Haibun: Cardinal

The call is clear and pierces the silence and the soul. Loud and distinct, it leaves no doubt about the presence of the caller.  Authority and passion, precision and purity. Bold, bright messenger from the spirit world.  Dwelling in the east, it lives forever in the heart. 

Brilliant flash of red
Calling clear in the morning
Proclaiming the way

The College Experience

Sometimes – just sometimes – I wish I had The College Experience.  

As things happened, though, I didn’t.  I attended my first college class while deployed to Japan as a 20 year old Marine serving in a fighter-attack squadron.  I should put part of that last sentence in quotation marks, since I didn’t actually attend, as there weren’t actually class meetings.  Operational F-4 units are busy places, so the consensus was to just give everyone a “B” and call it good.  I sometimes wonder what macroeconomics is all about. 

Four years later I was taking night classes while stationed in Germany.  Everything was general studies, since I had no idea where I was going with my education.  

Weekend classes in Augusta, Georgia, a few years after that.  

Community college classes in Huntsville, Alabama preceded my undergraduate degree at 39 years old, earned at a university that had only a single dormitory on campus.  Everything shut down by 6:00pm, and on-campus alumni events took priority over those for students. 

My master’s degree?  Online. Go ‘Lopes!

So when I find myself being part of someone else’s College Experience, I often wonder what I missed.  That was this past weekend.  

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is in the middle of its “Week of Welcome,” and the Land Trust was invited to take part in one of those freshman orientation “what is there to do in our community?” events.  

It was a good event, and for two hours my partner and I hosted a steady stream of brand new college students who were interested in what we had to offer.  

(Side note: We really did have a steady crowd.  The environment and outdoor recreation, I’m happy to say, is a thing right now with young people.)

It was a neat experience, talking with folks who have interests similar to mine (our table made it clear from a distance what we are all about), but with perspectives and experiences that are different. 

My favorite part?  I had twenty students sign up for our newsletter, and all of them checked the “I want to volunteer” box.  The future is looking good!

The Cardinal

To those not in the know, one of the stranger aspects of birding is how often a bird is “seen” by its vocalizations alone.  

“Wow, you saw a pileated woodpecker?” one might be asked.

“Yeah, up at the preserve . . . it sounded close!”

“Wait.  You mean you just heard it and didn’t see it?”

“Uh, yeah.”

– awkward pause –

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in the woods for two weeks at a Land Trust preserve just outside of Huntsville.  I was administering two camps, and, among other tasks, my job was to hold down the fort, staying at the pavilion while the campers and their hosts were out on the trail. 

Oh, darn.

Staying in one place in the woods isn’t something I do often, and I’ve never done it for the better part of two days, much less two weeks.  It was wonderful, mostly because of the birds.

The first day – within the first hour, actually – I caught the briefest glimpse of three birds moving through the trees.  No sound, just movement.  Larger than a songbird, but I had no idea what they were.

It wasn’t long, though, before I heard them, well out of sight.  They were calling for food, seemingly reminding the adult birds that they weren’t quite on their own yet.  Young Cooper’s hawks, based on their size.  They had the tails and wings of an accipiter, but were larger than a sharp-shinned hawk.

Over the course of the two weeks, I was aware of them almost constantly, and eventually saw them clearly as they moved through the trees overhead.  They weren’t the only raptors I heard, though, as red-tailed hawks screamed over the nearby valley and a barred owl hooted deep in the woods.  Albeit silently, vultures rode the winds rising from the hills.

But it was a cardinal that I’ll remember for a long time.

Cardinals aren’t especially uncommon here in north Alabama.  In fact, they’re a bird I see nearly every day.  What made this cardinal special, though, was how the kids came to see him.

I do a bird activity where I’ll ask a group to stand quietly with their eyes closed.  In preparation, I’ve asked two or three of the participants to keep their eyes open, and when I point to them simply say, “Hello.”  As each person speaks, I ask the group to try to identify the speaker.

It’s not a difficult activity, and the participants usually enjoy their success as they’re able to name each of those who talk.  The point, I say, is that each of us has a different voice.  We might say similar things, but we’ve learned how to identify one another based on the qualities of our vocalizations.

It’s the same with birds, more often than not.  They have different songs, but they also have different voices that we can learn to recognize.  I didn’t do that activity during the camp as a group, but there were a few times when I talked about it with some of the kids. 

And that cardinal?  Well, he was special to me because by the end of each week there were campers who would say, “Mr. Tim, the cardinal’s back!” without the need to actually see him.  They knew his voice, and that, to me, was something to celebrate.

Two Hundred Fifty Feet

250

The number was written in small letters, black ink, right next to the words, “Diamond Room” on the cave map carried by the naturalist walking with us.

Whether Sandy, the geologist leading our tour, needed that reminder or not, I wasn’t sure.  It was at that moment, though, in what is called the Diamond Room, that she told us we had 250 feet of limestone above our heads.  For me, standing over six feet tall, that rock started just inches above my upturned face.

And, apparently, went upwards for the better part of a hundred yards.

Lisa and I were at, er, under, Rickwood Caverns State Park some 75 miles south of our home near Huntsville, Alabama.  We were attending a teacher workshop which, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t very well attended.  On the bright side, though, the small group allowed us to ask as many questions as we wanted, and I had a lot, though most of them were related to the surface geology, now well above us.

Alabama is an incredible state regarding its biodiversity.  While we’re in the overall top five nation-wide, we’ve got more species of just about anything related to water, and that’s largely because of our geology. 

Different geology equals different water chemistry equals different aquatic life.  I’d love to say it’s as easy as that, but that would mean I could actually wrap my head around all of it.  The ground here – now below my feet as I’m writing this – is believed to have been formed some 300 million years ago when the continents were a totally different shape, and the land that is now Alabama was some 10 degrees south of the equator instead of 35 degrees north of it.  

North Alabama’s bedrock is primarily limestone, and it’s chock-full of aquatic fossils from its time as a shallow sea floor.  To see the same fossils I’ve collected on the surface as part of the ceiling above me was incredible.  

Nature – this creation – is amazing, and I can’t wait to learn something new every time I experience it.

—–

Coda: To be fair, it was the first weekend after school started here in the state.  If I was a classroom teacher, I wouldn’t have been there either.  

Are you Mr. Gels?

“Are you Mr. Gels?”

It was a Sunday evening, and my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant, enjoying a late dinner.  As coincidence would have it, the meal we were eating was paid for with an end-of-the-year student gift card, and I knew immediately the guy standing in front of me was student related as well.  

The “Mr. Gels” was sort of a big clue.

“I am, yes,” I said, rising to my feet.

He introduced himself, and I frantically flipped through my mental Rolodex of former students during the second or so before he told me his son’s name. Just as he was telling me, I actually found it, which was sort of amazing since most of the cards in that Rolodex were nearly blank.

I have a confession: I’m terrible at remembering student names.  I’m blessed with the ability to retain positive memories, and I remember snippets of conversations and interactions, but it’s rare that I remember a name from more than a year or two ago.  And when I come face to face with a former student?  Well, it doesn’t help that they don’t look like a third-grader any more!

“Wow, how’s he doing?” I asked, genuinely glad to hear of him.

“He’s doing really well,” he replied.  “He’s graduating early and heading off to college in the fall.  He’ll be staying with his grandparents while he goes to school.”

“That’s great, I’m really happy to hear that!”

A quick moment of uncomfortable quiet fell between us as he seemed to search for something to say.  We both stood there, my wife looking up at us politely.  I was about to ask what his son would be studying when dad changed the direction of the conversation.

“You know, your class was really a turning point for him.” 

Now it was my turn to seem to search for something to say.

He continued. “Third grade was when he found out he could do school.  After that, he started to do a lot better and really turned things around.”

I didn’t know how to reply to that, and I don’t remember what I eventually came up with.  He told me that his son is working nearby for the summer, in case I wanted to drop by and see him.  I hope to do just that.  We talked for just a few more minutes before he walked away and we returned to our meals. 

It was quite a while, I have to say, before that smile left my face.


An aside: While I’m still Mr. Gels, I suppose, I’m not “Mr. Gels” in a classroom anymore. I’ve retired and taken a position as the education director for the Land Trust of North Alabama. Change, they say, is inevitable.

A Hike to Remember

I have to say, I don’t remember the hill.  Yet, there it was, the trail dropping away from us at what seemed like a precipitous slope.  

Okay, the trail was an asphalt path at least ten feet wide, and the slope wasn’t really that steep, but it was still enough to give me pause.  It wasn’t, however, enough to give my dad pause.  

Off he went. 

Here’s the thing, though: The last time I walked this path near my parent’s house in Ohio, I was getting exercise during my extended stay for my father’s open heart surgery.  

And now here he was, walking down that path.  We didn’t go too far, and we didn’t go too fast, but he was walking it. 

It was a nice little hike, and I hope to do it again sometime soon. 

Let’s Go for a Walk

I’m always eager to see their feet. 

—–

I got out of my little truck, gathered my daypack and hiking stick, and headed toward the group that was – strangely enough, I still think – waiting for me.  

And from a distance, I glanced at their feet.

—–

March is a month of unpredictable weather in Alabama.  Within a span of hours, the weather can go from sunny and 70 degrees to snowy and 20, and that’s something that can happen more than once within a few weeks.  That day, however, this group of hikers and I were enjoying the highs: Low 70s, a slight breeze, and partly cloudy skies.  It was a beautiful day for a hike.

I’m a volunteer hike leader for the local land trust, and I had a group of about 15 folks who looked ready to go.  I’ve always enjoyed leading these events, and it’s always fun and interesting to see who’s in the party. 

Now, the system sort of ensures the group will be a good one.  Everyone who shows up is typically a Land Trust member since the hikes fill up shortly after newsletters go out; sign-ups don’t go public for a few days.  They’re also familiar with the types of trails we’re walking on, as most of our properties are, ahem, hilly and rocky.  Finally, they almost always enjoy being with a group, and as we move into the third year of a pandemic, it’s nice to be outside in the open where conversation and gathering is more comfortable.

All that said, it’s always with a bit of trepidation that I look at everyone’s feet, and this group’s feet were looking great: Nothing but hiking boots and solid walking shoes.  No carpet slippers, no flip flops, and no crocs.  Yessss!

We gathered and talked for a bit, renewed a few friendships (a major benefit of hiking with a group), and headed out.  The trail was wonderful, despite the 450+ feet of elevation gain, and the Falling Sink waterfall – probably the highlight of the trail – was gorgeous. I can’t wait until next month when we get to do it again!

Bethel Spring: What’s the Story?

Should It Be Celebrated?

“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” -Douglas MacArthur

I promise I’ll write a happy slice soon.  -Me

It’s March 5, 2022, and for a variety of reasons we’re once again “watching” a war on television and social media.  This morning I saw, for the first time, a video clip of what was most likely a Russian helicopter being shot down in Ukraine.  I watched it on the CNN website, but soon saw it begin to appear on Twitter.  

All of the tweets I saw were celebratory, with gif replies like one might see on a tweet announcing the win of a sports team.

An aircrew lost their lives in that video clip.  Two men or women aren’t going home to their families.  They died.  Maybe they were fighting for a cause they believed in, or maybe they were scared and fervently wished they were not there in the first place. It doesn’t matter – lives were lost.

I do not, of course, support the Russian aggression, but nor can I celebrate the loss of human life.  The job of a soldier is to sometimes take the life of another, but I don’t believe it needs to be celebrated like a touchdown or home run from sidelines thousands of miles away.

As an aside, I’m starting to not be so crazy about social media either.  

In other news, the daffodils in my front yard have opened. That’s something to smile about!

Ready for Plowshares

When I write for my blog, there are topics I rarely touch on, and when I do, I tread lightly.  There are other opportunities to write what’s on my mind when I want to tread heavily, but – for me – this isn’t the place to share everything.  

My time (a lifetime ago, or so it seems) in the military is one of those topics.   

Current events being what they are, though, I found myself thinking yesterday and now writing today about a book that sits on a shelf in my bedroom.  I haven’t opened it in years, but there’s an image on one of the pages that’s still as clear in my mind as it was the first time I saw it.  

The book is a “cruise book.”  A cruise book is to a long-term deployment (a six-month western Pacific “WESTPAC” cruise, in this case) as a yearbook is to a year in high school: lots of pictures and lots of memories.

The cruise was in the mid-80s, and I was deployed with a Marine Corps Fighter Attack squadron as a radar and weapons system specialist.  The photo, taken by one of our aircrew members, is of an F-4S Phantom escorting a Soviet Tu-95 “Bear” bomber somewhere over the Pacific off the coast of Japan.  Two airplanes, and two aircrews, both flying what they certainly thought of as deterrence missions.

Nearly forty years later, I’m more than ready for plowshares.  

I wish we could put down the swords.

Arkansas Traveler

My driveway was empty.

There was not a pickup truck.  There was not a ladder leaning against my house.  There was no one on my roof.  Shingles weren’t being replaced, and a leak was not being repaired.

Just 45 minutes earlier I figuratively pushed my last student out the door, emptied the trash, plugged the computers in to charge, and locked up behind myself.  I made it out of the building without getting caught in a conversation, and I drove home without getting caught breaking any traffic laws.  I got out of school in record time. I had to be home.

I wasn’t expecting my driveway to be empty.

Yet, with the exception of my own vehicle, its engine cooling in the afternoon sun, it was. I glanced at my phone and saw a message from my wife: “They can’t come today.”

Given all that’s going on in the world on this first of March, I simply counted my blessings and smiled at my good fortune as the late-afternoon sun brought to mind a lyric from that old song, “Arkansas Traveler.”  

And, when the rain came down on the cabin floor,
The squatter only fiddled all the more.
Why don’t you mend your roof, said the traveler bold
How can I mend my cabin when the rain is wet and cold?
Squatter pick a sunny morning when the air is dry and nice,
Patch up your cabin, that is my advice.
The squatter shook his hoary head, and answered with a stubborn air,
Cabin never leaks a drop when days are bright and fair!

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