Making Family Memories – Part Two

BLOG #37, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING FAMILY MEMORIES
AROUND A MILL CREEK CAMPFIRE
Part Two
September 16, 2015

There were still only three of us, Marji, Connie and me that first evening. After checking into our cabin, Connie and I joined Marji around the campfire. It was good to relax, gaze into the flames, and catch up on family matters.

Next day was quiet so we joined Marji in a food-buying expedition in nearby Chester, adjacent to beautiful Lake Almanor. By evening, our numbers ballooned, each contingent making a dramatic entrance into the fireside area: brother-in-law Elmer; daughter Michelle, son-in-law Duane, grandsons Taylor and Seth; our son Greg; my cousin Steve and wife Roxann; nephew Shane, wife Lisa, and daughter Chloe. With fourteen now sitting around the campfire, it seemed that everyone was simultaneously talking to someone! Our kids had been backpacking in the coastal Redwoods for most of a week and thus had lots of hike-related experiences to share. It was fascinating to watch perhaps nature’s largest pine cones (sugarpine) contorting and writhing after they’d burst into flames in the fire-pit.

By Thursday, horseshoe-tossing had become a marathon. Except for meals, the action there never stopped. In time we were joined by our beloved Charlotte (long ago adopted into our family), nephew Jessie, and grandniece Lexi—bringing us up to near full-strength. In the evening, Steve (the storyteller of our family) regaled the campfire audience with story after story, many of them involving members of our family who are no longer with us. Few of us had ever heard them before. Steve has a wonderful gift: he can step back in time a half-century or more and remember every action, every word said, on a given day. Even vividly remembering things that took place when he was only two or three! Finally, reluctantly, we said our good nights and wended our way to cabins, trailer houses, or tents for the night. Some slept on the bank just above Mill Creek which, being spring-fed, was immune to California’s four-year drought, and thundered down the canyon.

Friday, it was time to caravan over to Lake Almanor where cousin Avenelle and Jim hosted us for the afternoon, ferrying most of us across the lake to a lakeside restaurant on the other side; the rest of our family circled around the lake by car. It proved to be a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon. Virtually the moment we returned to Mill Creek, clanging horseshoes were heard again. Others of us took walks into the towering evergreens that make the Mill Creek area so unforgettable. All around us, other family reunions were taking place. When the Central Valley’s heat gets to near furnace temperatures, everyone who can, flees to the mountains for blessed relief. That’s a key reason why the resort is booked up a year ahead of time. Later on, after a light snack, it was campfire time again. One of the stories Steve told us had to do with a mountain lion that stalked him in the Sierras—only by a miracle did Steve escape alive. And Elmer’s large stock of sugar pine cones continued to be raided one by one—after each performance, Elmer would be begged to “please burn one more!”

On Saturday, the family caravanned into the heart of Lassen Volcanic National Park, a place a number of us were unfamiliar with. The hike up to Bumpass Hell Hot Springs was most memorable, reminding us of Yellowstone National Park’s much more extensive stretch of performing sulphuric hot springs and geysers. Afterwards, we watched the informative film in the new Visitor’s Center. Shawn, who’d been involved in fighting the big Willow Creek fire in the Trinity Alps, had driven all the way to Mill Creek to be with us for the evening. After supper, Elmer and Seth teamed up to show us a family film most of us had never even heard about: the 1935 Golden Wedding Anniversary of my great grandparents, Dr. Ira and Emma Bond Wheeler in Healdsburg, California. What was funny was seeing the arrival of a long stream of family members in what to us were antique cars. Clearly, they’d packed in as many family members as could be shoe-horned in, for each disgorged an astonishingly large number of people before the car moved on and the next one arrived. This film had to have been one of the earlier family films ever made.

Afterwards, Shawn, a stand-up comedian if there ever was one, stood up and kept us in proverbial stitches for well over an hour. Especially did the cousins revel in his inimitable family-related humor. Much later, when the last sugarpine cone had writhed into embers, we bid farewell to everyone, for some left that evening and others very early next morning.

But on Sunday morning, after another delicious breakfast served on Mill Creek Restaurant’s outside deck, one after another, many with moist eyes, bid each other good-bye, each wondering if ever, on this earth, they’d be able to see the same family members assemble.

AFTERWARDS

Many have been the heartfelt responses since then. Especially having to do with the cousins who were together long enough to really get to know each other. Thanks to the serenity of Mill Creek and the scarcity of electronic media, everyone had a unique opportunity to really get to know each other in a deep way. But more than that, the young people were able to perceive parents, uncles and aunts, and grandparents, as flesh-and-blood people who not only once were so much like them but, seen with their contemporaries, shed their authority-figure-selves and were young-at-heart just like their descendants. And the numbers were just right: any more and they wouldn’t have been able to really get to know, appreciate, and love each one to the extent they did. Some of them have already, only a month later, said, “Oh, when can we do this again!”

Our personal conclusion: For each one of us, it was a life-changing experience!

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A ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH — IN READING

It was a day to be remembered—a day to give one hope that America’s best years are not gone. The setting: Ron’s Barn, set by a lake in Evergreen Memorial Park. Outside roamed Ron Lewis’s herds of buffalo, elk, and deer. And the snow was beginning to fall.

For over an hour, third-graders and their parents, teachers, librarians and principals, had been arriving, the kids surreptitiously peering around the corner to make sure those precious books were there waiting for them.

Five mountain communities just west of Denver were represented: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Conifer], each with its elementary school.

For us members of the Conifer Kiwanis Club, it was our ninth reading celebration in as many years. We exist as a club for one reason only; indeed, after the invocation and pledge of allegiance each week, together we recite our mantra:

Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers—dedicated to changing the world:

one child, one community, at a time. . . .
Kiwanis is for kids here, there,
everywhere.

Children of Deer Creek Elementary School

And here in this venerable barn (reconstructed from five historic barns Ron Lewis had found and transported from remote sections of Colorado to this lovely mountain valley), was our reason for being. Appropriately, Ron’s first order of business was to welcome the several hundred attendees to his barn, to tell them the story of Jessica, a buffalo Ron had raised from birth, personally feeding seven times every 24 hours—not surprisingly, he considers Jessica (now a venerable 22 years old), to be his daughter. He told us how Jessica, after breaking a leg, would normally have been butchered for her meat, but “how could I let that happen to a daughter?” Had that happened, Jessica could never have given birth to a bull that reigned as champion of the Denver Stock Show, selling for $85,000. Then we all sang, “Home on the Range,” about a place “where the deer and antelope play.” Following that, Ron took batches of third-graders out to see Jessica. Meanwhile, those still in the barn queued up at the book-signing table.

In preparation for this event, during the last two months, I had made two visits to each of the five elementary schools, telling the third-graders about the upcoming reading celebration and showing them copies of each of the first seven books in my “The Good Lord Made Them All” animal series: Owney the Post Office Dog and Other Great Dog Stories (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2004), Smoky the Ugliest Cat in the World and Other Great Cat Stories (2005), Wildfire the Red Stallion and Other Great Horse Stories (2006), Dick the Babysitting Bear and Other Great Wild Animal Stories (2007), Spot the Dog that Broke the Rules and Other Great Animal Hero Stories (2008), Amelia the Flying Squirrel and Other Stories of God’s Smallest Creatures (2009), and the newest one, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North (2011). I then sketched out for them the essence of each book’s lead story, left a poster depicting all the covers, and a permission slip for each parent to sign if it was OK with them if I gifted the child with the specific book the child chose.

Inscribing a book to one of the children.

Each child received first at our book-signing table a Certificate of Reading Achievement (with a gold seal), signed by me and by Barry Sweeney, former Kiwanis Lieutenant Governor. Then, as each child reached me, I was able to find out about his/her reading habits before I personally inscribed the chosen book.

At 2:00 p.m., we all gathered together for the other main event: After speaking to them about the program, I encouraged the adults in the room to seriously address the problem of our community’s boys (an issue I have dealt with in several earlier blogs). They were sobered as I pointed out that boys across the nation are bailing out of the educational process at such a rate that the ratio of female to male on college campuses across the nation is already 1.5 to one, and threatening to reach two-to-one.

I relayed a message from the local CEO of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (the most faithful corporate backer of our program). He declared that reading ought to be one of our highest priorities in Colorado. And that, when he looked back over his life, he was most proud of—not his own career—but having a daughter who so loves reading she recently read 35,000 pages researching her masters in English.

Afterwards, I called the group up to the front school by school. After awarding each $1,500 check, we had the principal, teachers, and librarians tell us how they used last year’s money. Apparently, this is the only known instance where all our mountain elementary school personnel get together to compare their reading programs.

Turkey kiss. Photo by Barbara Ford -- Reprinted Courtesy of Evergreen Newspapers.

One report was especially intriguing: The principal of Parmalee Elementary School, Ingrid Mielke, seeking ways to motivate her students to read more, rashly promised to kiss a turkey if they collectively read for at least 100,000 minutes during a two-week period. They were so motivated they read for 192,423 minutes!

High Timber Times reporter Barbara Ford chronicled what happened next: “At the end of the school day on Tuesday, students gathered outside and got their first glimpse of the Duncans’ bird gobbling as he strutted around the cage. Mielke approached the giant gobbler as Duncan’s husband, Graeme, held the bird closer than a forkful of white meat on Thanksgiving. Mielke closed her eyes and swooped in for a swift smooch on the turkey’s neck. Students cheered.” (Dec. 1, 2010 issue).

Afterwards, it was time to resume inscribing books. By now (being it’s the ninth year of these reading celebrations), I’ve discovered a real pattern: If a student admits to poor reading habits, rarely is s/he expressive. There is a glazed look in the eyes (typical of the media groupie’s bored expression having to do with all things educational). Not so, the child who loves reading: here, the eyes dance, the child clearly filled with wonder about the magical worlds contained in books. A number of these came by my table. To each of them, an author like me was almost a subject of awe.

In those few, I sensed the birth of a new beginning in America. If we as a nation can somehow reverse decades of plunging reading scores, it will be because we finally pull back our children from the brink of mental, physical, and spiritual pulverization by excessive exposure to electronic imagery, and in its place, restore that serene world our children once had four generations ago—a world where their dreams may germinate. . . . And reading will flourish again.