Making Family Memories Around a Mill Creek Campfire

BLOG #36, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING FAMILY MEMORIES
AROUND A MILL CREEK CAMPFIRE
Part One
September 9, 2015

It took close to two years to make the family reunion happen; after all, Mill Creek, California, is relatively unknown to most people. One member of our family came from Idaho, one from Florida, four from Maryland, two from Nevada, two from Colorado, and eight from various places in California–eighteen of us in all.

Miracle of miracles, eventually all eighteen arrived at Mill Creek—in spite of fierce forest fires burning all across Northern California. Especially in the San Joaquin Valley, smoke was thick, and most roads leading to the coast were closed due to the fires—at times it seemed like the entire Golden State was on fire!

The focal center of this gathering of the clan was Marji and Elmer Raymond’s trailer house and fire-pit. My sister Marji had been the main choreographer of the reunion. As we watched one contingent after another make their appearance, I couldn’t help but step backwards in time more than half a century when annual Thanksgiving reunions of the Wheeler and Bond clans were a given. High on Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain at Grandpa Rollo and Grandma Ruby’s Angwin ranch, it was unthinkable to miss Thanksgiving with extended family. The pattern was unvarying: car door after car door being slammed, Grandma Ruby’s singing out her unvarying, “Why you dear souls!” and “Why Papa!,” as each new arrival was hugged—all this while dogs barked excitedly and cats scurried for cover. The women gathered in the kitchen, each bringing food. The crescendo of family gossip and laughter made it a wonderful place to be—and the smaller children played with the well-over-a-hundred-year-old blocks by the fireplace (some of the blocks had crossed the plains in wagon trains a century before). Grandma Ruby (who was deaf, could read lips) ruled over this segment of the reunion. Outside, a little distance off, Grandpa Rollo ruled over the men in their marathon horseshoe tournaments that stopped only for dinner, or darkness. The continuous clinks as horseshoes reached the stake was etched in the soundtracks of my memory forever. The older boys watched in fascination as ringer after ringer rang out. Grandpa’s usually rang out most because rarely did his tosses miss the stake. There was much laughter and bantering and shouts when ringers were capped by other ringers. Since the usual Thanksgiving head-count averaged over eighty, the cumulative hubbub never stopped except to eat. And what meals those were! Only for the blessing was there momentary silence. At night, Grandpa challenged all comers at caroms. Eventually, the carom boards were put away and all gathered around the upright piano to sing. Grandma Ruby “listened” by putting her hand on the piano top and seraphically “feeling” the music. Eventually, the kids were put to bed but the adult socializing continued far into the night. And next day, the slammed car-doors and “you dear souls!” and “Why Papa’s” were heard once more, as the yearly ritual came to an end.

Except for an occasional funeral, once Grandpa and Grandma were moved to Oregon, the Napa Valley reunions stopped, and family members never again gathered together in mass as they had before. So you can imagine the memories that were brought back to Marji, my cousin Steve, and me as once more we heard the continuing ring of horseshoes—with one big difference—the marksmanship being generally so poor that it was a serendipity when a horseshoe actually touched a stake!

But this time, Marji made sure the women weren’t prisoners of the kitchen: breakfast and lunch could be eaten at the Mill Creek Restaurant or in the cabins; only the dinner would be picked up under the tent adjacent to the fire-pit and eaten around it.

Next week, we’ll take you through “the rest of the story.”

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Barely Begun at Seventy – Part One

BLOG #28, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY – Part One
July 9, 2014

It was a glorious spring morning in California’s verdant Napa Valley. And the alumni were coming home from all across the nation to their alma mater, Pacific Union College, judged by the likes of Newsweek and U.S. News to feature the most beautiful college campus in America.

I was privileged to be one of six alumni to be honored that weekend. But for us it was a two-way street: we were expected to give as well as take. Each of us was given around eight minutes to share with the audience the most significant distilled wisdom life had brought us. If you don’t think that would be a tough challenge, just put yourself in our places: how would you have responded to such an assignment?

For me, the question had profound implications, convicted as I am that all true wisdom comes from God. And since I’ve tweeted nuggets of wisdom every day now for almost three years, I had a lot of distilled wisdom to access. But the core of my response to this assignment was a no-brainer: There was for me only one possible quote that would satisfy. Especially, given the makeup of this particular audience. This is it:

A life may be over at sixteen
or barely begun at
seventy;
it is the aim
that determines its completeness.

That well-over-a-hundred-year-old-quotation came to me just when I needed it most: during the countdown decade leading up to the biblical “threescore and ten” that symbolizes a lifetime. At least that used to be true. In America, prior to the twentieth century, the norm was only forty-five years. Today, we’re back to the biblical seventy. I discovered that seminal quotation in a very old issue of that great magazine for young people: The Youth’s Instructor.

I needed it because as each of us approaches this time-period in life, one’s seventieth birthday can be almost terrifying: You mean my life is almost over? I don’t have any more time left? Will it be all downhill for me now? Will I be living on borrowed time? Is my productive lifetime over? Will it all be just a waiting game–waiting to die? All these questions swirled around in my head.

Also part of this ferment was a long-time metaphor for the perceived terminus of one’s productive lifetime: the proverbial Gold Watch. When or if one lived to be 65 years of age, one’s employer presented you with a gold watch. From that day forward, you were no longer a worker bee. You were now officially old. But not to worry: the benevolent government would now take care of you in the short time-frame you had left. Blessed be Social Security.

You see, when Social Security was born during the traumatic FDR era, no one expected Americans to live much longer than 65: many would die before they reached 65. This is why it seemed such a safe life raft for our government to offer its citizens. No one then even dreamed that more and more Americans would be living into their seventies, eighties, nineties, and, gasp! hundreds! Prime reason why the Social Security program is today threatening the fiscal stability of our nation.

The mind-set back then was this: You have exceeded expectations: You have reached 65. This gold watch means you’re done. We’re putting you out to pasture. We expect no more work out of you. Rock away on your front porch until you have the good sense to die. Always remember that Social Security is short-term: we can’t afford to pay you for living much longer. Most certainly we don’t expect you to live past seventy! Goodness! Do you think you’re immortal!

This was the mind-set of my grandparents’ generation.

But the problem today is this: We have never developed a template for vibrant productive living beyond the Gold Watch.

I see this reality at every alumni weekend I attend. Classmates who have given up on productive living now that they’ve entered the Gold Watch period. They don’t admit this in words, but they most certainly articulate it in their actions! They’ve traded their heretofore active lifestyle for a meaningless sedentary one. They’ve given up on goals. You ask them what they’re doing these days, and they sigh, “Not much…. Watch TV, putter around, play a few holes of golf, babysit the grandkids–you know: the usual.”

You can tell they’re telling you the truth because physically and mentally they are rapidly falling apart.

Each of them is indeed just waiting to die!

Next week, July 16, we shall continue on this topic: BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY.
Copyright© 2014

 

Trains – The New Way to Travel (Part 4)

BLOG #25, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Four)
June 18, 2014

Now we come to the end of our study on Amtrak trains and I’ve saved the most unexpected aspect until last: the impact of trains on young people. Not only that, but how I related to them.

Let me begin with the lovely young coed from Mesa State, the one who was so taken with the far-ranging conversation around our breakfast table. Permit me to begin with her appearance. Since her eyes still retained that magical childlike sense of wonder about the world around her, I‘m all but certain she’d been home-schooled. We saw no tatoos, no jewelry hanging from lips, cheeks, or nose. Clearly, she was highly intelligent and most curious about our worlds. Later on, I chatted with her for a while in the Observation Car. Some time later, as I walked past her coach seat, she moved over and asked if I’d be willing to talk with her for a while. She was full of questions about life, what it was all about, how she was to avoid the moral and ethical land-mines laying in wait for her at every turn. I told her about my 2014 Christmas in My Heart story, “The Tides of Life,” the love story of an artist just a little older (at the beginning of the story) than she. But her questions ranged so much wider than art that I introduced her to the 2013 Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in which I distill the most significant life-related wisdom God has entrusted to me during my lifetime. Also how I was able to incorporate that wisdom into what I called “The Nightingale Assignment,” a six-week period during which I challenged each student to come up with goals they could live with, and strive toward. Sometime during the discussion, she brought up the subject of birthdays, shyly admitting, “My birthday was ten days ago.” That was all I needed. Telling her I’d be right back, I moved forward to my seat, rummaged around in my briefcase for a book, took it back to her, and then showed that it was Christmas in My Heart 22, which contained that goal-setting story; then backdated it to her birth-date, and inscribed it to her. She then told me that a certain soldier had been moving in on her and she didn’t know how she could hold him off. She was so overcome by my taking so much time to talk to her, listen to her, and offer counsel, that she broke down in tears, convulsively hugging me. One of the last things she said to me was, “Oh, how much I wish I could have been one of your students!” I told her I’d always be there for her, no further away than a letter, email, or phone call. She got off the train at Grand Junction. But I’m hoping our time together and the stories in the book will make a real difference in her life.

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Our reason for making the trip was to attend a 55th alumni weekend at my undergraduate alma mater, Pacific Union College in the verdant Napa Valley. While there, as one of their honorees, I was asked to speak about the impact of my own principal mentor, Dr. Walter Utt, who I’d worked for three years. I told those assembled of the incredible impact that one man had on my life, how he’d remained in touch with me–until his untimely death [he was a hemophiliac] in his early fifties from an AIDS-contaminated blood transfusion out of San Francisco. I noted that after that never-to-be-forgotten remembering service (after I returned home), in gratitude to Dr. Utt’s impact on my life, I made a vow to God to make mentoring the #1 priority of the rest of my life.

Well, two days later, we boarded the eastbound Amtrak in Sacramento. We were soon climbing the newly snow-capped Sierras [a snow storm had just made a significant deposit of moisture in the higher Sierra Nevada Mountains]. In order to revel in the beauty more, I found my way forward to the Observation Car, and took a seat just inside the door. Turns out I’d joined a large group of college students and young singles. They were curious about me and I about them. For some unknown reason, I was impressed to ask a coed this question, “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” In seconds, her face was radiant–and the entire group was galvanized by the question and her answers. Afterwards, I asked another student the same question, and another, and another. By this time, older people in the car had figured out that they were missing out on something really interesting–so they moved into our group. The students were soon asking me questions. Learning I was a full-time author, and had been for many years a college professor of English, they pumped me for all I was worth. During the course of the next couple of hours I’d referenced the mantras for making a success of life in “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Incredibly, that half of the Observation Car became my class, and they proclaimed me to be their teacher. I passed out all the business cards I had left. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating and far-reaching discussions on life I’ve ever had.. Finally, I told them I’d better see how my wife was and left them; I didn’t see them for some hours afterwards, and they then reproachfully asked me why I’d deserted them.

It was late afternoon, when at one of our Nevada stops, many of us disembarked in order to get some fresh air. Several of those students were turning the air blue with cigarette smoke–so thick were the fumes that I couldn’t stand getting too close to them. But even so, the coed I’d spoken to first in the Observation Car turned to me, and in an earnest voice said, “Dr. Wheeler, do you know why I’m on this train?” I’m on because I wanted to get some answers about what life is all about. ”

I assumed I’d later be able to find her and follow up on her open invitation for me to talk with her personally. But unfortunately, she got off at the next stop. I’ve been troubled ever since . . . and prayed that, if it be His will, that God would have her reconnect with me.

So what does all this mean? I submit that there was something about Amtrak travel that caused all those students to buy tickets on The California Zephyr for reasons perhaps unknown even to themselves. But clearly they were seeking answers. Even more, they were seeking people who really cared about them, their goals, their dreams.

I suspect that they aren’t finding those answers in the hedonistic society we’re part of today. For universities have all but abandoned God, country, and values worth living by. People who attempt to live by a spiritual code are ridiculed and discounted. Thus these young people who clung to me like a life raft had clearly found in me something they weren’t finding anywhere else.

I will never be the same person I was ten days before. Nor, I am guessing, will those young people who spontaneously annointed me as their “professor.” And who got off the train with at least a few of their life-related questions dealt with or answered.

SPECIAL NOTE: All illustrations in this series taken from Amtrak Timetable and Vacations.

BREAKTHROUGHS

Once in a long while in this thing we call life, we experience a real breakthrough. Sort of like breaking the sound barrier—which for a very long time was deemed an impossibility. Nowadays, because of regulations that deal with the effects of sonic booms on people below, we rarely hear them. In January, during a cruise to the Southern Caribbean, in Barbados (one of four regular stops in the Americas for the legendary Concorde), I was privileged to explore one of those iconic super-airliners—and to experience a virtual flight re-enacted, complete with sonic boom.

Interestingly enough, the Concorde’s ability to fly at twice the speed of sound was touted as the reason it was such a technological breakthrough: it was expected to pave the way for ever faster passenger planes (more like rockets than traditional planes) and passenger travel into space. It was the world’s gold standard for several decades, during which only the super rich could afford to travel in those semi-rockets. Instead, it was proven too expensive to operate, and air travel reverted back to pre-Concorde flight expectations. Nevertheless, it was a major technological breakthrough, and engineers continue to build on it, and learn from it.

In my own life, I remember such a breakthrough during my college years. Because of a negative mindset, I floundered through my first two years. Reason being, I’d convinced myself I was incapable of earning anything higher than a B in college courses. As a predictable result, that assumption turned out to be a self-fulling prophecy.

Until one memorable day, in a history class taught by the well-known Dr. Walter C. Utt of Pacific Union College in California’s Napa Valley. For reasons that made no sense to me, my exam paper was returned to me marked A-. Surely, I thought, Dr. Utt must have made a mistake! Utt evidently gave me someone else’s grade (someone, unlike me, who was capable of earning A’s).

Unable to make sense out of it, I took the exam to Dr. Utt, and asked him if I’d actually earned an A-. Smilingly, he answered, “Yes, Joe, you earned that grade. Best work you’ve ever done for me.” Back in my room, I just couldn’t get this miracle out of my head, pondering it night and day. Then came the life-changing epiphany: If I’m really capable of earning A-s, if I study a little harder, why couldn’t I earn an A next time?

And so my life changed forever: Amazingly, during the nineteen years that followed, through a bachelors and masters in history from Pacific Union College, a masters in English from University of California – Sacramento, and the Ph.D. in English (History of Ideas emphasis), from Vanderbilt University, in only two or three isolated instances did I ever earn anything less than an A! The barrier had simply been mental; once I’d broken through it once, I was able to soar wherever my dreams would take me.

A second crucial breakthrough took place in stages, each essential in my own life trajectory, for if I failed to conquer that giant called procrastination, little could be expected of me. First came the Eight Magic Words, “If not now—when? If not me—whom?” articulated by the Rabbi Hillel (a contemporary of Christ). Before every opportunity, challenge, invitation, request, etc., is dealt with, first pose these two questions before I either pass or act on them. Second, Kalidasa’s “Salutation to the Dawn,” written over a millennium and a half ago by India’s greatest writer. In this poem, Kalidasa postulated that every day is a miniature lifetime, with a beginning, middle, and end; and only when we so treat each day can we stop frittering away our life energy in our yesterdays, bemoaning the mistakes we made in the past, and worrying about our futures. By concentrating all our energy into our todays, Kalidasa pointed out that we’d thereby cease to waste our times in two dimensions of time we can do nothing about. Third, Helen Mallicoat’s timeless “I Am” poem, in which God declares He is not “I was,” nor is He “I Will Be,” but rather He is “I Am”—only in the “I Am” present may we find Him. Fourth, Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who Am I? Where Did I Come From? Where Am I Going?” Only as we continually pose these to ourselves can we avoid veering out of our desired trajectory.

These four anti-procrastination tools did not come to me all at once, but rather over a third of a century. Without them, neither my advanced degrees nor our 74 books would have ever come to be at all.

A third equally significant breakthrough in my life occurred about five or six years ago. Significant because in life we may coast to a certain extent while we are young and have vast stores of vital energy in us; but, inevitably, we can only coast so far and so long before we begin paying the price. In my case, the problem had to do with my addiction to workaholicism. Always I’d assumed that exercise was merely an option rather than a necessity in life. It took me two near-death experiences to wean me away from that error in judgment. And a catalyst: a major health study that resulted in a conclusion I’d never heard of before: that there are no plateaus in life: each of us is either becoming stronger than we were or weaker than we were, every day. Indeed, that our bodies reinvent themselves every 100 days, at any age! It was that “any age” that merged (in my mind) this study with the true life experiences of specific contemporary Americans such as California’s Hulda Crooks and Mavis Lindgren who, late in life, decided to run: Mavis Lindgren in races and Hulda Crooks in running up mountains such as Mt. Whitney and Mt. Fuji, each running circles around those a quarter their age. Over time, they actually became stronger in their 70s and 80s and raced on beyond that.

I was then in what would have become a free-fall health-wise, exercising only sporadically. But I wanted to remain healthful and creative and alive, it was just that until that “100-day study,” I’d never found a tool that was strong enough to reverse my decline. Looking at myself sans rose-tinted glasses, I concluded that I was doomed unless I awoke out of my deadly inertia and vigorously—rain or shine, cold or hot—exercised for 30 – 60 minutes every day of my life! For if I failed to do so, missing days here and there, I’d be lost, for inevitably I’d slip right back into inertia. For close to five years now, I haven’t missed a day, and I feel better than I have in years, and have more energy.

Which brings me to a lateral related breakthrough five nights ago ( the night preceding the Super Moon on March 19—not to be that near or bright for another eighteen years). The moon was gloriously close and brighter than I could ever remember it. I retired at 10:30 p.m. and awoke at 12:30 a.m. by the moon’s radiance. Got up at 1:00 a.m. Concluding that a reason for waking so soon was my failure to get enough vigorous exercise in shoveling four inches of snow off our upper deck, I decided to do stairs (I usually do around 2,100, half up at a semi-run—that 2,100 turning out to be a wall I seemingly could not break through). Keep in mind that we live at close to 10,000 feet elevation so our hearts have to really work to keep us functioning at full torque. However, on this particular night, for some inexplicable reason, I had so much energy I felt I’d never get back to sleep unless I put more pressure on myself; so, for the first time ever, I exercised 5-pound barbells during about a third of the stairs, doing so on the upward segments. Even so, though I broke a sweat sooner, I just didn’t get tired. Not even when I hit the proverbial 2,100-step mental wall: I just smashed through, not stopping until 2,800 steps (a quarter more than ever before); even then, I could easily have topped 3,000!

Which taught me a lesson: even in my 70s, it was possible to keep growing stronger and stronger.

Thank God for breakthroughs!

Do let me know your thoughts, reactions, and responses to this blog.