is simple. In addition to learning personal responsibility and to never quit, I learned that almost nothing in life is as bad as swim practice. I remember lying in a hospital bed for twelve days with 80 stitches running from my breastbone down to where you cannot cut anymore. My colon and rectum had been surgically removed as a result of my first run in with cancer. When your rectum is removed, you are left with a gaping hole which must be left open to heal from the inside out. For two days after the operation I was not able to have any pain medication. I was in agony, but I told my wife, who held my hand all night, “It is not as bad as swim practice.” It was true.

When I broke my neck being careless on my mountain bike and paralyzed my left arm, I told the nurse that as bad as it was, “swim practice was worse.” Again, true. Ditto for when I took out four ribs and my left lung in a motorcycle misadventure.

When I had to deal with difficult legal problems, for clients and myself, I told my wife “as bad as it is, it isn’t as bad as swim practice.” Absolutely.

You may think I am overstating my case. I am not. I am not putting you on, either. I just haven’t run into much that is as bad as those practices. It is still true to this very day. You might think that being terminally ill with gallbladder cancer would be worse. I don’t think so. Different, maybe, but not worse.

I am in pain. Most all of the day and night. This is because I refuse to take morphine during the day. I will take it at night in the forlorn hope that I might get a few hours of sleep. When the pain is really bad during the day, I just say to myself “Well, it is not as bad as swim practice” and go on with whatever I am doing. It seems to work.

I know that at a divinely appointed time in the near future I will die. My beloved physician, Dr. Annette Moore, tells me she will make a house call and that I will not be in any pain. I worry about that. I plan on dying in my bedroom with my Lynne beside me. My dog, the Iverson, will likely be on the bed beside me. I suspect that there will be many family members present for my final send off. Knowing them, they will probably stand around looking bored and impatiently tell me to “get on with it”, because they have a lunch or dinner appointment scheduled. Maybe I will have some last words to say.

So, after I am gone, you might hear someone say “I heard his last words were something about swim practice. What is that all about?” Now you will be able to say that you know exactly what I said and that my last words were “Well, it is not as bad as swim practice.” Maybe it will be true. And then you should smile and laugh.

Mike out.