Father’s Day

By R. Burton, Riverbend wRiters

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The factory is located in an industrial area outside of the city. There is a chain link fence surrounding the old building.

A few trucks are backed up to the receiving dock delivering paper and paperboard stock.

A small van with an iconic printing ink brand on its side is parked near the driveway.

There are a number of small open windows located high up on the sides of the building. Through them comes the deafening noise of giant printing presses and box making machines.

At the fence opening for visitors the name of the company can be seen emblazoned on the front of the building, J.B. Printing and Box Company.

I know that J.B. is the tough minded, singularly focused founder of the company. He has built the business over many years. His reputation is not always seen as something that one would wish to emulate. His success however is obvious.

I sit in the car with my father across the street from the plant. A box of expensive cigars sits on my lap as I consider the chore my Dad has given me. Each year, I am told that Mother is not to know that we do this.

As a child, then pre teen and again now as a teenager, I find myself thinking about why we do this each year. But, Dad is insistent that it must occur each Father’s Day.

You see, Dad used to work at or near this location as a boy, a young man and as an adult. His past was not an easy one having been raised by a Father whose love of whiskey made him a less than reliable parent.

Dad’s Mom left him, his little brother and his Father when Dad was a boy. His Father, his Grandmother and his Aunts then intermittently raised them. While still a young man in his teens, he and his younger brother were dropped off at an orphanage. The various relatives were unable to care for them.

After being abandoned, Dad learned to fight in order to keep him and his brother safe. At the age of thirteen or so, his Aunt and her husband removed Dad and his brother from the orphanage so they could work in new start up. This was the beginning of the J.B. Printing and Box Company.

As a teen, Dad learned how to operate a printing press, how to set type, how to handle various industrial inks and how to keep his little brother safe from the gears, belts and pulleys associated with spending hours on end in a factory,

He and his brother became the uneducated, unpaid workers who would complete the jobs that would enable J.B. to build a successful business juggernaut. When the challenges came for printing on the six-pack cartons used to hold soda and beer, Dad experimented and was able to create and establish how it could be done.

This invention allowed J.B. to garner much of the soda and beer packaging business. It was the start of a thriving paper box and printing company.

Over time, Dad became General Manager of the plant, both hiring and training employees, ordering inks, setting schedules and making sure that the plant operated efficiently and profitably.

During this time, J.B. Senior’s son and daughter were given a private school and Ivy League university education. They learned to ski, play tennis and enjoy the fruits of the company’s success.

Once J.B. Senior’s son graduated from college, with a Master’s Degree, he joined the firm to be groomed as the successor President.

As the company grew and prospered, the workers were becoming more aware of the salaries in the marketplace for their skill sets.

J.B Junior replaced Dad with a new General Manager. The replacement was a hard charging, somewhat ruthless man who had left his prior job due to worker unrest.

A union representative reached out to the workers in terms of the benefits and salaries commensurate with other workers in their industry. The workers voted and decided to strike. Since Dad knew that the new General Manager was abusive to the employees, he also joined the walk out.

Once work at the plant had stopped, J.B. approached the union representative and, as the story goes, paid him thousands of dollars to go away. He then fired all of the workers on strike and brought in a completely new crew at even lower salaries.

I recall the difficulties in our home with Dad out of work and Mother keeping the house and family together. Food was a precious commodity and money was scarce.

Mom never forgave J.B. and J.B. Junior for what they had done.

I thought of these past issues and their effect on my family as I opened the door of the car and walked across the street to the entrance of the factory.

It is Father’s Day yet again. Another year has past since my last visit to J.B. Senior. Once inside the building, the receptionist questions why I am here. I say,” I am here to visit with my great uncle J.B. Senior.

She does not know me nor has she been at the receptionist desk before. She looks quizzically at me but decides to not question me further as she picks up the phone and dials J.B. Senior’s secretary Janice.

When she arrives at the reception area, she welcomes me while directing me to follow her to the executive wing of the plant. I can’t help noticing the oil painting of J.B prominently displayed on the entrance wall of the executive suite.

A small brass plate indicates he is Founder and Chairman. J.B. Junior also has a fine oil portrait with a small brass plate indicating he is now President and CEO.

As I enter the walnut laden inner sanctum of the Chairman, he sits behind a large burled walnut desk. In addition, there are a number of leather chairs circling a small conference table.

J.B. Senior greets me and we shake hands. After I wish him a happy Father’s Day he takes the box of Cuban cigars. We then sit at the conference table to discuss my future interests and progress in school.  Although formal, he is pleasant and I enjoy our conversations.

He never asks about my Father, my Mother or family. Following our brief discussion, we again shake hands and I leave.

Although I know much of the story about J.B. and my Dad, I decide that I want to be a businessperson and preside over various businesses. My conviction is that I will be a more compassionate executive and will treat employees as I would wish to be treated myself.

It is years later that I understand that Dad is simply honoring the man who removed him and his brother from an orphanage, giving them some stability at a time of personal chaos. For that, my Dad was obviously grateful.

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A Brother Comes Home

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By R. Burton, Riverbend wRiters

“Any old rags any old rags-newspapers-magazines-metal-glass”? The ‘Junk Man’ yells in a strained voice.

The horse, a gray mare of indiscriminate age with sagging belly and swayed back, plods along while pulling the wagon wheels over the cracked driveway behind a row of brick houses. I can hear the traces creak as the horse’s body shifts from side to side.

The reins are held by an ancient man with gray hair and ripped clothes. He sits on the plank seat of a large wooden wagon filled with newspapers, magazines, metal pieces and other debris.

I stand behind my home watching the ‘Junk Man’ slowly pass-by. At seven years of age, I marvel that the old man is still able to climb up and down from his perch to load the junk into the wagon.

Although some of the neighbors come out of the back door of their homes to give the old man newspapers and other items they have saved for him, my Dad resists the effort. He is a ‘scout master’ and the scouts collect newspapers and take them to the junkyard to help fund their efforts.

The old man smiles and waves. Although he scares me, I wave back. Dad says that I need to respect all men and women. My Dad is standing behind me. He says, “the old man is doing his best to feed his family in bad times”.

At seven years of age, my understanding of a nation at war is alarmingly brief. I know from my Mom that vegetables are expensive and meat is rationed. So, I work with my older brother and father to weed the Victory Garden behind our home. It resides in an open field, a portion of which we have claimed for our own use.

Other neighbors have staked out a claim and fenced in an area for themselves. When you look out from the windows in the back of the row houses, you can see the many small agricultural plots given to feeding the families in this working class neighborhood.

Dad has planted corn, radishes, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and clove. My older brother, Bud, my sister and I are tasked with weeding the rows, staking and tying the tomato plants as well as maintaining the fences.

We also have a chicken coop that my Dad built on the empty lot behind us. Bud is tasked with feeding the chickens. Each of us takes turns gathering the eggs.

Whenever it is my turn to gather the eggs, I live in fear of the large rooster Pete who is the master of his domain. He is pitch black with black feathers around his legs and feet. His head has a red crown. The wattles below his sharp beak are bright red as well. When he shakes his head, ruffles his feathers and lifts his head I know I am in for a fight.

Just yesterday he leaped on top of my brother’s head and released his foul smelling poop on him. If Dad had not been close by, I think my older brother would have killed him. But, we need him and the flock of chickens for eggs and meat.

Occasionally when a chicken is no longer laying eggs, we take her to the old building that houses a man who will slit the throat and remove the feathers. At those times I watch the chicken being killed, blood being drained and the process of alternately dunking her remains in hot and then cold water.

A machine is used to remove the feathers. The chicken is held against the machine and the feathers, now loose from the dunking, are stripped from the body. The innards are removed and bagged as well.

Mom cooks the chicken for dinner. After saying grace, my sister, brother and I will sometimes talk about the life of the chicken. We kids name them all. So, it is not unusual for us to talk about the bird we are eating as poor Emily or Janet, et cetera.

This upsets our Mother no end.

I am constantly told that life is hard for many families. My Dad has an A sticker on the back window of our old car. The sticker letter designates how much gasoline our family is allowed to purchase each week.

In addition, Mom has a booklet of stamps. Each page of the stamps indicates what she is able to purchase at the grocery store or the butcher shop. She guards those stamps as though they are the most important item in the house.

When we go to the butcher shop, she makes sure that the loose stamps do not fall on to the sawdust flooring in front of the counter. We know from experience that loose stamps can be found there.

As the smallest in the family, my job is to casually walk amongst the people in the crowded area that fronts the butcher counter. I look for loose stamps in the sawdust, and unobtrusively retrieve them for the benefit of our family.

When our Dad takes us to a matinee at the local movie theatre, we see the war news via Movie-Tone News clips. There is a lot of martial music, flags and soldiers charging up hills.

I am told that today is a special day. Our neighbor, in the row house adjacent to ours, is having a ceremony for the brother of a boy I know who lives there.

His big brother is coming home from the war.

I am dressed in my best Sunday clothes. My Dad explains that Joseph is being buried today. He explains to me, “Joe is a hero. He was helping another soldier in the tank he was commanding. The other soldier was shot while operating the gun turret. Joe had to retrieve his friend and was killed when he opened the hatch.”

We drive solemnly to the cemetery where I see my friend and his family. His Mom and Dad are pale and visibly shaken. Tears are flowing freely as a soldier plays a plaintive tune on a trumpet. I have never before heard taps. I will never forget them.

A group of soldiers with rifles raise them and fire them a number of times. Dad says, “This is a salute to a hero”.

The flag on the casket is folded and refolded by two soldiers. For the first time I see my Dad cry.

When we return to our home in the city, the man who sharpens scissors is walking up and down the street crying out, “Scissors, scissors and knives”. But, something has changed in me.

From that time on, whether it is the milk man, the junk man, the scissor man or the ice man, I will know that my friend lost his brother and will never be the same.

I recall something else my Dad said to me, “the way you can honor your friends’ brother and all men who have given their lives for their country is to commit yourself to an exemplary life of service to your family, your community and your country-to be the very best that you can be”. He went on, “liberty is not free, never take it for granted”.

Life for me changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shoebox Chronicles: Connecting Generations Through an Unforgotten Grave – Edition 6

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By Mark Lehman, Riverbend wRiters

7Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good.  8But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” –     Romans 5: 7, 8

At the end of a long dusty road 6 miles west of Smiley, TX (pop. 549) sits a deserted cemetery.  It is all that remains of the once bustling South Texas farming community of Mound Creek.

This is the final resting place for many of my ancestors, and I made numerous trips here in my youth to attend funerals.  In recent years I occasionally stop by the cemetery when traveling in the area to attend an annual Easter gathering of relatives.  I started these visits to Mound Creek to pay respect to some descendants; however, lately I just enjoy the peace this site provides from urban pressures and chaotic world headlines.

Most of these long-forgotten graves have not seen any attention in decades. The noticeable exception is one single grave located in the far corner of the cemetery next to a barbwire fence.  This grave often stands out among the drab headstones because it is adorned with a colorful Easter bouquet of fresh flowers.  During one Easter Sunday visit curiosity got the best of me and I looked at the florist card which simply read “To Aunt Emily – Love, Johnathan and James.”

This card reminded me of a postcard in the shoebox that I almost discarded as irrelevant. The undated note was to my grandmother from someone in California named Kate and the message was, “Johnathan and James are going to a medical conference in San Antonio next month and would like to visit Aunt Em’s grave. I cannot find it on the map and hope you can help out.”

As I often do with shoebox letters, I use these treasures to trace my family history.  My internet searches ultimately lead to a distant cousin named Johnathan who told me a remarkable story about his Aunt Emily whom he had never met.

Johnathan’s grandmother, Kate, was widowed at an early age. She raised her only son, John, with the help of her sister, brother-in-law, and their daughter Emily.   Unfortunately, in 1962 John was afflicted with the same kidney disease which had taken the lives of most of the men in his family.  A new experimental procedure known as a kidney transplant offered some hope; however, finding a suitable organ donor was a substantial challenge. Word of a perfect match for John came literally at the last minute.   It was only after the transplant, as both patients were recovering in ICU, did the family learn the donor was John’s cousin, Emily.

The transplant was a success and John lived another 12 years with his new kidney, and during this time he fathered twin sons – Johnathan and James.  Unfortunately, Emily passed away a year after the transplant from surgical complications.

Johnathan sent me a copy of a letter from his Aunt Emily which is a wonderful new addition to my growing shoebox collection.  The letter was written to the twins at the time of their birth in which she articulated her dreams for her nephews and the responsibility they had in carrying on the family legacy.  After reading the letter I understand why it is important for them to honor her memory by sending flowers to the Mound Creek Cemetery each year- appropriately at Easter.

Postscript: 

Through my Shoebox search I have learned that Johnathan and James each have 3 children including a girl named Emily.  Both twins are urologists specializing in kidney issues. Moreover, in 1981 James was part of an international medical team that discovered a treatment for the rare hereditary disease which took the lives of their father, grandfather and several other relatives.

 

 

Etch-a-Sketch Hearts

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By Maddie Schulte, Riverbend wRiters

Let me tell you about the time I had open heart surgery. (Disclaimer: It was only a vivid dream.)

The room was glowy and the operating table was cold. I sat upright with my legs merrily swinging about as a surgeon cut my entire torso straight down the middle and removed my heart. Plucked it straight outta me. He took it over to this fancy sink (I don’t know how I was conscious during this entire process, being heartless and all) and scrubbed it with soap and water. There was a loofah involved. He then calmly walked back over to my conscious, heartless self and placed my heart inside its little home before sewing me back together.

When I woke up, my hand immediately rushed to my heart. Did that just happen? Did I have surgery? Do I have a heart? Am I dying? So many questions were rushing through my hazy brain.

I was able to convince my midnight mind that it was, in fact, a dream and I did not, in fact, have open heart surgery. My heart was very much still beating away inside my chest.

But WOAH—what an incredible picture of what it looks like to have our heart washed clean.

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Sometimes I feel like my heart is a 4”x 4” etch-a-sketch board. Slowly but surely, burdens make their way onto my board, carving out their place within the limited 16 sq. in. space. Losses, breakups, hurts, times I didn’t measure up…they all get carved onto the etch-a-sketch. The weight of these burdens increases as the available writing space dwindles until pretty soon there is no room left to etch another word. Even the tiniest corners are bearing weight. Every square inch is covered with a mark—a mark that is forming a scar.

My etch-a-sketch heart had been operating at maximum capacity for the last few months…until this dream. The dream where my heart was scrubba-dubb-dubbed in some fancy sink by a surgeon who I now have convinced myself was God. The dream where God wiped my etch-a-sketch heart clean, releasing the weight I had been carrying around.

It was the exact imagery I needed to remind myself of what I know to be true:  God sees me and is caring for my heart. Even in the midst of my brokenness. Even in the midst of my doubts. Even as He’s standing at the sink, washing my heart while I’m in the background saying, “Not to interrupt your process or anything, but there are quite a few cracks in that little guy you’re holding. I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to clean all of that before you stick it back inside of me.”

Talk about telling God how to do His job. We need to let the surgeon be the surgeon.

I think there’s so much beauty in sharing our brokenness. You’re not alone. He’s washing your heart clean, too. Death, loss, storms, doubts, fears…they aren’t too much for God (and his magical sink) to heal and wash clean.

Pandora’s Box of Self Reliance

 

By Jessica Cannon, Riverbend wRiters

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Lord, I feel you but struggle to see you.

The days pass by with so many distractions.

Lord, I see you but struggle to feel you.

The beauty in the sun rising, the warmth of the sun on my face yet your touch evades me.

Lord, I hear you but struggle to experience you.

Your soft whispers of your Spirit guide me forward reminding me it is time to surrender.

For so long I carried the burden of violation and distrust that I vowed somewhere along the way to be self-reliant in order to avoid ever feeling anymore pain or rejection.

This illusion of control provided by self-reliance has blinded me for far too long.

My source of income and sense of independence was because you blessed me, not from my own doing.

The words you share through my pen to paper is your gentle guidance, not discovery of my own.

If I was only less concerned about being self-reliant so many years ago, I could have seen you, heard you, felt you and known I was never alone.

The scars of pain driving me to self-reliance are now my reminders that YOU will never allow me to endure more than I can bare yet endure enough for me to grow. Grow closer to you.

 

 

McChurch (Wizard of OZ)

By Lauren Kinzie, Riverbend wRiters

(Part 1 of our “Known by the Scars” series: ‘Scars of Religion’. Lauren boldly shares her experience in trying to find a church some years ago)

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I went looking for salvation

and, instead found

The Wizard of Oz.

Instead of finding

Healing for my deep pain

I found a tiny little man

Hiding behind a red curtain.

I asked him to heal my heart

and was handed a Sweet Tart.

I said I needed to transform my mind,

I was given a copy of Left Behind.

I fell to my knees and asked for

Redemption

Forgiveness

Faith

And trust.

and was given

Robert’s Rules of Order.

and a consumer questionnaire.

I traveled far and wide

In search of truth

and the church

invited me to a focus group.

It made me sad

It made me scared.

It made me feel like I’d been had.

and wondering just what was sacred.

So, I took a sabbatical

From the tyrannical and fanatical

and I came up with a plan

to get myself Undamned,

IT was so lonely

No one wanted me

God had left the building like Elvis

and was waiting patiently

in the field of poppies.

for me to flee the spectacle of the Emerald City

and the flying monkeys.

When I found Her,

I found me.

Soul in tact and Undamned, thank you very much.

Faith in tact and Undimmed

Renewed, tougher and more resilient than before.

 

I emerged from Hell,

Sure that if my maker

Loves me,

I don’t need to take it to committee.

No one else need cast a vote

She’s got my back

And that’s all she wrote.

 

Street Theology

By John Harrell, Riverbend wRiters

homelessWho comes to mind when you hear the word, “radical?” When used as a noun, a radical is someone advocating complete political and social change. As an adjective, a radical describes someone who “affects change.” The greatest radical ever was Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to bring us more religion. He came to show us the true character of God, and He shook things up a bit while doing so. The change He affected remains over 2000 years later.

What??? Wasn’t Jesus the pacifist who told us to pray for those who persecuted us, and to turn the other cheek? Hey, He didn’t even stand up for Himself when He was on trial for His life. Jesus doesn’t sound like much of a radical.

When teaching the crowds and disciples, Jesus called the religious leaders, the Pharisees, hypocrites! The Pharisees were the guys, above criticism and reproach. It was unthinkable, even risky, to challenge them or their authority. While some may have been critical of them in private, Jesus called them out publicly. Sounds pretty rad to me.

When Jesus went to the Temple, He found it overrun with thieves and disreputable traders. Jesus made a whip and drove out the sheep, cattle and crooks, thereby returning the Temple into a true place of worship. Again, Jesus sounds pretty rad!

Most of Jesus’ teaching took place in public. He went to people’s homes, orated the famous Sermon on the Mount and He even had dinner with despised tax-collectors. Jesus went where the people were, reaching out compassionately, offering hope, redemption and restoration. Jesus’ method of teaching was different from the Pharisees, and the people responded.

Street theology is getting away from the safety net of the church. We go where the people are, serving their needs, offering hope as best we can while not being concerned if the population we serve ever goes to church or not. We meet them where they are. The heartbeat of any faith is its people, not the building, rituals or beautiful stained glass. We must think and act differently to effectively reach and impact others.

We can continue playing it safe. We go to church on Sunday, hear some music, throw money into a collection plate followed by a message from our spiritual leader. We go home. Live our lives. Rinse. Repeat.

 

Let’s be risky. Let’s hit the streets…jesus-saves-mural-1