Monday, July 22, 2013

Serendipity in Proctor, OK

If you have known me for very long, and if you read this blog then I assume you have, then you know that I have a strong connection to my late grandfather, Pa.  I am continually fascinated and inspired by the legacy and life left by John Elder Parker.  The fact that there are 3 generations of boys and men in our family named in his honor pays tribute to the strength of his legacy. 

Earlier this month, my precious family packed up our camper and set out on what was to us, an epic adventure.  We have frequently camped for the weekend in the local state parks and campgrounds, but we had never ventured out of state in our camper.  For our 2013 Cornish Family Summer Vacation, we left home early on the morning of July 4th, arriving at Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma in the late afternoon.  Lake Tenkiller is near Tahlequah, OK, and served as our basecamp while we visited Muskogee and Fort Gibson, Tahlequah, Proctor and Chewey, OK over the weekend.  I had urged my girls to be patient with me over that weekend.  I knew that we would have plenty of fun in the lake and river, but I also knew that this homecoming of sorts for me would mean lots of time in a car, or visiting with family and friends that may not be much “fun” for the little ones.  The promise of spending the following week in Branson, MO, doing fun kid stuff like Silver Dollar City, Whitewater, and Dixie Stampede was enough to satisfy Grace and Hailey.  They were fantastic on this trip.  We were also pleased that we got to share this vacation with my sister, Tracy.  Tracy bunked with the girls in our camper and was a blast to travel with.

On Saturday, July 6th, we took a drive through Tahlequah, and then north on scenic Highway 10, following the winding path of the Illinois River.  The views were really spectacular, much more grand than I had remembered.  The bluffs overhanging the highway, dense forests, rolling green pastures and hayfields along the quiet river bed made for a really pretty drive.  We saw the various float operators along the highway and noted the one we would be returning to the following day for our river rafting trip down the Illinois, and then we ventured over to the Illinois River Ranch.  Turning off of Highway 10, we caught an ominous sign, restricting traffic flow to local traffic only and warning of narrow roadways and bridges.  The traffic on Chewey Bridge, which crosses the Illinois River and is a large concrete bridge with multiple lanes was reduced to a single 8 ft. lane.  I don’t mind admitting that I felt a bit… puckered, as we made that crossing.  I felt compelled to hold my breath and try to suck it in a little as we crossed.  There was definitely no time to take in the view of the river over the bridge for me in the driver’s seat. 

Entering the Illinois River Ranch, it seemed as though nothing had changed much in the 25-30 years since I was here last.  Improvements were scarce, and there weren’t many people around for a Saturday afternoon.  I was pretty surprised at how well my memory served me as we made our way up the winding dirt road, through the Illinois River Ranch, and on towards “the farm”.  The farm was what we always called Mema and Pa’s place on the river.  Aside from a small vegetable garden, it was hardly a farm in the true sense of the word.  They had about 12-15 acres, as I recall, with a few of those acres inaccessible and isolated on the other side of the river.  As we drove the dirt road, I found the turn off to the property, but we saw a new gate up near the road that prevented us from getting a closer look.  In my dreams of this trip, I had hopes of getting close to the house, perhaps meeting the owners and getting their blessing to see some of the property. 

I had remembered Mema and Pa’s good friends, the Hastings, lived a bit further down this road and had decided that I would use their driveway as a place to turn around.  As we approached their property, Tracy noticed that their name was on the mailbox, and suggested we at least stop to see if we could speak with them.  Tracy had suggested that they might know the owners of the property and could possibly call down to arrange a visit for us.   The next few minutes we spent with the Hastings instantly became the highlight of my whole vacation, and truly was serendipity.  Now, there is a word that we don’t use often enough.  Serendipity, defined by Webster as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for”. 

Jerry and Lavonne are just as wonderful and dear as I remember them.  They were so quick to invite us in and were more than happy to chat with us.  The hopes that we had of arranging a visit to the farm were quickly dashed, however.  They knew the owners well enough to know that our presence would be greatly frowned on.  The owners were known to have had trouble with the law previously, and were even known to have shot at floaters on the river who attempted to enter their property from the river.  One glance at Brenda after that tidbit of news was enough to know that I would not be attempting a peak from the river during our float the following day! 

But, after our chat, and before we took off, Jerry took us on a small tour.  We got to see his workshop that he uses with his son-in-law and grandsons to tinker and play during the cold months.  We saw Jerry’s gristmill, where he grinds local corn, and saw the smaller mills he loads onto trailers for demonstrations at schools and civic events.  We even got a sack of cornmeal to bring home with us.  Then, he took us to his woodshop.  I had known that Pa had given Jerry his 2 table saws, and I beamed with joy to see those saws in his shop.  I have no idea how old those saws are, but they were nowhere near new when I saw them last 30 years ago.  They still run like champs, and Jerry showed us some of his own woodworking.  Jerry also had a couple dozen small picture frames that Pa had made.  They were hanging up on nails in his shop, he just couldn’t bear to see them trashed, even though he wasn’t sure what he would ever do with them.  Brenda and Tracy each took some of these.  Brenda has some nice ideas of projects to use them for.  Then, I turned around to see a picture of Pa staring back at me.  I lifted up Grace and Hailey so that they could see Pa in the picture.  He was standing at these same table saws, but the picture was taken inside of the home Pa was building 30 years ago.  Jerry was quick to tell me that he wasn’t ready to give up that picture just yet.

There was one more stop before we left the Hasting’s place, a storage shed, next to the woodshop.  In the shed, Jerry found and gave me, the World War II packs that Pa had used.  Jerry wasn’t sure what he would use them for, but was certain they couldn’t be trashed, either.  They had been stored all these years just barely out of the elements and were full of dust and mud daubers.  Lavonne even chastised Jerry a bit for leaving them so exposed to the harsh heat and cold of the shed.  I quickly accepted the generous gift and promised that they would be cleaned up and well loved.  By the time we loaded up in the truck, we had an armful of goodies that no trinket or souvenir shop could match.

Grace will tell you that the best part of our vacation was Branson.  That is surely expected when you talk to a 6 year old about a family vacation.  But I have to say that there were 2 separate incidents on this vacation that affirmed for me that our Oklahoma leg of the trip made an impact on Grace.  The first was on the 5th of July, as we were leaving Mema and Pa’s gravesite at Fort Gibson National Cemetery.  Grace was moved to tears because she realized that she missed Mema.  I miss her, too.  And I shed a few tears there, myself.  The second incident was during our bedtime routine the evening after our time with the Hastings.  As usual, I had asked my girls to share something fun or special that they could recall from the day.  Grace told us that she felt like she got to meet Pa that day, seeing his picture at Mr. Jerry’s woodshop, and hearing him talk about Pa.  Mission accomplished.  Grace is almost 7 years old, and is gaining an appreciation for her legacy, though she doesn’t know it yet.  To me, that beats all the shows and rides that anyplace else can offer.  It also tells me that we are doing something right!

I will share more about our trip in another blog post, but this was by far the most sentimental and personally significant portion of our vacation.  Brenda did an amazing job tackling the corroded metal on the belt, suspenders and packs we received.  She soaked everything in Oxyclean, and used a Q Tip and toothbrush with CLR to clean the buckles, clasps and rivets.  Years of rust, dust and dirt disappeared down the drain and left us with these treasures.  I am so proud to have these in my possession.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Reflections on my 20 Year High School Reunion

This past weekend, Brenda and I traveled to Houston to attend my 20 Year reunion. With a big, family vacation coming up, we took this opportunity to enjoy a kid-free weekend. It has been far too long since Brenda and I took such a trip. With our reunion planned as a single event on Saturday evening, we used the remainder of the weekend to reunite with other friends that we wouldn’t see at the high school reunion and some time to just enjoy each other’s company. I have to say, though it has been well stated before, without a doubt, I married up… way up. It is such a relief knowing that she gets along so well with, and enjoys the company of my closest, life-long friends.

It is amazing to me how much growth occurs during the 4 year span of high school. You arrive for a freshman year, as a 14-15 year old kid, awkward in your own skin. And at graduation, you have likely made the first of many decisions that will shape who will be as a person. Whether it was going off to college, trade school, the military, civil or theological missions, or backpacking through a foreign country, the decisions rested on our own broad, 18 year old shoulders. Sure, family history, tradition or overbearing parents may have had their say, but this was YOUR decision. And aside from the relatively rare cases of abuse, bullies and outright terror, I think that most of us can agree that even though high school can seem unbearably harsh through the eyes of our 16 year old self, in reality, high school was a safe harbor away from what awaited us in the deeper waters of our college and young adult years. I had a plan, and a backup plan, and still ended up scrambling for my life!

I don’t think of my high school years as being remarkable. I had some great friends and classmates, but never really fit into a specific crowd. Modern social media has allowed me to make friends with some who were only acquaintances when we roamed the halls of high school. Social media has also helped me remember why some were only acquaintances to begin with, too! One thing that stands out when looking through the filter of 20 years, Kempner High School was remarkably diverse, ethnically, economically, theologically and socially. This definitely helps me see the world in a more positive light today. After all, if 2500 adolescents from a wide range of ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds and religions can get along while handling everything from AP exams and UIL competitions to crushes, breakups, and puberty, surely there is hope for a world full of educated adults, right? Well, maybe not.

I didn’t excel academically, athletically, or artistically. I graduated smack dab in the middle of my class. No trophies in the display cases of I. H. Kempner High School trumpet my successes or even existence. And against the backdrop of a full lifetime, 4 years can seem inconsequential. But oddly, these 4 years were consequential, heck, they were foundational. In the years since, I have found things that are worth my passion, I have found a career, and I have found creative outlets. I have also found the joy of learning and reading… that would have been more helpful 20 years ago. But I still want to figure out what to be when I grow up.

Seeing the images flash by during the slideshow of pictures that were submitted from our classmates really highlighted the awesome experiences that were available to us. Spending Spring Break in a cramped condo in Galveston? Not really my scene, and there was no way my parents would have allowed it, if it were. For me, there were no trips to Paris, Mexico, DC, or Orlando. I didn’t march with the band in the Rose Bowl parade, or even the County Fair for that matter. But as unremarkable as it was, I still remember having a full high school experience. I had my favorite teachers and classes, where academic success came fairly easily, and I had downright failure in others. I faced social pressures and temptations. Sometimes I made choices that make me proud, and some are harder to reflect on. I am sure that seems familiar to just about everyone.

But most significantly today, as I think about our reunion, is the realization of how blessed I am, and how blessed we all are. There were some necks I got to hug and hands I got to shake for the first time in 20 years. I was so happy to relive some memories with these classmates. But for every face I got to connect with, there was at least another person that I wondered about or really hoped would have made it to the reunion. Just guessing, but I would estimate that there were somewhere around 80 or so classmates that made it to the reunion. That’s not a bad turnout for 20 years, but we had somewhere around 500-600 in our class if I remember correctly. To be able to laugh and talk with so many people and to know that there were still so many more that I wish I could have seen, it truly shows that I have much to be thankful for. Each of these classmates spoke something into my life during my years at Kempner High School. Some classmates were missed because their passions called them to other parts of the world, while other reunions will have to wait until we cross to the other side. It only took a few pictures to prime the pumps of our collective memory. But it was a fantastic stroll down memory lane, and left me feeling so very thankful, and proud, and hopeful and blessed.
My twin sister and I at our reunion