Category Archives: Slices of Life

Stories that can’t be made up

Catch the Falling Leaves

img_0434.jpgLike a lot of people who grow up in New England, I’ve always considered Fall my favorite time of year. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why. Maybe it was the events of Fall, the return of football, the approach of Halloween with its magical creepiness and endless sweets, the clean cold air in my lungs while waiting for the school bus – maybe. I’m just not sure.

*

The backyard of our house on 24 Plain Street was a place of endless adventure. Glorious kid-sports were played there; chores were accomplished, and epic wars had been fought and won within the confines of a fenced half-acre. It was a place of swing-sets, laughter, and snowball fights. It was where you played catch with your brothers or set off fireworks on the 4th of July. That yard was always full of people – my sister, my brothers, and neighborhood kids – friends and foe alike.

In a lot of ways my backyard was the entire world – at least the entire part of the world that was worth loving.

Then, in the fall of 1979 when I was 14 years old, I found myself alone in the backyard.

**

One day in early October after getting home from school, I wandered into my backyard. It was one of those perfect autumn days. The sky supernaturally blue, and the sun beaming – allowing me to be comfortable in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. I leaned my back against the chain-link fence and I could see the tops of the oak trees in my front yard. Their leaves, rich and red were desperately clinging to the limbs high above my parents’ roofline. The breeze sounded heavy through the leaves, like a crowd cheering. Months earlier, I’d imagined in my mind’s ear, that same crowd cheering wildly during Wiffle-ball games with my brothers. But today, I didn’t have to imagine the roar of the crowd.

As the wind tore through the trees, large oak leaves would fly over my house into the backyard. The leaves would fly unpredictably – first tumbling then floating then suddenly collapsing to the ground. No two leaves took the same path; each was tossed and turned by the invisible winds until coming to rest on the cold ground.

Without thinking, I found myself running around wildly trying to catch the leaves. It was hard work. I would pick out a leaf as it flew off the highest boughs of an oak and sprint to where it looked like it would fall, only to have the leaf turn dramatically at the last second, avoiding my outstretched hand.

The game was on!

For the next thirty minutes, I was running and shouting “I should have caught that one!” Occasionally, I would make a remarkable catch diving headlong and snagging a leaf between my fingers just before it hit the ground. The crowd would cheer wildly, Mel Allen would roar “How about that!” I would rise to my knees and hold the leaf high above my head.

The game rolled on. I tracked a leaf while running at full speed. It was too far away this time. I’d never make it. But I kept running and dove, sliding on my stomach and snagging the twisting leaf inches from the ground. I sat up waiving the leaf in triumph.

“Did you see that catch? Did ANY of you see the ridiculously impossible catch I just made?” I asked in a booming voice.

But no one did see it. My legs felt damp and cold as I looked around the backyard, still alone.

***

Weeks earlier that year, my brother had left for college. It was a lousy day for me, the youngest of four kids, because it marked the first time I would be the only kid in the house on 24 Plain Street. I remember crying pretty hard that day. When you’re the youngest of four kids you take a lot of things for granted, like there will always be fun in the backyard.

Instead, in the fall of 1979 everything got pretty quiet. I found myself learning to talk to myself. I don’t mean in a crazy way – just in a comforting, conversational way. In fact, I still talk to myself today which drives my wife and kids a little crazy.

This was the Fall of the great loneliness. I don’t mean in a clichéd, black turtleneck with slumped shoulders kind of a way. I just mean regular old loneliness with no one to play catch with after school or to talk to at night. It was a time where passions were left wanting, because there were no monopoly games to argue over or street hockey games to win.

It was unnerving. Nothing made sense and that was just the way things were. You better get used to it because this is how the world works kid. You spend most of your time talking to yourself and remembering the incredible summer days.

****

I rolled over on my back. The grass was cold on my neck and I stared at the leaves still flying overhead. I was through with the “catch the falling leaves” game. I was done chasing them. I had worked up a sweat and now felt chilly. I shivered a bit and contemplated going inside to see what Mom had planned for dinner.

On the ground near my head were the brown leaves. Those unlucky leaves that weeks earlier had fallen first. I could smell them – a sort of musty decaying oak leaf smell. The same smell you’d get when you and your brothers would tumble in leaf piles. But today the leaves smelled different – they were cruel-smelling leaves.

I felt uneasy, as a squadron of butterflies did maneuvers in my stomach. That smell – that fallen leaf smell was everywhere around me. As I looked up at the sky, I started thinking about death.
“You know. We’re all gonna die someday.” I said out loud. I’m pretty sure it was the first time in my life I ever said those words.

I laced my fingers together and put my hands behind my head. Tears streamed from the corners of my eyes and ran into my hair.

I snapped out of it. I sat up wiping my eyes with my shirt sleeves. I was embarrassed and I quickly looked around. No one had seen me crying.

*****

Yesterday, I had my dog, a yellow lab named Fenway, out for a walk here in rural New Hampshire. It was a cool August morning that whispered “summer is over” in my ear. As we walked through the woods, I noticed that the first leaves, the unlucky ones, had already started to turn yellow, orange and red.

“Already?” I asked myself.

About an hour into our walk I stopped and gave Fenway a bowl of water. As I stooped near the ground to pour his water – it hit me. The unmistakable fragrance of dead leaves. As he wagged his tail and drank, my mind played tricks on me.

I started looking for leaves to catch. I could hear the sounds of a baseball snapping in a mitt. There was laughter and the shouts of boys yelling good naturedly “Get him! Don’t let him get away!”
And yes, I had tears in my eyes. It happens every fall.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2017 cjcheetham

 

 

 

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Creature Double Feature

One of the great things about living in small town America is you can always find interesting people, businesses and places. One of the things I love about New Hampshire is, that while 7-11 and Cumberland Farms are ubiquitous in their offering of convenience 24 hours a day, the family owned country store is still readily available. The country store offers something that the chain stores cannot offer – a unique experience.

About 3 or 4 times a year, I get a craving for Twizzlers. It’s like clockwork – about every 100 days I get a Twizzler itch and it must be scratched. Today that itch came while I was driving through a small New Hampshire town, which luckily had one of the aforementioned country stores.
As I pulled into the store parking lot, I immediately took note of the non-descript, cement-block-of-a-building with a fading olive green paint scheme. High, near the roofline, a sign told potential customers everything they needed to know:

CIGARETTES – COLD BEER – GAS – DELI

Now, THAT is a mission statement that anyone could understand and get behind. “When you come to our store to fill yer tank, we’d be obliged to sell you smokes, brew, and a large Italian sub with lettuce and tomato.”

The process improvement facilitators across the land with their black belts in how to re-engineer any company’s mission statement and develop your corporate vision statement, could learn an awful lot from this Mom and Pop outfit. The people who own this country store are not “Providng 21st Century customer service focused on the needs of our clients, community…”

Oh shut up! We sell Marlboros and 12-packs of Coors Light.

*

In the front of the building there was a long flower box, built about two feet high, just about the length of the entire store front. It didn’t look like any flowers had grown there in a very long time. It was really just a box of dirt, with gum wrappers, drink lids, cigarettes, and a few weeds. As I pulled into my parking spot I noticed a small humanoid sitting on that very flower box.

He or she had longish snow-white hair a sheepish, toothless grin on his face. I got a better look as I shifted my truck into park. This was a male, probably in his late 60’s. He appeared to be healthy. His height was hard to tell because he was seated, but I estimated he was no more than 5’ 2” tall. His head was large but seemed to be balanced on his body rather than connected to it. His shoulders were small and slumped – not from discouragement – but rather from a lifetime of bad posture. He wore a very tight shirt and it appeared his upper body was without bone structure. His torso was gelatinous.

It could have been simple lack of exercise. Although, I imagined that he was at one point over 6 feet tall, but over the course of his life he had lost 4 – 6 ribs and 5 – 7 vertebrae under very mysterious circumstances.

**

When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was the Creature Double Feature that was played every Saturday afternoon on UHF channel 56 out of Boston. Typically, the movies broadcast were b-moves in black and white that weren’t all that scary. Occasionally, I’d get creeped out by Vincent Price (The Tingler!) or by the Wasp Woman (Roger Corman classic). But for the most part it was not so scary giant lizards, vampires, werewolves, and aliens.

One Saturday, when I was probably 9 years old, Channel 56 broadcast a very chilling film. It was a movie that took place on a remote island that somehow had mutant turtle-like creatures that fed on bones. I can’t remember if these turtles were from outer space or a nuclear experiment gone wrong. In any event, the turtles would attach themselves to unsuspecting cows and suck the entire skeleton out of the cow’s body. All that was left was a mushy cowhide pile and a boneless cow head with a surprised look on its face.

It was a creepy movie. It got creepier when the turtle-things started to feed on humans. I remember my horror at seeing a scientist in his lab coat getting his skeleton sucked out of his body, leaving a gelatinous mess.

Gelatinous.

**

So this guy, let’s call him Whitey, with a great head of hair and a gelatinous torso testing the strength of cotton t-shirt tucked smartly into his checkered pants, is just grinning at me. And I am getting that Saturday Creature Double Feature feeling.

But I am here for Twizzlers, so I just smile at Whitey as I walk to the front door of the store. Whitey averts his eyes when I acknowledge him sitting there. Weird.

***

Just as I suspected this Mom and Pop Store is like walking back in time. At least half of the store is devoted to beer. It’s not like a 7-11. In a 7-11, you walk in and it’s always the same; same coffee counter, same design, same ATM, same refrigerators, same same same. This store is different. This place is disorganized and hard to understand. You have to work hard to find your Twizzlers. The shelves are filled with products you thought were long defunct – there are Andy Capp’s Hot Fries over there, Mello Yello on that shelf, and all 3 flavors of Charleston Chews (strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla – for the unenlightened).

I start to doubt they will have Twizzlers, but then I spot them – right next to the Sugar Daddys and the Mallo-Cups.

As I get to the register there is a guy in front of me buying a couple of jumbo, 24-ounce cans of Busch Beer. He’s a big guy, perhaps 6’ 4” tall and he has that country strong look. Brawny hands and forearms, with a thin layer of grime covering him. His gut is big; these obviously aren’t his first man-sized beers, and the buttons on his shirt are straining to hold his pot in and keep everything together. His gray hair, long and greasy, is combed straight back Fonzy-style and it frames his red face.

Ruddy, a good old Irish term my mom would have used to describe him. Ruddy? I’ve always thought alcoholic when I’ve seen faces like this guy’s.

He pays for his brew and walks out, stiff-legged like his hips are out of their sockets.
I pay for the Twizzlers and head out – I am back in the cab of my pickup in no time.

****

Seated on the flower bed, less than 10 feet from my truck are Whitey and Ruddy.

I pull a Twizzler from the package and take a big bite. It’s fresh and soft and I savor the texture. There is almost nothing worse than a stale Twizzler; flavorless and brutal to chew. You may as well gnaw on a bag of clothesline if you get a bag of stale Twizzlers. No worries today. These Twizzlers are fresh and true. I take another from the package without looking; my eyes are locked on Whitey and Ruddy.
Ruddy is holding court. He is taking long pulls off his can of beer and in between swallows his is intensely talking to his protégé. His free hand is gesturing wildly, his eyes are bulging and he is stridently talking to Whitey.

Whitey is locked in on every word. His gelatinous torso is moving independently of the conversation, but Whitey is listening intently, sipping his beer like it is a hot coffee. They look like a bizarre coach and insane player strategizing during a critical time out. Ruddy is drawing up a play, imploring Whitey to victory and Whitey looks determined to make the play work and win the game.
Whitey nods. He understands the situation. The spittle is flying from Ruddy’s mouth now but Whitey is undaunted; focused.

I am on my fourth Twizzler when Ruddy finishes his fiery speech. Whitey lowers his can of beer and they make deep eye contact. No one says anything. They are perfectly still except for Whitey’s gelatinous torso.

They both start laughing. Whitey’s stomach churns and rolls happily. Ruddy’s face turns even more red as tears stream down his face.

And I am sitting there thinking to myself:
“What is so funny?”

“What the Hell is so funny?!”

Copyright © 2017 cjcheetham

 

 

Reflections on 31 Years of Military Service

Without people, you are nothing.

  • Joe Strummer, Punk-Rock Warlord.

On November 1st of this year, I retired from active duty ending more than 31 years of military service. It was a great run – starting as an enlisted man in the Army National Guard for 10 years and then following that with 21 years as an officer in the Air Force.

Along the way there were many adventures: Basic Training, in the Alabama heat where I was trained to be a cold warrior by sergeants who had fought in Vietnam; a transition to the Air Force after completing Officer Training School (again in the Alabama heat!); three trips to the Mideast; assignments all over the place as an intelligence officer; and finally, retirement for a return to small town America. I achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant with the Army and Lieutenant Colonel with the Air Force not that it really means anything but quite a climb from E-1 slick-sleeve private to squadron command as an O-5.

I suppose I could tell stories about Desert Storm or the ridiculously long struggle that Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom became. There were so many important tasks, jobs, struggles, assignments and missions over those 31 years. Yet, the memories of what we did seem the least important to me today.

No. When I get nostalgic – and if you ask my kids, they can tell you I am blessed (or cursed) with an acute sense of nostalgia – it’s the people I served with that dominate my memories.

*

I can still see, vividly in my mind, the 4th platoon barracks at Fort McClellan Alabama in 1984. It’s Basic Training and there are all my comrades. Tim Sapp, a John Belushi look-alike from West Virginia. Ed Sensel, the only guy who would talk books with me – the intellectual from Illinois. John Friant (Chattanooga Tennessee), Horace Johnson (also from Tennessee) who paid me one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me: “Cheetham, you are a man with heart, because you made it through Basic with a smile on your face,” he said to me when we said goodbye in December 1984.

There was Ricky Angle who tried to go AWOL when he got a “dear john” letter from his high school sweet-heart. Gary Griffin and I tracked him down in the woods outside our barracks and dragged him back.  The Drill Sergeants never knew what happened that night – but I can still show you the gouge in my old boots – that I acquired while tackling Ricky that night in the woods.

Griffin was my best friend, a Bill-Murray wannabe who had memorized all the dialog from the movie Stripes. And of course there was Bobby D. Wilcox, the tough black kid from Newark New Jersey who had the bunk below mine. We were inseparable throughout training and proved that the military knows more about team-building and race relations than any of the fools in politics do.

I remember them all – their strengths and weaknesses, their jokes – I remember their stories. In December on 1984, we all parted ways and I never saw any of them again; but I still hear their voices. I still remember conversations, fights, and most of all laughter.

**

I went to war in 1991 with the 772d Military Police Company. I was a squad leader and it was exciting. But I remember the people I served with. I can still name every single one of the men in my platoon from memory. These were the citizen soldiers of the Army National Guard: Cops, union workers, college students, and bartenders. They answered the call and went to war in a strange place called Iraq.

I could describe missions, I suppose. But I remember Paul Caraher, Pat Deyoung, Scott Hennessey, Chris Brown, and Larry Quinn. I remember playing whist with a lousy deck of cards waiting for the next mission. I remember playing pranks and telling jokes. Most of all, I remember how great these young men were. They did their jobs so well. My assistant squad leader, Larry Quinn was and is the most talented guy I have ever met. He was good at everything and he was humble. I spent the rest of my career telling Larry Quinn stories. When I became an officer, I always would teach my sergeants and subordinate officers to be more like Larry Quinn.

When I left the 772d Military Police Company to go to Officer Training School and transition to the United States Air Force, I never saw these guys again (with the exception of Larry Quinn that is). They are now memories – ghosts of times gone by; but I often think of them. I don’t think about what we did, I think about who they are.

***

Twenty-one years in the Air Force went by in a blur. So many duty stations and assignments! But as I sit here today the names and faces flood my mind. My first commander in Minot North Dakota, Ronnie Wright who was in his 40s but still was the best basketball player on base (I learned that the hard way). Bull Ternus a genuine character from Texas, who could bench press a school bus if necessary. Frank Dalmau, a graduate from the University of Puerto Rico who spent most of his time in North Dakota muttering “frio, frio!”

An assignment in Germany where I met incredible friends. Don Bridges, a bright, skilled leader who took every challenge in stride. Chris May, another one of those people who was good at everything and was able to laugh in any situation. Veltz, Thurgood, and Beldon – the law firm. I remember unplanned barbeques, children being born, ridiculous amounts of beer, and all of us together. I don’t remember 3 years of missions – just 3 years of friendship.

And so it goes.

A year of intelligence training in Texas? Let’s see what do I remember from all the lectures, training, and exercises? I remember Russ Powell and Kevin Pendleton and Alan Acree. I remember their jokes, their hopes, their dreams, and their outstanding characters.

In Florida, at Patrick Air Force Base, I worked a challenging national intelligence mission, but I remember a character named Les Oberg who would always say something funny when we needed it most. I remember Brian Lawson and John Dibert – two great Christian friends – and how we grew in our faith together.

Moody Air Force Base Georgia – an exciting job providing intelligence support to the Air Force Rescue Wing air crews and pararescue teams. I can recall playing ultimate Frisbee with the intelligence professionals that worked for me: the muddy fields of Georgia, the trash talk and how my team always won despite the best efforts of a gigantic sergeant named Tony Smith to stop me from winning. The intelligence team was full of talented, dedicated people – and after I left Moody AFB, we never crossed paths again.

An unforgettable assignment to Shaw Air Force Base South Carolina as a Major where I worked for a superb commander named Bulldog Slawson. He was tough and he loved the troops – and they loved him right back. That squadron the 609th Air Intelligence Squadron had without a doubt the most talented group of people I’d ever been around – Roberts, Long, Static Kling, Smaugh, LaFurney, Cooter, Spencer, Coleman… the list is long. Our mission was huge because we were part of CENTCOM and these were the dark days in Iraq 2004 – 2007. There were deployments, new mission sets, setbacks, and difficulties. So why do my memories get filled by the greatest Christmas parties since Old Fezziwig?

I spent 5 years in Virginia for two different assignments. The first time through I met the best officer I’ve ever served with, Cathy Jumper. She was smart, tough, funny and worked harder than anyone else I’ve known. We were tasked with training future officers and I remember all those cadets. It was a fun job and an important one. I think we did a great job because people tell me we did, but all I really remember is laughing with Cathy.

My second spin through Virginia led to Langley AFB where I got to work for two of the most outstanding people you’d ever want to meet – Keith Watts and Dan Johnson. Keith was my commander and boss. He was very bright and could explain anything to you if you gave him a white board and a marker. Our squadron mission was global intelligence – and it was a huge mission. I know there were incredible challenges for our intelligence team, but I cling to memories of late nights in Keith Watts’ office, drinking a “wee dram of the whisky” while he explained the intricate details of an intelligence sensor on a white board – whiskey in one hand, marker in the other.

Late in my career, I had my own chance to command an intelligence squadron, this time in Las Vegas Nevada. It was a great assignment; I loved it. Anyone who has ever served will tell you the best jobs are command jobs. They are also challenging, busy jobs with lots of long hours. I remember Burt Okamoto who like Larry Quinn, was great at everything; Grip Schnakenberg, possessor of a photographic memory that led to colossal baseball trivia battles; Ulysses Zeigler, the most loyal NCO I’ve ever encountered; Lisa Corley, Snow White, Bethany Brown, Rocket, and McFly. These are the people who did the job for America. There are many others. When I remember my command tour, I see all the faces of the Airmen who got it done every day.

****

You get the idea. Give me enough time and a glass of bourbon and I could regale you with tales of the best people on earth, the people I served with during my 31 years in the military. They are unforgettable; they are the best this country has to offer and I got to work with them for a really long time. Most of them, I have not seen in many years and may never see again.

Yet, not a day goes by where I don’t see someone from the past in my mind’s eye. Someone in a uniform, in a strange place, far away from home. It is hot and there is an awful lot of important work to do. And we are all laughing.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2015 cjcheetham

P.S.

Everything great that has ever happened to me was because I have such a supportive and loving family, that I don’t think I deserve. Thankfully, God often gives me what I don’t deserve. I would have never achieved anything without my wife Christy backing me all the way and making me a better person. My kids Emma, Eli and Lizzie have put up with the moves, the long hours, and the separations; always with dignity and dedication. In fact, truth be told, my kids are the best people I’ve ever known – and I’ve known all the greats.

Enjoy the Christmas Present

In our home each year, Charles Dickens plays a central role in Christmas. I can’t explain it, but even as a child, I was enthralled by Dickens’ tale of the corrupted and redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps it was the ghosts that first attracted me as a boy. Regardless of the tradition’s origin, it has become a central part of my Christmas each December. Over the years, I’ve come to make it a habit of reading the short novel annually. And of course, there are no shortage of film versions, which my family and I enjoy arguing over which we like best. Who was the best Scrooge? Which screenplay was the cleverest?

There are so many obvious lessons in Dickens’ tale that it can be taken for granted. Of course, we all get it – be kind to one another; provide for the poor; love one another; pay your employees a decent wage; don’t forget to go to your nephew’s house for Christmas dinner; and most of all: stop being a miserable old bastard, because you are ruining everyone’s Christmas!

There it is in a nutshell. Nothing left to discuss.

Except, this year I’ve learned something new while reading A Christmas Carol.   I learned what I would call the central lesson of the story. And that lesson is this – live in the moment; live for today.

Scrooge’s essential problem as a man is clear: he never lives in the moment. While on the surface, he appears to be living in the present, as he counts his money or lambasts his employee, Scrooge is plagued by his past and troubled by his future. In other words, Scrooge is like every man who has ever lived. He is riddled with sadness over lost joys, bad decisions, and loneliness. He is deeply morose over memories of a father who never loved him, a sister who died too young; and a love affair that was lost. Likewise, Scrooge is fearful of a future that will inevitably include aging, slowing down, and yes, eventually death. Will he have enough money? How will he survive? What of his business?

**

Have you ever analyzed your typical day? Here’s an example of one of mine: The alarm goes off at 4:15 am, but I don’t hear it, so my wife pokes me (gently and kindly, mind you) in the ribs. I am up and running. Make the coffee and oatmeal and wolf it down while catching some news. I have to be out the door by 5:15 so I can get to the gym by 5:45. What am I doing today? Let’s see – I have a meeting to discuss something and I think someone is calling me about some problem. Shoot! Better get moving or I’ll be late.

My day is filled with interactions where I am either thinking about something that happened yesterday, anticipating my next meeting or daydreaming. It goes like this all day – a near obsession with everything except the present. Someone is telling you something important, and you are thinking about next week’s reports that are due. What happened yesterday and what happens tomorrow – all day long, every day. Mix in some concerns about finances (when can I retire? Will I have enough to live on? To help my kids?) Then you drive home around 6pm and recount what has transpired with an eye on next week, next month, and next year.

The electronic revolution certainly hasn’t helped any – because when we get home, we can watch television while surfing the web in between exchanging texts on our phones. All the while we are having some kind of disjointed “conversation” with our family members. Thank God for these electronic devices which make us so efficient.

It’s enough to make me wonder sometimes – am I alive?

***

When we meet Scrooge, he is certainly not living a full life by any stretch of the imagination. He is in fact quite miserable. He is living the Hobbesian lifestyle – solitary, nasty, and brutish (although not short). It is clearly going to take a miracle to wake him up. And in this case (and every case for that matter), it is the ghosts of Christmas that create the miracle to set Scrooge straight.

First, Jacob Marley arrives, plagued by incessant regret over the way he lived his life. Doomed to eternal agony, Jacob warns Scrooge – not only about what lies ahead for miserable sinners, but more importantly he shows Scrooge the most vital thing he is missing every day: human interaction. Jacob allows Scrooge to see the spirit world, full of tormented moaning souls. When Scrooge asks his old partner, “why do they lament?” Jacob replies, they seek to interfere for good in man’s affairs but have lost the power to do so.

That is Marley’s curse. He wasted his life on the intricacies of business while ignoring the delicacies of friendship, kindness, and love.

I’ll not recount the well-worn details of the three spirits of Christmas as they take Scrooge on journeys through his past, present and future. However, I must say that during this year’s reading, it struck me quite clearly, that the only joy in the entire tale occurs in the present. When we travel back to Scrooge’s youth, his joy comes from being with his sister. He is overcome with happiness as he watches his old boss Mr. Fezziwig throw a Christmas party that is so great, everyone forgets their cares. Scrooge sees the joy of loving his fiancé and how he loses her when he becomes obsessed with the future rather than the present. Scrooge begins to realize that the best parts of his life came when he focused on living in the moment.

While traveling with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge visits his nephew’s home and discovers that like Old Fezziwig, Fred knows how to throw a party full of laughter and fun – and that Scrooge has been missing it every year. Most importantly, Scrooge visits the home of his employee, Bob Cratchit. Cratchitt, despite making a tiny salary, is able to enjoy a richness completely foreign to Scrooge. In terms of the love of family, Cratchit, like Frank Capra’s George Bailey, is the richest man in town.

In the Cratchit home, Scrooge is introduced to Tiny Tim, the youngest of Bob’s children. Tim is a sickly boy, doomed to die within the next year. Scrooge is deeply affected by Tim’s sad fate. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why Tim became such a popular Dickens character. This year, I’m convinced that Tim is popular because he is the embodiment of living today with joy. Tim is thrilled by his mother’s cooking, by the Christmas pudding, and by attending church with his father. He loves it all and he never once thinks of his illness. Tim is simply thankful for today and there is an exquisite beauty in that.

****

Simply put, the message of Christmas is: LIVE FOR TODAY. Your past, while a part of who you are and how you got to today, doesn’t matter at all. But, you protest, I’ve done terrible things in my past! The Author of Christmas responds, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.”

But I’ve been hurt by others. They’ve left me sad and alone! The Child in the manger reminds you, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Ah, yes but I have so much pressure on me – you see with work and bills and worries about the future. But Jesus answers, “don’t be anxious asking what shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? Don’t be anxious about tomorrow. For tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

*****

We have another tradition in our home. Our dear friend Santa Claus visits each year – with presents. Through no fault of his own, old Santa has become an enemy of living in the moment. As early as October, people point at Santa and start their countdown clocks. Only so many days until Christmas! So much to do, to buy, to plan, to make, to cook. It is go, go, go!

Maybe we should all remember to slow down and not make gifts the enemy of Christmas.

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” (G.K. Chesterton)

******

Christmas is about the present. The past no longer matters because Christmas brought the gift of forgiveness. The future is assured because Jesus conquered the grave. Old Scrooge was a bawling mess when the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him the grave marked “Here Lies Ebenezer Scrooge.”

The cold, cruel grave was the fate of all men. If not for Christmas.

Christmas is the perfect liberation of mankind from the past and the future. Only when we understand Christmas can we live for today; loving each moment and carefree knowing that in the words of Tiny Tim, “God has blessed us, every one!”

I think that is what Dickens was after – the simple joy of living. Christmas stands alone against a world of sorrow, shame, sadness, stress and strife and shouts “Come in! Come in and know me better, man!”

– cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

The Man Who Hated Cupcakes

Author’s note:  When you see:  ________  in the story below, I have edited out a vulgarity.  Please feel free to imagine the vulgarity of your choice in order to get the full effect of this tale.

I recently spent a weekend in Washington D.C. with my family.  After a long and great day touring the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and some of the monuments at the National Mall we retired to Georgetown, where our hotel was located.

It was a beautiful evening so we went took a stroll down M Street looking for interesting shopping and a good place to eat.  As we were walking my oldest daughter said, “I’d like to see the DC Cupcakes place.”  When I said I had no idea what the DC Cupcakes place was, she told me about the wildly popular TLC television show of the same name.

“Sure, let’s check it out.  I love cupcakes,” I said optimistically.

“Well, it will probably be crowded.”

“Let’s see.”

*

As we approached the Georgetown Cupcake shop there was an enormous line down the street.  If I had to guess, I’d say people were waiting more than an hour for a chance to buy gourmet cupcakes.  We hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so waiting in that line was not an option.

“Let’s take a look in the window and see if Sophie or Katherine is working in there,” Emma suggested.

Why not?  We walked over to the main window and I peered in.  All I saw was a kid wolfing down a chocolate cupcake.   I have to admit it, even though I have never seen the show, the cupcakes looked great and that kid inside licking scrumptious icing annoyed me; like she was mocking my lack of access to sugary pastries.

“Nope.  They’re not in there,” Emma said cheerily.

“Well, let’s find someplace to eat dinner,” I suggested.  We crossed the street with my son and me in the lead; my wife and daughters trailing behind.

Then I saw him.

Leaning against a street lamp was a man in his late thirties; perhaps a little overweight but in all ways just an average guy.  He wore jeans and a black t-shirt.  He was visibly and obviously very upset.  He was not crying but his eyes were full of tears, about to flow in torrents at any minute.  He was muttering bitterly and in a high-pitched, incredulous way, “What the ________?  How the ________?  That is ________ unreal!  What the _______?!”

As he spoke his words were soggy from the tears in his throat.  There were great gobs of spittle in his mouth forming heavy white webs in the corners of his lips.  It was as if he were witnessing a great tragedy – a house fire; a murder; a suicide.  But his eyes were fixed on only one thing:  Georgetown Cupcake, home of the hit TLC show DC Cupcakes.

After I had passed the man, I turned to my son.  “What was that?”

“I guess he really doesn’t like cupcakes,” Eli suggested.

**

We had a great dinner at the nearby Leopold Café.  It’s a great and authentically Austrian/German restaurant in Georgetown.  I highly recommend it.  The food was excellent and we took our time with the schnitzel all the while pondering:  what was the issue with the sobbing cupcake guy?

“He probably just thinks it’s ridiculous that people line up for cupcakes,” Eli suggested.

Then I floated this idea – “Maybe his wife was in line, and it was driving him nuts waiting?”

“No.  He’s probably just strange.”  “He wasn’t even looking at the cupcake place,” others said.

I let my mind drift – to tell myself a story (I do this way too often).  As my family conversed, I travelled back in time to imagine that same cupcake storefront years earlier.  There was our weeping cupcake guy; but in the good old days, he was happy and joyful.  He was the owner of his own bakery in the very same building now occupied by television cupcake makers.  He had quit his job, invested his life savings to start his own business – Arthur’s Bakery.  It had been a constant struggle; hemorrhaging his life savings trying to keep the place afloat.  He was a great baker – everyone knew that, but for some reason he couldn’t make a living at it.  In the final year, before the foreclosure, Arthur had watched as Barbara had left town with the kids, unable to deal with the financial catastrophe any longer.

“Not a bad explanation,” I thought.

And now Arthur was standing with tears in his eyes remembering his bakery, incredulous that a cupcake reality show had the place booming – and most of all weeping over his broken life and lost family.

Not a bad story at all.

“Are we getting dessert?” My wife asked, bringing me back to reality.

“Yes let’s do that.”

***

After settling up the bill at Café Leopold, we started the walk back to our hotel.  It was a beautiful evening and Georgetown was bustling.  We all joked and moaned about how full we were from our gigantic dinner when it happened.

I saw him again.

The man who hated cupcakes had moved to a different corner.  He was still inconsolable.  He was still muttering.

“Hey Eli, that’s that same guy,” I said in a low voice.

Eli nodded as we were within 20 feet of him.  He stood at a street corner, his arms folded defiantly oblivious to the pedestrians around him.  He was still muttering.  As we got closer I could hear him once again blathering in distress.

“What the _____?  WHY?!  What the _____ is that?  How the _____?”  He was once again staring, single-mindedly across the street.

I looked at the object of his disbelief, misery, and sorrow.  There on the opposite side of M Street I saw exactly what was destroying this man’s psyche.  He was looking directly at the bustling activity at a business called Sprinkles Cupcakes.  Another cupcake bakery!

I was a bit unnerved by this turn of events.  Suddenly the story I had woven in my imagination had taken a darker turn.  How was this man tortured by cupcakes? Had been forced as a child to eat cupcakes by a sadistic parent?  How would Stephen King handle this turn of events?

Before I could tell myself a new story, Eli interrupted me and simply said, “See Dad.  I told you!  That guy really hates cupcakes.”

I guess so.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

 

My Barber, the Botanist

I suppose when you go to college you can learn a lot of important things. After all, professors are paid pretty nice salaries to stand up in classrooms across the country and blather about the fishing industry in Peru or the marginal propensity to save in Italy. These enlightened educators will wax poetic about mitosis, malaria, Monrovia, mercury, metadata, and militarism; and then remind you that’s alliteration.
When I was in college I suppose I learned a few things from the professors, but I think I learned a lot more from my barber.
*
In 1989, I found a little barber shop in South Dartmouth Massachusetts, not far from the campus of the University I was attending. It was a little white building with the requisite barber pole in the window. The barber was a man named Frank. He was a nice old gentleman and as he cut my hair he would occasionally hum or sing along with Al Martino or Frank Sinatra playing on his small radio that he kept on the counter in his shop.
Frank had a classic pair of barber chairs, although he only used one of the chairs. I guessed that the second chair was from a partner who had long since left the business. Unlike many barbers today, Frank rarely used the electric clippers. He was a maestro of the scissors and the comb. The scissors hissed in a rhythmic scat – almost a form of jazz, as Frank breathed heavily through his large nose; getting my hair cut “just right.”
Every day, Frank’s wife would sit with him in that barber shop, knitting away. She looked to be in her late 70’s which is what I pegged Frank’s age at as well. It was tough to tell with Frank – because he always was smiling and happy, which hid the years. He probably could have passed for 65, if not for Millie sitting quietly with her needles creating beautiful things from balls of yarn.

Frank and Millie rarely talked to each other when I was in the shop – but they were together every day. It amazed me.
**
Any guy will tell you that when you first go to a barber – there is a “feeling-out” period. During the first few cuts, the conversation between barber and client will center on weather, sports, and local events; nothing too heavy. After all, no guy wants to make an emotional commitment to a barber until he sees proof that this man can actually cut hair. It would be a disaster to move too fast and really like your barber if he ended up butchering your head. Great conversation will never make up for a Three Stooges haircut.

The rule applied to my relationship with Frank. We kept it light and easy: “Are you a student?” “How about this weather?” “There’s a good new sandwich shop on such and such street.”

It wasn’t long before Frank proved he could really cut hair and cut it well. Then I decided to really talk to him.

***

One day, as Frank was clipping away at the back of my head I noticed on the wall a black and white photograph of a young Frank standing by a barber chair. There was an older man standing by a second chair.

“Who is that in the picture, Frank? Your Dad?”

“Yes! Yes, that’s my dad. We had a shop in the north part of town before they built the shopping mall on route 6.”

“Cool. Hey Frank – how long have you been cutting hair.”

“Seventy Years.”

I must have heard him wrong. Seventy years? “What? When did you start cutting hair?”

“When I was 14.”

“Wow! So you are 84?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t believe it – you look so young. Did you always know you wanted to be a barber?”

Frank stopped cutting and paused for a minute. Then he started the scissors again, “I never wanted to be a barber.”

“What?”

“My father made me become a barber.”

“What did you want to do?”

Frank stopped cutting again and he gestured with his comb and scissors like a master conductor, “I wanted to be a botanist! I always wanted to study botany and become a botanist!”

I was stumped for a minute. I realized that Frank was the first person I had ever met who ever expressed a burning desire for botany. I knew nothing of botany. I tried to remember – wasn’t there something about xylem in botany?

Then Frank continued talking. “My father came to me when I was 14 years old and said ‘I have to pull you out of school.’ I asked why and he told me he needed the help and the family needed the money. So I quit school to become a barber.”

“Just like that?”

“Oh I tried to argue with him. I said, but dad – I really want to be a botanist! I was good in school too. But, I was the oldest, so I quit school and learned to cut hair.”

“Wow, Frank. And you’ve been cutting hair for 70 years now?”

“Yes, 70 years of cutting hair. My father and I had a shop together and now it’s just me.” He was finishing up the hair around my ears and the back of my neck.

“Frank, did you ever go back to school? Did you ever get a chance to study botany?”

“No. I never went to school; never studied botany. My younger brothers finished school but I never went back.” He said it all without a trace of bitterness. “That’s just how it was. The family needed help and so my father told me I had to help.”

“And you did.”

“And I did.”

****

I deeply admired Frank. I couldn’t get his story out of my head. Here’s a 14-year old kid with all these dreams of becoming a botanist and he ends up a small town barber; cutting hair for a living in a tiny shop.  Yes, I admired him but I couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of sadness about his story.

A few weeks later I returned for my haircut. I walked into Frank’s shop and there was Millie knitting away quietly. Perry Como crooned in the background. Then Frank smiled brightly at me, “Hello! I have something to show you before I cut your hair!”
Frank went over to a table in his shop and grabbed a three-ring binder full of pictures. He beamed and said, “Just look at these for a minute!”

The binder was full of photographs of rose bushes; Beautiful rose bushes.

“What’s all this Frank?”

“My roses!” These are all roses I’ve grown. Some of them I’ve cultivated myself. I’ve created my very own hybrids.”

“Jeez, it looks like a lot of work.”

“It’s not work because I love it. I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”

“Frank you know what this means don’t you?”

“What?”

“You are a botanist!”

He laughed and grabbed me around my shoulders.

*****

It is people like Frank that made America a great place. I learned so many great things from him.

I learned that dreams are wonderful things but family is more important than dreams. I learned that honest work and decency are precious commodities. I learned that there is no higher calling than working to help your family succeed. I learned that if you found the right mate, the right woman; that late in life when your world is slowing down, she will always be at your side, supporting you every day. I learned that if you keep a song in your heart the scissors aren’t heavy and there is a lot of joy in every task.

What college ever taught anyone that?

“I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”

Thanks Frank. You are the most beautiful botanist that I have ever met.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

The Day Joe Strummer Saved My Life

In August of 1987, exactly 8 days before the start of my sophomore year of college I faced a personal crisis that threatened to undo my entire life’s plan.  It was music, specifically the music of Joe Strummer and the Clash, that miraculously provided a timely solution to an impossible situation.

*

In the winter of 1982, during my senior year of high school, my father suffered a tragic economic collapse.  His life’s work, as an independent supermarket owner on the South Shore of Massachusetts, dissolved under a mountain of debt in early December of that year.  As a result, my parents went into a financial tailspin that they would never fully recover from.  I was the youngest of 4 children, the only one still living at home, and I immediately knew this turn of events would change my plan to attend the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 1983.

After spending the subsequent two years unsuccessfully saving for college by working as a landscaper, roofer, and other manual labor jobs, I had joined the Army National Guard.  Thanks to the glorious G.I. Bill, I finally managed to get to an affordable college in the fall of 1986.  In order to save money that first year, I commuted from my home town to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (a 50-minute one-way drive on a good day). For the entire first year of college, I borrowed my brother’s car to attend school.  That car was available only because my generous brother, a member of the US Navy, had training requirements and deployments that entire year and didn’t need his car.

However, in the summer of 1987, my brother had returned from the sea, picked up his car and headed off to a naval base.  This left me with a dilemma:  how was I going to get to school in the fall of 1987 for my sophomore year?  Sure I was working and yes, I was pulling in a small monthly check from my one-weekend-a-month National Guard duties, but I’d never been able to save enough cash to cover room and board at college.  Likewise, a combination of youthful irresponsibility and low salary had left me with no real hope of buying a car either.

It was the summer of great discomfort.  I was already 3 years behind my high school friends, most of whom graduated college months earlier in the spring of 1987.  Now I was faced with the bleak prospect that I would not return to the University in the fall.  Barring a miracle, I would be home in September without a car, without any hope of completing my college degree, and without a future.  I skillfully navigated awkward conversations with friends throughout June and July, pretending that everything was fine; and “yes, I was looking forward to returning” to school in September.  Despite my charade, by mid-August I was sure of one thing:  there was no way on earth I was going back to college in September.  Sure, I was enrolled – but I knew, with certainty that I would not be in class on the first Tuesday after Labor Day.

**

On the last Sunday in August, reality loomed just 8 days away.  Reality, a monster that plagues all men, was shadow boxing and eagerly awaiting his chance to knock me out cold.  I was resigned to my beating, hopelessly playing out my remaining summer days.

Music has always been an important part of my life.  It has always brought me joy; and more importantly it has brought me escape.  So, on that last Sunday of August, I did something that defied logic.  I went to the record store to buy an album.  It was completely irrational; it was futile; it was stupid.  But with Otter’s voice in my head, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part,” I headed to the mall with the intent of buying Black Market Clash by Joe Strummer and the Clash.

I lingered in the “Musicsmith” a (now defunct) music sanctuary in my local mall.  I spent an hour flipping through vinyl LPs, which was the best way to shop.  You poured over the vinyl selections and then you bought a cassette for the boom-box in your bedroom.  Of course, on that day I knew exactly why I was at the store.  I needed a new cassette of Black Market Clash because, as anyone who has owned tapes can attest to, they get eaten from time to time.  Black Market Clash a collection of killer non-album singles and B-side tracks by Joe Strummer and the boys.  Soon, I’d be home listening to Armagideon Time with the lyric apropos to my predicament:

“No one will guide you, through armagideon time.”

As I waited in line to pay for Black Market Clash, I noticed that the guy ringing the register was a classmate from high school days, Dan Heggerich.  Dan was a good guy – lots of fun; we were friendly in high school but I hadn’t really talked to him in years.  I dreaded the inevitable conversation about college.  To make matters worse, last year I’d seen Dan on campus at the University of Massachusetts (he was an engineering student) so it was a guarantee that he would ask something like “ready for school?”

I considered putting back the Clash cassette and quietly escaping.  But I had to hear Joe Strummer sing.

“My daddy was a bank robber, but he never hurt nobody…”

I decided to fake one more conversation.

***

Dan:  “Cheetham – good choice with the Clash.” He took the cassette from me.

Me:  “Well, they are my favorite.”

Dan:  “Ready to go back to school?”  (There it was.)

Me:  “Yeah.  How about you?  You going back too?”

Dan:  “Yup.  But I am not living there this year.  Need to save money so I am going to commute.”

[What?  My mind clicked and whirred.  Did he just say, commute!?]

Me:  “Commute?  You mean you are driving to campus every day.  A 50-minute commute every day?”

Dan:  “Yeah – kinda sucks.”

Me:  “Actually it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”

****

Dan and I drove to school together every day that year.  We became good friends and had lots of laughs. The Heg-Man, as he came to be known by me, saved my sophomore year.  When I reflect on that day – even today I can’t believe it.  It was/is a miracle.  If I had not gone to a record store when it made absolutely no sense to do that, I would have never made it through college.

Go figure.

Yes, Dan Heggerich is a hero in this story – I can never repay him.  And yes, I agree, God works out beautiful chance encounters for us all on a daily basis, and I can never thank Him enough.

But when I look back on August 1987, I still say it was the day that Joe Strummer saved my life.

R.I.P.  Joe

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

P.S.

Here’s The Clash with Armagideon Time from Black Market Clash

http://youtu.be/6enAv2SEA38

Oh, and just in case you were wondering about that “Otter” quote:

http://youtu.be/_h4DZeBleLs