If you have read this blog for any length of time you have probably gathered that we have recently moved, as of June 1, as a result of an employment change for me. As a United Methodist clergyperson, I am subject to “appointment” by our Bishop (which means, roughly, that in our polity it is the Bishop who decides when and where clergy move). We knew that after seven years in our previous church a move was to be expected; in fact, I assisted with the process by communicating with our District Superintendent (who works with five others and the Bishop to form what we call “the Cabinet”) that while we would be happy to stay where we had been, we were open to a change in appointment if there seemed to be a good match. There was, and so we moved. I have told others, in fact, that if we could have hand picked our next appointment, we would have chosen the community to which we have been appointed, and our inklings have proven positive. We really enjoy our new church, our new community, and the new opportunities we have before us.
But it is always good to have a reminder that where we live is good for us as parents and good for our children. Today, once again, I have had the opportunity to be reminded of God’s providence in that way. This morning I left our new town with three of our children – Benjamin our 14-year-old, Mercedes our 11-year-old, and Dominyk our 10-year-old. Tonight we are staying in the town where I grew up, and tomorrow we will head another three hours north (by which time we will be closer to Canada than I have been in years) to visit our seventeen-year-old son Mike, who is due to finish a Department of Corrections work camp in the next three weeks.
One of the things I like to do when I bring my kids back “home” to where I gew up is to take them to the places that had some meaning to me when I was a kid. While the topography and natural beauty of this part of the state is spectacular, it isn’t exactly the epicenter of social advancement or community development. Truth be told, things haven’t changed here much in the past one hundred years since its pioneer settlement at the turn of the last century.
And something I’ve learned about visiting here is that other than my family members there are few other people I really want to connect with. Although I spent my first eighteen years here, the only people my age left in the community are those who were unable to “get out” of the small town. Typically they subsist with menial physical labor jobs, and often their lives are characterized by chemical dependency and other forms of abusive living.
But tonight, in our limited hours before departing early tomorrow morning, we visited my eighty-seven-year-old grandmother who recently experienced a stroke. Her quality of life has visibly changed, and her ability to communicate will be forever stunted. My mother and her two sisters rotate shifts to care for grandma in her own home, with an occasional “outside” respite person who will sit with grandma for an hour or two while the “sisters” tend to other responsibilities. We also visited my cousin’s twin babies (who are charming enough to entice me into thinking about what life would be like with babies of our own ... even with our youngest now ten years old). It’s been a whirlwind tours of the relatives, but we also had a chance to visit two area fire towers.
For those of you with urban or suburban roots, or for those who grew up in a part of the country without fear of forest fires, this is probably something new to you. Years ago the fire towers were constructed at various places in this forested part of northern Minnesota so that “spotters” could watch daily to detect forest fires in this sparsely populated part of the world. They would call in any suspicious sightings and sent rangers to evaluate the situation. These days technology allows for a more direct and less personal involvement in preventing forest fires, so they are largely abandoned.
When I was a child two of the towers were actively used, and my grandmother (the same one to whom I refer above) would occasionally take me on “field trips” to visit them during the summer days I often spent with her. These days they are abandoned, but they bring back a flood of memories for me.
So we started, first, with the tower twenty-five miles north of my home town. It is becoming more and more delapidated month by month, but still sports an impressive view from atop is ninety-foot top. My three kids scampered to the top in no time, carefully scaling the missing steps and fortunately exercising fairly appropriate safety manners. Dominyk, to whom I will refer shortly, always achieves a less-than-average score on the safety scale, and tonight was no exception. I was happy to see them climb and to hear the excitement in their voices as they described the view to me. After cresting the coniferous and deciduous tree tops, they could see for miles. The green leaves of summer are already fulminating into scarlet and yellow; fall is on the way. With the cool early evening breezes refreshing our spirits, we decided to visit a second tower, miles away from the first.
The second tower is at the end of what becomes a very narrow township road. It has had little care over the past ten or so years, so it is fairly rugged. Our Town and Country minivan edged its way through the narrow, branch-secluded road until we reached the bottom of the tower. Parking the van we began a five-minute hike up the hill to the tower. By this time it was nearly dark, and I was anxious to get the job accomplished and be on our way. As we approached the tower I could hear voices and through the brush-shrouded dimness of dusk I could see three male figures at the base of the tower. I tried to encourage our children to follow me back to the van, because I know that three males in the middle of the northwoods gathered at an unused tower nearing dusk are probably not the friendliest of social connections. Undeterred, my children would hear nothing of turning back. We were too close by this time to turn around without causing an even more obvious intrusion, so we forged ahead.
I exchanged social pleasantries with the three men of various ages while the kids began their ascent on the rickety ladder leading some eighty feet into the air. This tower was even less well maintained than the previous one we had visited, and its ladder offers little protection, so I was a bit ill at ease to begin with, but to be interlopers into the masculine trinity made me even a little more apprehensive. They were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer (not an uncommon sight in this “neck of the woods,” so to speak) and offered a word of advice to the first up the ladder, who happened to be Dominyk, our socially filterless child. They said, “It’s a nice climb, but watch out for the bee’s nest at the top.” Dominyk of course challenged their advice. “There’s no bee’s nest up there!” he declared as he continued his skyward trek. Trying to add a little fatherly, sage wisdom, I advised, “Well, check it out for yourself, then.” So he scampered to the top, all the while doubting what his resident advisors had told him.
During their move upward, the guys at the base asked, “So, where are you from?” I said, “Actually I grew up here, but we’re from Mankato now.” “Oh yeah,” one of them said, “where abouts?” I described the geographical location, told them my last name and indicated my parentage. One of the guys, the older of the bunch, said, “Yeah? What’s your name?” I told him my first name, and he queried, “You the minister?” “Yeah, that’s me,” I said. A second of the guys, talking to his buddy said, “Hey, you guys probably graduated together.” I said, “1982.” The older guy said, “1978” and then identified himself. I immediately knew who he was and indicated that I did. The other two guys said little more.
About this time Dominyk began to yell from the top of the tower, “Hey, you guys are liars. There’s no bee’s nest up here.” I attempted to distract him to something else, but his obsessive compulsive ways would offer him no retreat. “You guys are dirty liars. There’s no bees at all.” Oblivious to the fact that they had been drinking, Dominyk continued his barrage. If they had known Dominyk it would have been a trifling matter, but I could tell they were getting a bit agitated, verbally attacked as they were by a ten-year-old they did not know, crawling on “their” tower, the son of a guy who hasn’t been around the area for years.
I was concerned that things might turn ugly, so I encouraged the kids to begin their descent so we could move on. The three guys at the bottom, though, remained fairly congenial and decided to depart on their motorized vehicle, offering me an appropriate goodbye. I’m hopeful that the sound of their vehicle covered Dominyk’s parting verbal salvo: “Hey, you guys are fricking liars. There’s no bees up here at all.”
On the way back to the van I reprimanded Dominyk and said, “You can’t talk that way to people you don’t know. Especially in the middle of the woods when we don’t live here, they do and when they’ve been drinking beer. One of these days you’re going get yourself beaten up when you talk like that over and over.”
Unscathed, Dominyk offered a repeated, consistent syllogism: They said there were bees; there were, in fact, no bees; therefore, they were liars. I finally threw my hands up in emotional exhaustion and said, “Well, I guess you’re going to have to learn the hard way, but I wish you would just listen to what I’m saying.”
We left, arrived back at my mom’s home, where of course my children regaled her with their evening’s accomplishments. They did not forget to include the verbal altercation at the second tower. When my mom asked me who was there I identified the individual who introduced himself to me, but indicated I did not know the other two. “Hmm,” she said. “I wonder what they were up there for?” Referring to the individual by name she said, “He’s a meth user, that one” and then went on to assail his character and recite his personal history over the past twenty-five years. Based on what I had remembered about him some twenty-five years ago in high school, I found her description quite accurate. He is, sadly, one of those who never left the small town. He will die here one day and his life will have accomplished little.
However, it is situations like these that remind me of how fortunate we are to live in a community which is big enough to include people who have seen enough of life not to be agitated by the inane mammerings of a special needs ten-year-old. It is a relief to me that in the community in which we live our children will have the opportunity to see others who have made successful choices in life. And as parents we will not have to worry in quite the same way about what might happen to a socially inappropriate kid who verbally taunts drunken, drug-using adults.
This is one more reason – and frankly, not the first I would have thought of were it not for the happenings of tonight – to be grateful to live where we live at this time in our lives.