Category Archives: Slices of Life

Stories that can’t be made up

The Day of Grim Tasks – January 2nd

 

There has to be a better way to start the New Year than January 2nd.

After more than a month of feasting, parties, laughter, gifts and kindness, most of America awoke today to the reality of January; predictably cold, reliably grey January.  One minute it is December and you’ve just bit into a warm sugar cookie and the next you are asking your wife where to store the extension cords.

It is the day of grim tasks.

The day when you go out and take the lights off the shrubs and the cold jars your soul.  Funny, you think, it isn’t much colder than it was in late November when I put these lights up.  Yet, today your nose runs and your hands stiffen as you pull the multi-colored strings down.  The lights repeatedly get caught up in the branches, as if the bushes are saying, “No!  Not yet – don’t take them away just yet.”  But you just mutter to yourself and keep ripping the lights free.  Then you pile them into a box in a tangled ball, thereby setting up next November’s ritualistic question, “Honey, how did these lights get so damn tangled?”

You walk into the house and the weather channel is blathering about a winter storm.  Not a festive holiday snow with carolers and hot chocolate, but a January snow full of danger, delay and windshields that will need scraping during high wind conditions.  So, you switch off the television.

Heading into the kitchen you begin throwing out Christmas goodies like you are a Grinch showing up 9 days too late.  Christmas cookies lingering in jars and tins are the first to go.  You take a bite and confirm – there is absolutely no flavor left at all.  Then it’s off the fridge.  There is a carton of eggnog that will have to go, and some left over cheese with no crackers as a mate.  Wait, is that a bowl of cranberry sauce lingering in the back, perhaps hiding?  And then you are bagging up trash and taking it out; a perfect crime leaving no trace of yuletide glee.

You steel yourself because it’s time for the truly miserable task; the un-trimming of the tree.  Down come angels and glittering snowflakes.  The tree’s dried needles and branches scratch you; and you remember that no one has watered this spruce in a couple of weeks.  You take the fragile, beautiful ornaments and entomb them in white tissue paper.  They fit nicely in those same old boxes marked “Christmas” and covered in more than a decade of packing tape.

You find yourself offering morbid commentary, “That’s right boys; back into your Christmas coffins until next year.”  Then everything is stored neatly into the basement, to be forgotten for a year.  Those boxes will sit in storage unnoticed until you have to move them to find summer’s lawn chairs.

The dried out sappy tree is out at the curb and you start wondering why you didn’t ask Santa for a vacuum, because the tree’s needles are refusing to let go of the carpet.  Eventually, your determination pays off and the living room has returned to its pre-thanksgiving state.  Except there is that circle from the tree-stand imprinted in the carpet.  That will serve as a reminder that mirth once stood here.

**

At least, that’s how my January 2nd went.

So it’s time for coffee and maybe a look at those bills, but I am feeling pretty good about myself.  I’m thinking “it was a great holiday season but let’s get moving – it’s 2014.  There is a lot to get done this year.  I mean we can’t sit around partying all day long.  It’s time to get back to reality.”  I start to rationalize, “I’m actually glad the holiday season is over.  I mean it’s just too much!  In fact, it’s time to make a 2014 to-do list.”

So I walk into the kitchen and my wife hands me a piece of paper she found in the “junk drawer” on top of the pens.

“What’s this?” I ask as I take the folded up battered piece of notebook paper.

“Read it.”

I unfold it and it’s a note written in my daughter’s hand:

Dear Mr. Santa Claus,

Thank you so much for all of my gifts!  You brought me almost everything I asked for.

Love,

Lizzie

P.S. Write back!

I love January 2nd.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

But I Like the Paper Ones

But I like the paper ones…

**

Christmas is a time of unbridled nostalgia.  It seems no matter where I go or what I do, something – a smell, a song, a show, a store – is triggering yuletide memories.  If I’m not careful I can drift off to the North Pole for an extended stay.

Last night, we were decorating our Christmas tree – yes, late for us this year.  Between sports, events, and travel it was next to impossible to get our family of 5 in the same room for the requisite amount of time to trim up the tannenbaum.  And as most of you probably already know, there is no greater “nostalgia-trigger” known to man than a Christmas tree.

As we unboxed and unwrapped our ornaments I was transported back to my childhood and a tiny living room on 24 Plain Street.

My dad took some pride in our Christmas trees – always fresh cut, always (relatively) symmetrical.  When it came time to hang the ornaments on the tree, we children (I was the youngest of 4) would line up dutifully and wait to be handed an ornament by Mom or Dad.  Our parents would affix a hook and offer a suggestion to us.

“Christian, that’s a pretty one – make sure you hang it near a light so it sparkles”

“Now this one is heavy, so find a thick branch for it.”

We would dutifully comply.

Invariably, at the bottom of our ornament box my mother would find the crafts her children had made over the years.  It was really shabby art-work, misshapen Christmas Trees, poorly painted Santas, crazed-angels with incongruent wings, and reindeer that looked like poodles.   We are not a family of artistic talent.  Over the years, we children would groan as our mother would announce who created each piece of “art.”

“Oh look at this reindeer (you mean rein-dog, don’t you Mom?) that Robbie did in 4th grade!”  My oldest brother Rob would sheepishly claim ownership and responsibility for hanging Rudolph the Red-Nosed Greyhound.

We all took our turns claiming ownership for these creative atrocities:  a construction paper Christmas Tree that looked like a rhombus (note to kids:  a rhombus does not occur in nature – work on that); some kind of walnut shell with ribbons; a paper chain in gray and purple.  Then she would produce the pièce de résistance:  someone at some point in my family’s history had taken a paper cup and wrapped it with aluminum foil and called it a “Silver Bell.”  To this day the argument rages as to who created this abysmal piece of holiday décor (judging by the age of the piece it certainly wasn’t the youngest kid; so I’m off the hook).

My mother would beam as she handed us these homemade trinkets; and of course, my dad would offer advice before we hung them on the tree:

“Around the back” (meaning – don’t put this hideous artwork where people can actually see it).

“Robbie, this one goes around the back”

“Michael, put this green rhombus…”

–          “It’s a Christmas tree, Dad”

“..yah, yah – Christmas tree.  Why don’t you put that around the back?  The back needs some ornaments.”

And that’s how it went.  We would giggle because even as youngsters, we knew – our paper ornaments were not good; and yes they probably should be around the back.  Our Dad would laugh good-naturedly as we played along.

But Mom didn’t like Dad’s plan.  She would say to my father, “Don’t say that – kids, hang those where I can see them!”  Then she would glare at my father.

“I am only kidding,” he would protest as we kids drew straws on who would hang the Reynolds Wrap Silver Bell.

Then Mom would say, smiling brightly with moist eyes, “but I like the paper ones.”

***

Last night, we were finishing up hanging all the beautiful ornaments that we have bought over the years.  We have some great ornaments that we have acquired on vacations or at special times and in special places.   Then, we got to the final box of ornaments, still sealed.

My wife said cheerily, “that’s the box with the paper ornaments.”

My kids groaned.

As we sorted through the box we came across Santas with purple faces, a mutant red star that looked like a diseased crab, some green felt in the shape of something, and other hand-crafted treasures from our children’s young lives.  There was even a rhombus (it must be genetic).

Our teenagers laughed and teased each other as they tried to deny accountability for certain pieces.  Then they took these ornaments and tried to find places on that tree where they could hide the paper baby Jesus or the sparkly star, where no one would see.

My wife and I smiled as we watched them.  But we treasured every mutant we pulled out of that ornament box. I think we probably had the exact same look on our faces that my Mom had on her face so many years ago – joy, sadness, a longing for the past and a love of the present all rolled up in one.

Then I said “Right up front!”  I hung the red-construction-paper-Christmas-star-crab-thingy dead center and high; right where everyone can see it.

My son tried to protest, “No Dad, that can’t go there.”

“But Eli, I like the paper ones.”

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

 

Thanks Boomer

I recently moved and last week I was unpacking boxes for my home office.  This is the first time I’ve had actual man-space in my home, so I was sifting through old memorabilia trying to find the right mix for my walls.  In an old folder I came across an old black and white picture of a baby-faced George “Boomer” Scott, a former Red Sox first baseman.  Boomer stood arms at his sides smiling with the Winter Haven spring training facility as his backdrop.

Boomer was one of my heroes when I was a kid.  In the 1970s, Boomer was our Big Papi – a larger than life, smiling, power hitter.  Born and raised in rural Mississippi, Boomer was a remarkably quick man for his size and his agility helped him earn 8 gold glove awards at first base.  But it was his power to hit “taters,” his Mississippi term for the long ball that captured the hearts of Boston Fans.

I quickly found a frame for the old 8×10 of George Scott.  Sure, my office isn’t huge – but there certainly had to be room for my old friend.

This past Saturday night, I was sitting in my office and I took notice of that old photo of George Scott.  There he was smiling on the wall opposite my desk.  I let my mind travel back to the 1970’s; to the days when the Red Sox were a loveable, heart-breaking, working-class team.  There was Yaz, Freddy Lynn, Jim Rice, Pudge Fisk and Boomer Scott wearing the classic 1970s Sox uniforms – white pull overs, red hats with blue brims.

And then I said it out loud:  “Boomer and the Crunch Bunch!” I could remember an article in Sports Illustrated with that title that I had read as a kid.  I wondered if I could find that article.  I did a quick internet search and sure enough it led me to the July 4th 1977 Sports Illustrated (the one with Ted Turner on the cover for his America’s Cup yacht racing exploits).

What a summer 1977 was!  It remains to this day one of my favorite Red Sox teams and I was thrilled as I recalled the amazing stretch where Boomer and the Crunch Bunch launched 30 home runs in just 10 games; one of the most terrifying exhibitions of power in baseball history.

I did another search for George Scott and found his personal website.  There was boomer – older and a little heavy but still the guy who flashed incredible leather at the friendly confines of Fenway Park.  Boomer was advertising his autobiography aptly titled “Taters.”  Then I noticed the CONTACT button and I figured – what the heck?

So I wrote this note to George Scott this past Saturday Night:

Dear Boomer,

I just want to thank you for all the great memories of baseball you provided to me and many other Red Sox fans.  Your exploits in the 1970s – especially 1977 with Boomer and the Crunch Bunch remain some of my favorite sports memories.  Thanks for playing the game the right way.

God Bless,

The day after I sent that note, on Sunday, George Scott passed away at age 69.  It is unlikely he ever got my note.

Now that I am in my 40’s I am never surprised when a childhood hero dies – it is after all the nature of life.  But as I write this I am looking at a black and white photo of Boomer Scott hanging in my office and I am smiling too.  There is something glorious about our childhood connection to athletes that never really leaves us.

And for a moment I am standing in Toabe’s Hardware store in Pembroke Massachusetts.  I am 12 years old.  I am trying to convince my father to buy me a first baseman’s mitt – the George Scott model.

Dad:  “Christian, why do you want to play first base?  You are too small to play first base.”

Me:  “But Dad, Boomer and the Crunch Bunch!”

Dad:  [Sighing] “alright.”

Thanks Boomer.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

Luis Motta and the Joys of Minimum Wage

In the fall of 1988, I moved into a cottage in Fairhaven Massachusetts in preparation for the start of the school year.  I had just finished a summer of working on the cranberry bogs in my hometown.  Although that kind of summertime manual labor paid well, it was one of my first orders of business to find a job right away so that I could pay rent and keep the college “experience” moving in the right direction.

Finding a job is never very much fun.  At the time, I had very few skills, no car (I bummed rides), and even less confidence.  So I ended up applying for jobs just about anywhere.  I applied at a variety of retail stores, a nursery, a tuxedo rental company, and golf course but nothing panned out.  It became a standard procedure – apply for jobs, get rejected, and head home.  As part of my routine I would stop at the convenience store a few miles from my house to buy a newspaper and a coke.

That was where I met a man named Luis Motta.  Although I didn’t know it, Luis was the manager of that convenience store and soon to be my boss in a job that paid minimum wage.

Luis was an outgoing fellow, always engaging his customers in loud conversations and laughing heartily as he tried to get them to buy a cheese danish or something that was on sale.  He was a small wiry man, with sharp features, and large eyes magnified by his somewhat thick glasses.  He always dressed casually, in jeans and a collared shirt, but his appearance was impeccable; and although he was completely bald on top, you could see that the black hair on the sides of his head was still a matter of pride.

The first time I stopped in his store, Luis immediately greeted me in a heavy accent.

“Hello my friend how are you?”

And so began our relationship.  By my third or fourth encounter with Luis, he was greeting me with “Hello Crease – how are you with the job hunt?”

“Hey Lou,” I would say sheepishly having been turned down by a sporting goods store or sub shop, “no one is hiring.”  This is the standard line I would use rather than:  I am a loser and no one will hire me.

“Crease, listen man – you work for me.  I can only pay the minimum wage.”

When you are poor like I was – this was a huge break.

“Seriously, Lou?!  How many hours can I get?”

“How many you want?  As many as you want.”  Lou was smiling waving for me to come closer.

I resisted the urge to say – you know what Lou, I have the feeling this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship; and started discussing the details.

The details were simple; I would work Monday through Friday from 3pm to 10pm, when I would lock up the store.  Lou would pay me the minimum wage, at that time $3.65, which meant I would be bringing home more than hundred bucks a week.   I couldn’t really expect anything better – maximum hours, no weekends to conflict with my Army National Guard duties and enough time during the day to be a full-time college student.

***

The job was not hard.  I would get to work and immediately take over the register, so Lou could do whatever he had to do in the office regarding bills, orders, etc.  Around 6 PM Lou would head home, and I would be in the store alone.  I would stock all the shelves, mop the floors, count the cigarettes (don’t ask me why – but every night I had to count every pack of cigarettes in the place).

Of course, there would still be customers, but honestly after 6Pm the store was rarely busy.  Lou was also cool with me doing my homework and I took advantage of that benefit as well.  Generally speaking, it was one of the easiest jobs I ever had.  Occasionally, pretty girls from the University I attended would stop in – not to see me but to get food – but I wasn’t complaining.  And there was also no shortage of crazy people.  Anyone who has ever worked in a convenience store knows what I mean – those places attract insane people.  But those are stories for another time.

The absolute best part of working at that store was getting to know Luis Motta.  Lou was a  hard-working guy.  He would roll into work at 5:30 AM every day and then leave at 6PM.  He kept his store immaculately clean; he knew his customers by name; and he never seemed to be in a bad mood.

Early on, I had made the mistake of asking Lou, “You are Portuguese, right?”

Lou’s eyebrows raised and he became more animated than normal, “Portuguese?!  I am Azorean, Man!”

“Azorean?”

“From the Azores – you know the Azores?”

“Oh yeah, of course,” I replied hoping he wouldn’t press me on exactly where the Azores were located.  He didn’t.

“What made you come to America, Lou?”

He looked at me like I was nuts.  “Work!”

Lou would spend his afternoons with me, listening to All things Considered on National Public Radio – there was no muzak in Lou’s store.  “I love dis show” he would say every day as he turned up the volume.   We would talk current events.  I was majoring in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth – but it didn’t take long to realize that Lou had more common sense and knowledge of how the world really worked than the goofy professors at the university.  Sure the professors were smart about their area of expertise (which was usually some ridiculous subject like Marxist Theory of the Fishing Industry in Yugoslavia – or something like that) – but Lou was the kind of guy who built America.

One afternoon, after stocking the milk cooler I emerged and heard Lou in a heated conversation with one of our regular customers.

“I tell you man – I gonna vote for George Booosh!  Dukakis?  He take all my money!  Tax, tax, tax!”

In Massachusetts, everyone is a Democrat; it is part of their commitment to diversity.

After the customer left, I looked at Lou and smiled.  “Lou, I didn’t know you were a republican.”

“Crease!  Of course I repooblican!  That Dukakis – he an eeediot!  He tax, tax tax.”

So I let Lou know, I was one of 7 (the rest were in hiding) openly republican students on the UMASS-Dartmouth campus.  “Well, my professors hate me.  You know Lou, I could get you some Bush-Quayle bumper stickers and pins if you’d like.”

“Oh Crease….you must get me that.”

***

The next day when I got to work I handed Lou a handful of Bush-Quayle gear.  He was thrilled.  He immediately affixed a campaign pin to his shirt.

“What do you think, my friend?”

“Lou, are you sure you want to where that at work?  You are probably going to piss off some customers with that pin.”

“Crease, I no giva sheet.”  He handed me a pin.  “Put it on.”

***

At 9PM that night, a BMW pulled into our parking lot.  I watched as a very well dressed couple in their early thirties walked into the store.  They grabbed a couple of sodas and I was ringing up their order when the woman muttered, “I can’t believe you would wear that.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am?”

“I can’t believe you would wear that Bush-Quayle pin.”

“Oh.  Well, that’s who I am supporting.”

“Maybe if you would wake up and vote for Dukakis you wouldn’t have such a crappy job.”

I wanted to slap her, but I didn’t.

***

Working for Luis Motta was not a crappy job.  It was a great job.  He was a good, fair, decent boss.  He treated me like a human being (he raised my salary to $4.50 an hour after a couple of months; which caused a small celebration).  If not for Lou, I’m not sure I would have financially survived that fall semester of college.

Luis was a hardworking immigrant to our country and he loved being an American.  He was honest, funny, and treated everyone with respect and kindness.   No, he didn’t drive a BMW and no he didn’t have a degree.  He had something better:  character.

I learned a lot from Luis.  He made me into a much harder worker than I had ever been before I met him.  He taught me to talk to strangers.  And he taught me that it was okay to have strong opinions and disagree with people.  Yes, it was a minimum wage job, but not everything of value comes from a paycheck.

Sometimes the value comes in knowing that you are working for a decent man, who loves the country, and treats his employees like they matter.  A guy, who traveled a long way to work in Fairhaven, Massachusetts;   a man who then enjoyed his work almost as much as he enjoyed All things Considered on NPR radio every afternoon in the fall of 1988.

– cj cheetham

P.S.

William F. Buckley famously said “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

I’d always liked that quote – but it never really made sense to me until I compared the eminently decent Luis Motta with that cruel woman who drove a BMW.

Coke adds life

Remember that advertisement?  Coke adds life! 

One day in college, I experienced something so amazing centered on a can of Coca Cola, that it changed my entire outlook on life. 

I was completely broke.  I don’t mean like some college kids claim to be broke – I mean 100% busted.  I wasn’t living in the dorms, I had no meal plan, and I had no money.   My parents were in financial dire straits as well – the result of my Dad losing his business a few years earlier.  So they were in no position to help at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I had some income from a part time job and my service in the Massachusetts Army National Guard.  But one particular Wednesday morning, I literally had no money in my wallet, no money in the bank (my savings were completely exhausted).  Furthermore, I had no prospects to get any money until either my National Guard check arrived in the mail or Friday/payday rolled around.

What I did have was a car.  It wasn’t much of a car, a 1974 Malibu Wagon that I bought for 50 bucks.  It was kind of a long commute, about thirty to forty minutes from my house to class every day – but it was still the most cost effective plan I could come up with.  It was after all, the days of 99 cents a gallon for gas.

Bright and early that Tuesday I had started up the wagon and headed off to class.  I rolled onto campus at 7:45 – plenty of time to make my 8 AM class.  There was only one problem – the car was just about out of gas.  When I say I rolled onto campus, I am not far from literal truth. 

It was a cold day on the University of Massachusetts campus, and as I walked across the quad en route to my first class the wind nipped at my ears.  Even worse was what my own mind kept whispering in my ears “how are you going to get home?  You have no gas and absolutely no money.”

I made it through my morning classes struggling to listen to lectures.  My fellow students, oblivious to my problem weren’t going to be a help either.  At best, by this point in my college experience I had a few acquaintances in my classes.  But I didn’t have many friends and I certainly would not run into anyone that I could hit up for 10 bucks.  My pride was not going to allow that sort of belittling begging moment:  “Hey, I know this is weird, but I don’t have a penny to my name and I have virtually no gas to get home either.  You wouldn’t happen to have a ten-spot I could borrow do you?”

My last class of the day wasn’t until 3pm, so I had some time to work on the problem.  The question was – where was I going to come up with enough money for gas to get home?  Make it home, Cheetham and you know that your National Guard check will be waiting for you.  Just make it home.   But where was I going to find five dollars for gas?

I trekked back across campus to the Chevy.  It sat in the parking lot, it’s nearly empty gas tank mocking me.  But maybe there was hope inside that car.  Hadn’t there been many times that school year when change had fallen out of my pocket?  Quarters, dimes, nickels – they were no doubt under seats; floor mats, in the glove box, and maybe even in the back!

I picked up my pace with an almost optimistic bounce.  I said a prayer as I opened the driver’s side door, “Please God, just five dollars.  Maybe, four dollars, God.  I think I could make it home with four dollars – but seriously, God nothing less than $3.50.”

I reached under the driver’s seat – and found a sock and a Milky Way wrapper.  I threw them in the back seat and reached under again.  Here we go!  I pulled out a quarter, a nickel and two pennies.  I moved on to the other seats and the floor mats.  My hands were clawing.  Despite my frantic searching, the car was yielding very little cash.  When I was done, I sat in the front seat and counted all of the money I was able to find – seventy-two cents.  That was it.

Again, these were the days of cheap gas, but I had enough money for three quarters of a gallon of gas.  That wasn’t getting me home.  Angrily, I put the seventy-two cents in my front pocket.  “You have to be kidding me, God.  Not even a buck?”  Downcast and feeling rejected I walked back to the academic building with three hours to kill.

Around two o’clock I realized something else – I was incredibly hungry.  It is one of the worst feelings I have ever had in my entire life.  Here I was, with no money, I hadn’t eaten all day and I was seriously considering how I was either going to find a way to sleep in the library by hiding in the poetry section (no one goes there) or gut it out sleeping in that ice cold wagon.

There really was no one to call, and in those days before cell phones, why would I drop a precious quarter calling to whine to someone who was in no position to help me anyhow?   

No – it was the poetry section for me.  I’d simply hide from the library staff as they closed up for the night and then I would curl up with T.S. Elliot, Robert Frost, and Anne Sexton.  They (actually the central heating system) would keep me warm.   If the library staff caught me huddled near Chaucer?  I guess then I was gutting it out in the car. 

I was resolved to my fate as I sat in the lounge of the academic building waiting for my three o’clock class.  I fantasized about picking pockets of the students walking by.  I was tortured with the thought of going up to a complete stranger and asking for money.  Never!

In the lounge area it began to get dark as the sun got low in the sky.  Why was I so darned hungry?  It had only been about nineteen hours since I last ate something.  For crying out loud, people had gone weeks without eating and survived.  I was sitting in a heated building on a university campus and I was starving.  

Looming across the room from me was a Coca Cola Machine.  Its bright red glow beckoned me – “come closer.”  The hum of its compressor spoke to me, “Fifty cents for an ice cold can of Coke.  Come on kid.  You’re already sleeping in the car tonight, at least have a Coke.”

I think when you are completely broke and hopeless, spending fifty of your last seventy-two cents on sugary cola makes a lot of sense.  It did to me anyhow.  The situation wasn’t going to get any worse was it?  I might as well suck back a cold soda before that next class.

So I walked over and dropped a quarter, two dimes, and a nickel into the glowing red temptress.  I pressed the button for Coca Cola Classic and after a series of clunks as the can pin-balled its way through the innards of the machine, out rolled an icy-cold can of Coke.  I picked it up with a sigh and walked back to the couch where I had taken up residence.

I cracked open the can, relishing the familiar clicking and ripping of aluminum.  I smiled and took an incredibly large swig.

My God!  It was the worst thing I had ever tasted.  It was like salty, disgusting water.  Somehow, I had opened a bum can of Coke.  I fought the urge to spit out the wretched liquid. 

This wasn’t possible, was it?  I looked inside the can – it was full alright, but not with cola.  And then I noticed something just inside the rim – something cylindrical.  What is that in there?  I poked at it with my pinkie and out popped a spring-loaded plastic tube.  There was a small roll of paper inside it.

At this point, I have to let you in a key part of this story.  Watch this:

http://youtu.be/ZixEXf6vB94

I pulled out the plastic tube in complete disbelief.  It looked like there was cash inside of it.  I worked the bill out of the tube and unrolled it.  Alexander Hamilton stared back at me, smiling.  Okay, he wasn’t smiling but I was.

Ten Bucks!  Are you kidding me?

I proceeded to hoot and holler quite a bit.  I literally jumped up and down a few times, as some students walking by looked at me like I was insane.  They gave me that “take it easy, buddy” look.

They didn’t understand – a miracle had just taken place!

 I went immediately to buy a sandwich and a coffee.  I still had six dollars and change.  I could not get over my good fortune. 

I’ve told that story many times in the 20+ years since it happened.  How do you explain such an event?  You really can’t, just as I can’t ever explain the series of consecutive miracles it took for me to even make it through college.

Now that I am older, and no longer a desperate college kid, I look back on that day and I have trouble remembering the fear and desperation.  It really was an awful feeling – to be completely broke.  But I can’t remember that very well.  All I can remember is how it turned out perfectly. 

As I said, that day literally changed my outlook on life.  The bottom line for me was and is that if you keep grinding, eventually good things will happen.  And even when you have nothing, you are hanging on to the end of your rope, and you are trying to figure out where you may sleep for the night – there is still hope.  Because, you never know what will pop out of a Coke can.

That’s what I learned that day as a young man.  But as a man in my forties, reflecting on some of the amazing things I’ve encountered in life, I am drawn to that little prayer I said as I walked to my car.  “Please God – just five bucks.  I’ll settle for four.” 

And God answered, “How does ten dollars sound Cheetham?  I’m on your side.”

-cj cheetham

The Miracle Flag

In early 1999, I was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base.  When you drive on Goodfellow, the first thing you will notice on the left is a parade field.  The field is used for various military events, but the most striking aspect of that field is that it is ringed, on certain days anyhow, with a multitude of American Flags.

I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts – and I am thankful that our town, Pembroke, was a patriotic town.  We learned at an early age to love our country and to work for the success of our country.  We were thankful for the patriots of our state who had helped found the United States – men like John Hancock, John Adams, and Paul Revere who had sacrificed do much so that we could live in a different kind of country.  A country founded on freedom.  Our town fairs had flags flying over them; our 4th of July celebrations had hymns of patriotism; and our teachers taught us about the greatness of America.

I also grew up in a patriotic family.  We loved the stories of great Americans – of Edison, Sgt. York, Jefferson, Eisenhower, and the Green Mountain Boys.  When I was a kid, the Cold War simmered and we desperately wanted freedom over slavery.  We were proud our boys had won WWII, and we were sure that we would win the next war too, if necessary.  We loved liberty and we despised tyrants.  We cheered when Eruzione scored in the Olympics.  We roared our approval when Reagan said “Tear down this wall!”

***

When my oldest child, Emma, was born in 1995, I made it one of my parental goals to instill in her the same love of country that I had learned as a child.  I knew this would be an uphill battle with the pervasive cynicism and denial of American greatness that had become so popular in the country.  So, when she was just a toddler, I made sure that some of her bedtime stories included stories about George Washington and the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln growing up in poverty, only later to become President of the United States.

One of the things I always stressed to Emma was that the American Flag was something to be respected.  Whenever I saw the stars and stripes I would ask her, “isn’t it beautiful, Emma?  Isn’t the American Flag beautiful?”  Emma, just over three years old would always agree, smiling.

One morning in the spring of 1999, I packed Emma up into my car and headed to Goodfellow Air Force Base.  As we drove through the main gate onto the base my mind was drifting about, thinking about sports, current events, or something like that.  I wasn’t really tuned in to my surroundings and then Emma spoke up from her car seat in the back.

“Daddy, look!”

Snapping back to reality, I answered reflexively, “what is it Sweetie?”

“Look!  So pretty!”

I checked my rear view mirror and tried to see what Emma had in her hands.  Something must be pretty back there – maybe a doll?  Or a coloring page?

“What is pretty, Emma?”

“The Miracle Flag, Daddy.”

“The what?”  She was confusing me.

“The Miracle Flag”

I looked to my left and there was the Goodfellow Air Force Base parade field, ringed by what looked to be 50 American Flags.  That is what Emma was looking at.  The poor little girl – all that time I had been teaching her about the American flag she has been hearing the words all wrong.

I quickly corrected her so that she would get the pronunciation correct.

“Oh sweetie, that’s an American Flag”

“What?”

“That’s an American Flag.  It’s not miracle – it’s American.  A-mer-i-can.”

Emma didn’t answer me right away.  Instead she got quiet. 

Then as we turned left, and the parade field was no longer in her field of view she said quietly, but firmly “well, I think it’s a miracle flag.”

***

She was right.  My daughter just three and a half years old had it exactly right.  It is a miracle flag.

It’s a miracle flag because it represents a miracle country and a miracle people.  I challenge anyone to survey all of human history and find me the better country; the more just country; the more kind people; the more honest system.  You will look in vain, because that nation does not exist.

I know it has become popular to constantly question and deride our country.  For some bizarre reason people think they are clever or smart by running down America.  Really?  I think that kind of cynicism reveals a deep ignorance of history.

Show me the country with better values, better principles, and better founding documents. 

I love the flag and the people that flag represents.  If that makes me sound corny – I am guilty as charged. 

All I know is that one early morning in West Texas, in the spring of 1999 when I was driving with my little girl strapped in her car seat, she renamed my favorite symbol forever.

It isn’t an American Flag – it’s The Miracle Flag. 

-CJ Cheetham

The Greatest Thing the Army Ever Taught Me

In the late summer of 1984, I arrived at Ft McClellan, Alabama for basic training with the United States Army.  It was the farthest I had ever traveled from my home in Pembroke, Massachusetts.  My first stop on post was the “Reception Station.” 

In those days, the Army would welcome the new recruits by temporarily billeting us in a barracks and almost gently easing us into the initial Army experience.  You would spend about 3 or 4 days getting acclimated at the Reception Station, living in an open barracks with about 70 other recruits, drawing your initial uniforms, and in general, having some sergeants explain tell you over and over again that once you left the reception station and reported to your actual Training Company, life would change dramatically.

Living in those barracks for those few days, I kept asking myself, “what exactly am I doing here?”  It was tough to feel settled or sure of yourself sharing quarters with so many strangers. 

Growing up in Pembroke, a middle class (at the time anyhow) town about 35 minutes South of Boston, I always had always felt like I fit in to my community.  For the most part, our town was made up of people who shared the same values and the same experiences.   Pembroke was a homogenous town, and I liked that about Pembroke.

My first morning at the Reception Station, I went into the bathroom to shave, not because I needed to shave at that age, but because the sergeants had told us to shave.  As I stood at the sink, I overheard a conversation the likes of which I’d never heard in my life. 

Behind me and to the left a young black man was holding court, telling stories to a group of recruits.  The stories were filled with some of the vilest expletives you can imagine and centered on fighting, stabbings, and what I could only describe as gang activity. 

I got a good look at the man telling the stories.  He looked incredibly angry.  He was regaling his audience with a story of how a rival gang had taken his jacket and shoes one night and left him to walk home in stocking feet.  “I’m talking about Newark!  In %^#$ February!”  The guys laughed and called him crazy. 

I couldn’t have agreed more.  This story-teller did seem crazy.  I decided that day that this was a person I would intentionally avoid.  There was no sense getting caught up with a guy like that.

The day finally came when we left the reception station and boarded a bus to the other side of the post.  That is what we recruits had been told was the real basic training.  We called it the “other side” as if we were about to cross over some threshold into another hellish world.  We had that about right.

As I boarded the bus with two duffle bags and a nauseous stomach, I noticed the Newark Story Teller was seated in the second seat.  I took my place in the fifth row and began to mentally prepare for our real welcome.  Despite my fear of the drill sergeants who were waiting on the “other side,” I focused my prayer on Newark, “God, please don’t let the kid from Newark be in my platoon.”

After a short bus trip, we rolled slowly to a stop and I saw what appeared to be 15 – 20 of the largest people I had ever seen.  The Drill Sergeants were waiting, wearing their distinctive round brown hats, glaring with disgust at the bus.  Finally one of the behemoths climbed aboard and said very calmly, “You have exactly 60 seconds to get off this bus and 30 of them are gone.  Now move!” 

What followed was some of the toughest hours of my life, standing in the Alabama sun, incapable of doing anything right.  The Drill Sergeants swarmed.  They were everywhere at once.  I didn’t look at a soul.  I just responded to commands and did push-ups, a lot of push-ups. 

We were shuffled from station to station to get dog tags, I.D. cards, and training manuals.  There always seemed to be some kind of emergency that a drill sergeant was yelling about.  Finally, after getting measured and weighed, I was told by a drill sergeant, “Cheetham.  You’re fourth platoon – up stairs turn right, look for your name on a bunk.  Move!”

I scrambled up the stairs fumbling with two ridiculously heavy duffle bags, sweat pouring down my back.  “I don’t think this day could get much worse” I thought as I entered the barracks.  I walked down the row of bunks and looked for my name.  I found it on the eighth set of bunks on the right; the top bunk read:  CHEETHAM, C.   I looked at the bottom bunk:  WILCOX, B.

“I guess Wilcox is still getting his tail kicked downstairs” I said quietly as I dropped my gear.   Some of the others in the room were engaged in hushed conversations.  After about three hours of initial Army Training, I sat down on the floor, closed my eyes, and rested my head on my hands.  I was actually starting to doze, when I heard someone drop two duffles on the lower bunk.

Wilcox, B. had arrived.

It was the kid from Newark.

It’s hard to describe how I felt at that moment.  Aside from questioning the efficacy of my prayers, I quickly moved on to “this is not going to work out so well.”  Wilcox, B. barely acknowledged my presence and we stumbled around until lights out.  I lay awake on my bunk, and wondered which was worse:  The Drill Sergeants who were no doubt resting in preparation for day 2 of training, or having Wilcox, B. on the bunk below mine? 

Morning came early and we all hustled to dress, shave, and make our beds.     Many of the privates were working together on their racks – but not me and Wilcox, B.  Instead we ignored each other. When we finished our sloppy effort at tucking sheets and blankets  we were universally panned by the Drill Sergeants.  We paid dearly for that.

Over time, a strange thing happened with me and the kid from Newark.  We started to work together and look out for one another.  I found out that the B. stood for Bobby, but that he preferred to be called “Cool Bobby.”  I also found out that Cool Bobby was actually not as angry as he first seemed.  In fact, he was a happy, funny kid who liked the same movies and sports that I did.

As training progressed, Cool Bobby and I would spend our days training and helping one another to succeed.  I’d help him assemble and disassemble an M-60 machine gun one day and the next he was helping me over a wall on the obstacle course.

I learned an awful lot about Wilcox during those eight weeks of basic training and the eight weeks of Military Police School that followed.  His Dad was a Baptist preacher who had died when Bobby was only 14 years old.   Cool Bobby told me the story of how he had come home from school to find his father dead in the kitchen.  I also learned that Wilcox didn’t really swear all that much, he loved his mother,  and that he genuinely cared about everyone in our platoon. 

Cool Bobby was not a gang member at all.  He was just a kid who grew up in a very tough town – Newark, New Jersey.  In fact, as I got to really know Wilcox, there were times I thought he wouldn’t, and maybe couldn’t, hurt a fly.  All I remember now is that he would laugh and make fun of my Boston accent.  “JFK Cheetham” is what he would call me.

In 16 weeks, the United States Army performed a miracle.  They took a white kid from a small town in Massachusetts, a town that was almost exclusively white at the time; and they teamed me with a black kid from Newark, New Jersey.  The two of us couldn’t have been more different when we started.  I know I didn’t initially trust Wilcox, and I don’t think he trusted me either.

The Army put us through a very difficult training program that was designed to test our wills.  The training was often grueling, sometimes unfair, and occasionally ridiculous.  Yet, that training did something that I don’t think any other program could do – namely, it got two teenagers from different places and races to become great friends.  We battled the Drill Sergeants together.  We battled the Army together.  We battled Alpha Company together (because we knew: a Bravo Bulldog Leads the Way).

When we finished Military Police School I was slated to go home to Massachusetts and join my National Guard Company and start college.  Cool Bobby was off to Hawaii.  As Wilcox got ready to board his bus we embraced and said our good byes.  I will never forget that last conversation.

“Cheetham, man.  I gotta tell you something.  You are the first white person I’ve ever had for a friend,” Wilcox said with tears in his eyes.

“Cool Bobby.  I think you are one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met.  One of the best friends I’ll ever have.”

We smiled shook hands and Wilcox got on his bus.

I never saw Wilcox again.  I think we may have exchanged letters once, but in that pre-internet era, it was easy to lose touch.  I could tell stories about Bobby D. Wilcox for hours, still to this day.  Hardly a week goes by where I don’t at least think about our exploits at Ft McLellan, Alabama.

The Army taught me a great lesson back in 1984 and I am forever grateful for that lesson.  It’s a simple lesson really.  When people are willing to sacrifice their own selfishness, when they commit to a team, to a vision, and to a goal they can achieve great things; but even more important than achieving the great things is the relationships that people can forge when they put aside differences.  In life, where you came from as an individual matters so little, when compared with where you go together as a team.

I can’t think of any organization on this planet that better understands that truth, than the United States Military.  Only the military can take people from sprawling incoherent diversity and forge purposeful unity.  Throughout our time together no one ever said “Cheetham and Wilcox, put aside your differences and work together.”  They didn’t have to say that.  Rather, it was the very essence and culture of the military that created our friendship.

It’s the greatest thing the Army ever taught me.

-CJ Cheetham