Archive for December, 2014

  • Blog
  • December 30th, 2014

Call Me Sometime

By Joel M. Vance
Every school kid knows that on March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone message by ringing his assistant in another room, saying, “”Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” Which no doubt scared the hell out of poor Mr. Watson who probably thought the boss had fried himself with that electrical paraphernalia he was fooling with.
But 60 years later, Bell’s invention had progressed to the point we could hear Mr. Fibber McGee say into his telephone, “Hello operator? Give me Wistful Vista 2-0-3-Oh is that you, Mert?” For those whose beards haven’t even sprouted, much less begun to drag the ground, Fibber and his long-suffering wife Molly enlivened the AM airwaves from 1935 to 1959 and a feature of the program was when Fibber started to make a phone call and wound up in a conversation with the never heard Central switchboard operator. It was necessary to speak to an actual human being who would perform unseen hand maneuvers with wires and plugs on a great pegboard of mysterious holes to connect the caller with the callee.
Now that we are mired in a cell phone bog, those halcyon days of crank telephones, even the rotary dial and the revolutionary push button phone are as dead as both Fibber and Molly. Too bad—it was a time when the phone was a communal affair (although today when some oaf shares his side of an inconsequential conversation with everyone within earshot you have to long for the chance to wrest his phone away and throw it under the wheels of a passing semi).
I’ve seen the evolution of the telephone from that early wall phone activated by vigorously cranking the little handle on the side, to the smart phone—an invention which has leaped far ahead of my ability to figure the damn thing out. Surely the last of the Merts on the planet was a voice who said, “La Donia!” when I as sports editor of the Mexico, Missouri, Ledger, called the high school at Laddonia to get ball scores. I still hear that voice in my acoustic memory album. “La….” And a long pause and then coming down hard on the last syllable: “Donia!”
The crank phone served two masters. The first was the person who wished to communicate; the second was the fish poacher who used the powerful generator hidden inside the phone case to illegally stun fish. You could drop leads from the generator into promising water, twist the crank as if you were signaling Mert at Central and presently comatose fish would float up to be collected. Beats the heck out of worms. Fish biologists also use electrical generation to shock fish so they can be weighed, measured and perhaps tagged for scientific purpose, but those are released to swim again (no doubt wondering what the hell just happened).
I spent several summers during World War Two on my aunt and uncle’s Missouri farm. The Rural Electric system had not yet penetrated that far into the Chariton River hills (they still lit coal oil lamps for illumination, although usually by night the family was asleep). But they had a crank telephone on a party line and a son in the 82nd Airborne “somewhere in Europe” in the deliberately vague reportage of the war. They listened to a battery-powered radio for any news and if there was some snippet, they’d crank up the phone and broadcast it to the others on the line (everyone was as soon as anyone rang because one phone rang all). You could hear the volume drop as each eavesdropper picked up the phone and sometimes hear the breathing of the more asthmatic of the listeners.
The next step in the evolution of the telephone was the rotary dial. Theodore Gary, an Ohio native, was born in 1854 but moved to Macon,Missouri, in 1878. He made his fortune dealing in coal mining ground (that area of the state is pitted with old strip mine workings). Then he bought a local telephone company in the old wall crank phone days, and acquired a patent for a dial telephone which had been invented by Almon Brown Strowger in 1891. By the mid 1950s, when my wife Marty was fresh out of Macon high school, Gary’s company (which became GTE) controlled 80 percent of the world’s dial telephone equipment.
As an aside, Gary also founded the Macon Golf Course where once I launched a sensational slice off the ninth tee that arced into the bright blue sky and caromed off Highway 36 in front of a no-doubt startled driver. The white pellet fortunately bounded high over the car and into limbo and I hustled to the parking lot and also vanished before any irate motorists came looking for me. Among his many philanthropic gestures, Gary was the sugar daddy for the local swimming pool where Marty worked, the hospital where my father died, and the Macon City Lake which I lived alongsidefor two years.
Gary’s rotary kingdom gave way to push button phones, an idea that even predated his rotary dominance. A form of touch tone phoning surfaced in 1887 but it wasn’t until the 1950s that AT&T decided that push-button dialing was better than rotary dialing. In November, 1963, Bell Telephone offered the first electronic push-button system in Pennsylvania.
The era of Mert at a switchboard, frantically jabbing plugs from one hole to another was pretty much gone by the 1950s, save for that anachronistic La…..Donia! lady. Judy Holiday, a fine actress too soon gone from cancer, was a switchboard operator in her last role, a 1960 movie, “The Bells Are Ringing.”
The dawn of the smart phone was looming. The first cell phones were clunky affairs that looked like relics of World War Two walkie talkies. Cell phones have their genesis in electrical transmission, an idea which goes back 150 years, but it wasn’t until the early 1920s that the cops started using mobile radios. Old time radio fans recall one show that featured a grim voice saying, “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!”) It wasn’t until the 1940s that radio communication became more common, both with police and in the private sector.
It still was not a mobile phone. That sometimes fatal distraction to the driving public didn’t become widespread until 1964. I remember a friend ringing up one night just to brag that he was calling from his car somewhere west of St. Louis on Interstate 70. It was exciting, as if I were listening to a ship at sea. Today the National Safety Council estimates that at least 1.6 million crashes each year result from drivers using cell phones, including texting. That’s almost a third of all accidents. Yet I doubt anyone can drive a day without following someone with a cell phone glued to his or her ear.
My home, Missouri, is one of the few states with virtually no regulation of cell phone or texting restrictions which probably is why I see so many fools driving with the damn things stuck in their ears. Thirteen states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and Washington D.C. all prohibit hand held cell phone use while driving. And 37 states ban use by “novice” drivers, whatever that means. Only 20 states and D.C. prohibit use in motion by school bus drivers, a frightening thought. Most states (44, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands) ban texting for all drivers.
Cell phones are essential today. They have been used in the wilderness to call for help in an emergency, but an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is more reliable—does not need a convenient cell tower to make a connection. A friend dislocated his shoulder in the Canadian wilderness and, since they were without a signaling device, his petite wife was forced to do all the portaging until they reached help. On their next trip, with another couple, they included an EPIRB and, wouldn’t you know it, the other fellow dislocated a shoulder. Their signal for help drew two helicopters and an airplane. When my wife dislocated her hip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness we also were without any signaling device—but our son-in-law kayaked out at warp speed and summoned a U.S. Forest Service float plane to ferry Marty to a hospital. We now include an EPIRB and leave the cell phones at home.
Actually, the cell phone as such now is as outdated as a wall phone that rings Mert in Central. The cell has morphed into a smart phone that has more functions than the Space Command Center for a 1960s moon shot. Multi-function phones date to1993 and first were called smart phones in 1997. Combining a computer with a telephone, the smart phone allows you to play games, watch television, see the night sky constellations, listen to music, take photographs, navigate by global positioning satellites and possibly (although I’m not sure about this) make telephone calls.
When I blew out two tires on a curb that leaped in front of the car, I reached for my cell phone to call for a tow truck. The phone was on the dresser at home with a dead battery. I walked to a service station to use their pay phone. There was none. Pay phones have joined the dodo and Mert among extinct creatures. The attendant, with the look of pity you would give a spavined old horse in a pasture, obviously on its last legs, loaned me his smart phone. He had to dial it for me.
Recently, in the interests of historical research, Marty and I went to Macon to glimpse the mansion of Theodore Gary. We parked in the dark on the shore of Gary’s lake, and saw the lights of the mansion across the lake from us. It was on that shore, late one night that Marty and I ended our first date by, in the euphemistic terminology of the day “parking.” So, 58 years later (the parking effect having led to the altar) Marty and I decided to do an historic reenactment. We parked, shut off the headlights and kissed. We could see lights across the lake gleaming on the Gary property. Presently a Macon city cop drove up and told us the park was closed and we needed to move along. He was gracious enough not to make comments about the farcical nature of two senior citizens sparking in the moonlight.
If there is a message in that, it is that Marty and I are as obsolete as the rotary phone.

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  • Blog
  • December 23rd, 2014

Puppy Love

By Joel M. Vance

The late French actor Maurice Chevalier sang “Falling in Love Again” and that could be my theme song when it comes to puppies. I am a helpless romantic about my dogs. A hunting buddy says, “I don’t fall in love with my dogs, the way you do.” He does—he just won’t admit it. He is the kind who goes off by himself to cry over a dead dog; I do it in front of God and everyone.
I once talked to another bird hunter who said, “If they don’t produce I put them down.”
I looked at him the way I look at cat vomit, but since he was far bigger than I was, I restrained my urge to put knuckle bumps on his head. In my considered opinion the wrong animal got put down. Like the kids my puppies are family, for better or worse, and they live out their lives, for better or worse.
My newest guy is cute enough to melt the heart of Genghis Khan. Cap is his name and he is a French Brittany, appropriate for a French love song I guess. He was supposed to be a gift to a friend…but then, well, I fell in love and, like an echo of something that happened to me at the senior prom only this time it went my way, I cut in on my friend, stole his date, and he went home alone.
Cap was one of a litter of eight that was star-crossed from the get-go. Mother Molly came in heat while her x-rays were somewhere in the limbo of the Orthopedic Foundation of America being checked for hip dysplasia. She’d never showed any sign of the degenerative hip problem so we bred her. And then the results came back: “moderate dysplasia.”
With that medical history I wouldn’t sell her puppies, but would give them to friends with full disclosure. Molly swelled like a football and subsequently delivered. One puppy arrived dead and one died shortly after birth. The runt of the litter quickly became my favorite, the most outgoing and quickest to learn among the six survivors. But he had a deformed esophagus, an incurable condition. He couldn’t keep food down and despite intensive vet care, he died.
I knew when we left him at our vet that he wouldn’t make it. I cradled him on the way there, weak, but looking at me with faith in my ability to fix him. I was heartbroken, took him in a tiny box across the lake and up the hill near the old log where our dogs are buried. The grave was tiny and I watered it with my tears.
Each time I visit the graveyard just off the trail I’m among friends who were more loyal, more trusting and more accepting than all but a handful of people I’ve known. It’s one of life’s great injustices that dogs have such a shorter life than people. We should age together and flicker out together. That’s the way it should be. That’s not the way it is.
The surviving five grew exponentially. One would go to our daughter and son-in-law, another to a young hunting friend. A third was the one supposed to go to another friend, but he was the one that captured my heart. He prowled the edge of the yard when the others were wrestling or looking for suck at their mother’s faucets. He was a born adventurer.
“Captain Adventure,” I said…and it made sense. “Cap,” a good, sharp, short call-name and descriptive of his exploratory nature. I looked at him more closely. Long spaniel ears and a domed head. He wasn’t a photogenic Brittany, like a couple of his brothers, but while they were dozing he was pulling up short at the flush of a butterfly, quivering with emotion.
I picked him up and scratched his belly. He looked up at me, contented, his ear flopped over my arm. Love flowered. I heard Edith Piaf singing French torch songs—or maybe it was the tinnitus that plagues me from shooting too many shotguns for too long without ear protection.
Cap’s explorations reminded me of Scruffy, who always got picked on. But in the field he was his own master. Possessed of the lungs of a Sioux warrior, he could and did run all day and without a shock collar to remind him of the humans he cherishes, he might well have found new continents.
Scruffy was a Type B dog with his kennelmates. He would sit next to me and lean and want my arm around him. I was his security blanket. I wasn’t going to bite him, the way his brother Jay did, or growl at him, the way everyone else does. We were as close at those moments as brothers (“He ain’t heavy, Father—he’s my brother”). Yet when I looked at him his eyes were searching the horizon. I was scratching his belly, but his eyes were hunting.
A few days after the puppies discovered they had hind legs to go with the front ones they would burst from their kennel and flood into the yard like a furry tsunami. Cap (then still unnamed) led the charge. Cap gnawed on my shoelaces but also indicated that he wanted to be picked up and fussed over which I did.
After getting his dose of sugar he wanted to go exploring. There’s woods and a glade with a nice muddy wet area where a puppy can splash and make canine mud pies. There’s a trail toward our son Eddie’s house where three huge Labradors wait to bark at intruders.
Oh, the delicious fear of those bellowing monsters. Tuck your butt and race wide-eyed back to safety! Whew! What a narrow escape! I held Captain Adventure’s nose to the Lab kennel fence, and he and the fearsome monsters sniffed and they were buddies great chew toys and more tolerant of upstart puppies than those adult Brittanies who have little patience for insolence.
With me puppy picking happens a couple of ways. I look for the dog with initiative and with energy. Molly, Cap’s mom, not only was the most curious of her litter; she also was the last to crap out. When the others were sprawled, napping, she still was prowling.
And then there is the love-at-first-sight factor. Chubby, my best friend-ever, was the last puppy of a litter of eight. The rest had gone to new owners and one little male sat with his ears down, his expression that of something that badly needed deep affection. I picked him up and he nestled close and I told my wife, “There is no power on earth that will separate me from this little guy.”
That remained true for the dozen years of his life. He became my feel good dog. More than once I got sick on the road and lay, feverish and miserable, on a lumpy couch while everyone else was hunting. Chubby crawled up next to me, nestled close as he had when he was a miserable puppy, and we went to sleep. When we woke, we both felt fine and we went hunting.
Our son Andy’s first dog, Pepper, picked him. Andy was 14 years old when we went to Iowa to watch a litter in action. Andy drank a Coke, and then laid the can down. The little pup picked it up and brought it to him. “She liked me best,” Andy said simply. Pepper lived 15 years and hunted to the last. She became the boss bitch of the kennel and could quell uprisings among her rowdy youngsters with The Look, though they all outweighed her by a third.
She could be willful and after that first pop can retrieve, she decided that retrieving was something she didn’t want to do and never could be persuaded otherwise. But Andy never regretted his choice of a puppy and I never argued with him about it. Her blood still enlivens the veins of our current French Brittanies.
The three puppies each were chosen for different reasons. I fell in love with Cap and Andy did the same with another. He was watching television and suddenly needed a puppy fix. “I went to the kennel and didn’t turn on the light,” he says. “I just reached in and grabbed the first puppy that came to my hand. He lay in my lap and looked up at me and I fell in love.”
Matty, the only female in the litter, was a unanimous choice. We both wanted a female. Except for that semi-annual three-week heat period, females have been far less trouble than males. They don’t fight over trifles and they don’t pee on everything although that occasionally is justified. Once my resident male dog hosed down the guitar case of a guy with a serious case of ego inflation, to my great satisfaction, and he bellowed in outrage. “It was critical comment,” I told him.
Of course there also was the time when I was pontificating to a group of field trialers about the intricacies of dog training, when I noticed their attention had wandered. I couldn’t understand why—my eloquence was at a peak. And then I followed their eyes to my leg where my dog was busy sluicing the leg of my britches.
Underlying any puppy-pick is the uncomfortable knowledge that our current dogs are aging. The puppies are our investment in the future. We know the time will come when the older dogs simply can’t go anymore.
Molly, mother of the pups, is elderly. She taught her upstart youngsters the ropes, just as Pepper did for her offspring years ago. We merely go along for the ride when it comes to fieldwork. Their genes have been at the game far longer than we have.
And dog work is the be-all for me when it comes to bird hunting. It is at least 80 percent of the fun. The way I shoot, collecting a full game bag isn’t much of an option. But seeing dogs I’ve lived with, loved and trained do the right thing makes my sleazy shooting inconsequential.
Sometimes we have taken all the dogs to the field and one would freeze on point and the others would honor, locked in time and in my memory. Once I moved in during such a sublime moment as the dogs quivered with anticipation.
I flushed a farm cat.
An outdoor writer once defended bird hunting without a dog. I wondered if he’d ever hunted behind good dogs. I’ll bet if he flushed a cat by himself the moment lacked a feeling of rueful satisfaction that at least he got to experience living calendar art.
Before we got to the farm cat stage there were months of drill on the simple stuff: “Sit!” “Stay!” “Come!” and, most important “Whoa!” Puppy training is an exercise in frustration for dog and man. Never long on patience, I do much grinding of teeth when a puppy just can’t get simple things like “stay” when it’s perfectly obvious to me what I want him to do. But, I remind myself, I never could learn algebra either. In fact I burst into tears and threw my college algebra book against the dorm room wall. I count it a blessing that our dogs don’t hold us accountable for our mistakes. We yell at them for busting a covey, but they accept it when we miss a meatball shot. We snarl at them for pointing a rabbit, only to see a huge covey flush (which we salute with a pair of aimless shots).
Finally there comes the moment when the puppy sits, reluctantly, for a few seconds and I exclaim, “Okay!” and he comes to a treat and we both sigh with relief. After all, a puppy does not want to sit. It wants to run and wrestle and chew and have fun. I did not want to learn algebra. I wanted to run and wrestle and chew and have fun.
Once I was demonstrating my training techniques for a cub reporter who wanted to do a feature story on an outdoor writer famed for his dog training expertise. I was distracted since she was quite attractive, therefore wasn’t thinking when I chose Molly as my demonstration dog.
Molly had just been to the vet who had flopped her on an examining table so he could stick her with needles and otherwise violate her body. I picked her up and plunked her on a table which I built originally to hold beer and brats, not dogs-in-training. Molly didn’t wait to see if someone in a white coat was approaching with a big needle. She screamed like a violated maiden, struggled out of my arms and vanished into the woods.
I grinned weakly, looking remarkably like the Mad Magazine covers featuring Alfred E. Neuman, and said to the bemused reporter, “I guess she doesn’t want to be trained today.” Then one leg of the table came unglued and the whole thing slowly collapsed.
Training became a private exercise between me and Cap.

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  • Blog
  • December 11th, 2014

A Christmas Present

By Joel M. Vance

              		 "Merry Christmas!" Harvey Mirella muttered to himself, his mood as bleak as the cold moonlight filtering through the snow-shrouded pines.  The headlights dipped and dug at the snowbanks, briefly trapped a snowshoe hare faintly outlined by his shadow--white on white.
               It was Christmas Eve and Harvey was on his way to the county seat to get his son out of jail in time for the boy's 17th birthday.
               His wife was in tears at home, her tattered face incongruous amid the glitter of the Christmas decorations.  The boy, Brad, was a late child, born on Christmas morning, when Harvey was 40 years old.
               Harvey Mirella impatient with the boy, who always had seemed clumsy and slow, unable to fit in.  The boy was dreamy, intent on aimless study of leaves and grass, not books.  Harvey didn't see how Brad could make it in real with life and this bitter Christmas Eve mission was proof of that.
               Harvey hated his resentment, but he had been right about the kid—bad seed or some chemical insufficiency.  Some thing.  Sheriff calling at near midnight to tell him his kid had been caught breaking and entering.
               Harvey gritted his teeth, anger heating his face.  Once he had felt blessed with a Christmas baby.  Not now.  Just another punk juvenile delinquent.  His juvenile delinquent.
               Brad had been sitting in a pickup and was fumbling for the keys when the police car pulled alongside.  The town marshal flashed his light on Brad's white face, knew with a cop's certain instinct that there was more here than a kid out with a six pack.  He motioned for Brad to roll down the window, his breath fogging in the cold Wisconsin night.
               "What's goin' on here?" he asked.
               He could smell the beer, but the acrid stink of fear was just as
strong.  Brad started telling him some story about getting stuck and
trying to get out, volunteering much more information than he'd asked
for--a certain sign the kid was hiding something.  He made Brad get out, noticed he weaved from the beer.  He flashed the light inside the truck cab, saw unopened candy bars, packages of potato chips and other
               It didn't take much deduction to associate the broken window of the gas station with the items in the truck and with the terrified youngster.  Punk kid, the marshal thought sourly, comparing Brad with his own boy who had starred for the high school basketball team and then had been killed in Viet Nam.
               The center custodian was a gentle person, who had survived his own wild childhood.
               "Punk kid breaking into a gas station," the marshal said.  He pushed the boy, now numb with fatigue and dread, none too gently into the detention center.  "Sit down!" he commanded roughly.  Brad collapsed into a hard chair in the small entry area, his face white and frightened.
               The marshal and the custodian went back into a cramped office.  The custodian, who knew what had happened to the marshal's son, said, "Don't be too hard on him, eh?  He's pretty scared."
               "He oughta be," the marshal said.  "If he was a year older, he'd be lookin' at prison.  Next time he'll be carryin' a gun."
               "Naah, I don't think so," the custodian said.  "Not a criminal, no.  Scared kid got some beer and did something dumb.  Probably never do anything wrong again.  Didn't you ever do something wrong and not get caught?"
               "Not like this," the marshal said.
               Harvey passed the city limit sign.  He knew where the juvenile
attention center was.  "Juvenile attention!"  What a laugh!  Like they
were doing the kids some favor.  Why not call it what it was.  A jail, a lockup for punk kids.  Like Brad.
               Harvey parked the car behind the attention center. He felt old and tired.
               His wife had been asleep when the phone rang, her dream one of danger and fear.  Later she wondered if the fright of her dream began on the first ring of the phone or if she actually had experienced a premonition.           She threw back the covers, raced into the hall to answer the persistent ringing phone, her eyes wide, but her mind still trying to shed the confusion of sleep.
               "Yes!" she said.  The news made her go numb with shock.  Her lips were stiff, asking meaningless questions.
               The official voice was patient, dispassionate.  He'd broken bad
news--far worse than this--to many a parent and it always was the same.
Shock, fright, outrage sometimes from the fathers, poorly-thought- out
questions, sometimes self-recrimination.
               She put down the phone, her mind a jumble of frightened-bird thoughts, fluttering in confusion.   Nothing like this ever had happened.  She knew she shouldn't have let him go out on Christmas Eve.  He belonged at home, with his family.  But he had promised to be home early.  "You can't keep them locked in the cradle until they're grown," she told Harvey as he growled and finally gave in.
               She leaned weakly against the wall.  She had to tell Harvey.  He had heard the phone ring, but not until she'd already moved to answer it.  He'd been tired from a long day at the Cozy Cup, the cafe he ran downtown in Birch Lake, and was heavily asleep when the call came.  He'd lost his sense of time and missed the note of alarm in his wife's voice, heard only the murmur of the conversation.
               Then she switched on the bedroom light and he knew something terrible had happened from her face, pitted by desolation.  "That was the Sheriff's office.  They say Brad broke into a filling station and stole some things."  He shouted foolish questions at her, groaned with misery.  How he hated what the boy had done to him.
               Waiting for his father Brad was sick and confused.  The beer had worn off, leaving him only a dull headache, a leaden fatigue.  "Common sense!" his father had shouted, the last time he'd been in a scrape--nothing major; he'd gotten some beer and drunk it and driven to see his girl friend and on the way he ran in the ditch and split his lip.
               "Common sense!  You don't have a lick of it!  What makes you do such things!"
               He didn't know.  If he knew he wouldn't do them.  The beer eased the ache that always was there, a part of him.  He was as good as anybody, as big as the biggest.  He could cope with anything.  He could be happy.  He drank beer with the guys and told jokes and everyone laughed and he felt warm and wanted.
               "Hey, man, what you in for?"  It was some scuzzy kid, looked about half-wired.  Brad shrugged.  "I got caught in possession," the scuzzy kid said.  "You deal?"
               "I don't do drugs," Brad said.
               "Hey, man, you smell like a brewery," the scuzzy kid said.  "They say alcohol's a drug, you dig?"
               "What's gonna happen now?" Brad asked.
               "Ah, you probably get off with a kiss on the ear," the kid said.  "What you get picked up for--droppin' a six pack?"
               "Breaking into a filling station," Brad said.
               "Hey, wow!" said the scuzzy one with respect.  "That's heavy, man!  They probably gonna stick you away for a hundred years!"
               Brad looked at him with fright.  He realized he had been counting on his father to get it all straightened out so could all go home where it was warm and familiar and it would be another bad memory.  He felt his punishment was in the terror of getting caught and dragged to a jail.  That this desolation could be more permanent hadn't occurred to him.
               The marshal, noting that the punk kid was only minutes away from being an adult, growled, "You better enjoy this luck, kid.  It's about run out.  Next time I see you here, you ain't gonna be a minor."
               After Harvey had signed the paperwork, the marshal said, "You can have him.  He'll probably get a slap on the wrist pinky and a kiss from the juvenile judge."  The marshal looked at Harvey as if measuring how much of Brad's guilt could be assigned to his parent.
               Harvey was stiff with his anger.  He moved jerkily across the parking lot to the car. He slammed the door on his side, making no effort to help his son.  Brad barely got the door closed before Harvey stepped on the gas, shooting forward, the tires spinning briefly on the snowpacked parking lot.
               Harvey thought of a dozen bitter questions, rejected them all, finally shouted, "Why!"  He pounded on the steering wheel.  "Why!"  He glared at the silent boy beside him.  "I wish you'd been born a girl," he muttered sourly.
               Brad looked out the window at the bright winter night.  "I wish I hadn't been born at all," he said softly.
               Harvey realized Christmas music still was playing on the car radio.  "Thanks for the Christmas present," he said sarcastically.  He looked at the boy in the wash of moonlight through the windshield and saw tears glistening on Brad's face.
               Once they had watched the flare of northern lights when Brad was six years old and he saw tears on the little boy’s face—tears of helpless joy.  His heart had swelled so filled with love that he thought he would burst.  But that was then.
               It was after midnight.  Brad was an adult in the eyes of the law, now, a year older...and it was Christmas day.
               Harvey felt the tire blow, a sagging and sudden thumping.  He immediately slowed and let the car drift to the roadside.  It crunchedto a halt in the softer snow.  Another frustration, but Harvey realized he was drained of anger.  He knew only a cloying fatigue.
               "You could maybe help out a little bit," he said tartly, looking at the boy.  The Christmas music was clear in the suddenly silent night.  "Change the tire.  Do something constructive for once in your worthless life."
               Brad nodded, his head down.  He opened the door, felt the sharp bite of the cold, and stepped into the snow, his boot crunching.
               Harvey unlocked the trunk.  He stood back, watching the boy.  Brad wrestled the spare tire out, the cold on the metal and rubber numbing his hands.  He shivered, put his hands under his armpits to warm.  "Come on!" Harvey said.  "We haven't got all night!"  Brad felt a flare of anger, but it died quickly.  He tried to make his stiffening hands work with the icy tools.
               The lights blinded both of them and they squinted awkwardly into the glare.  Where had the pickup come from?  They'd heard nothing.  "So, you got dem flat?"  The voice was rich with a meaty Svenski accent.  The pickup truck's door creaked and clunked as the man got out.  Probably some Scandahoovian potato farmer heading home full of Christmas beer.
               The figure was indistinct in the haze of the truck lights.  Harvey glimpsed overalls, broad, powerful peasant hands.
               "Looks like dat boy's doin' all right," said the farmer.  Harvey looked at Brad struggling with the heavy tire and felt unfamiliar compassion.  The car radio was playing "Silent Night."  For all its familiarity, it fit the calm quiet of the cold winter night.
               Harvey remembered, with a sudden ache in his throat, other Christmases when Brad was little and innocent, a chubby baby.
               "So, den, you need some help?" the Svenski asked?
               "Thanks for stopping," Harvey said.  "I guess we'll get goin' all right."
               "Everything gonna be all right," said the farmer.  "Dis is Christmas, sure.  Dem troubles we got, dey ain't nuttin."
               "Maybe not for you," Harvey growled.
               "For me most of all," the man said.  "You know dis is the time ven God's son vas born?  I been lookin' at dat fine boy you got and tink ain't it nice to have a son."
               "They're trouble," Harvey said, the dull ache of his anger pulsing again.
               "Dey're joy too, you gif 'em a chance,," the farmer said.  "Look, dem lights is comin, you betcha!"
               Harvey looked to the north, where the farmer pointed.  There was
Nothing but a lacework of stars.  Brad finished with the tire and straightened.  Harvey started to turn toward the farmer to say he saw nothing when the first flare lit the horizon.
               The northern sky pulsed with light.  In seconds the entire sky filled with veils of surging light, throbbing with a fierce majesty.  , The northern lights strode from horizon to horizon like a parade of angels.  There were shimmering robes of pearly light, fountains of fire.  They swelled and bloomed soundlessly.  They were so immense, so grand that neither he nor Brad felt the cold, though there was no heat in the lights.               As abruptly as they had come, the lights ebbed.  They faded to a dull fire on the horizon and the winter stars shone
               Harvey found he was weeping.
               The farmer had vanished.  How had the old guy known the lights would flare?  Who was he?  Harvey turned to the boy who was pale-faced in the moonlight.
               The boy, now a man, yet also was the six-year-old, wet-eyed with wonder. "Brad..." He didn’t know what to say.  He held out his arms to his son and Brad stepped into them.  Wordlessly they held each other.
               "Brad, I love you," Harvey said.  "I always have."
               "I love you too, Dad," Brad said.  "I always have.
               In silence they headed toward Birch Lake and Christmas morning.

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