Birthdays are too important not to celebrate

cake and ice cream, birthday party
Cake and ice cream are the traditional birthday party favorites. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Some people cringe when their birthday rolls around. They look at the annual demarcation as making them one year older. Indeed, it does. Conversely, I prefer to think of birthdays as the beginning of another new year of opportunities and wonder.

birthday candles, birthday cakes, cream sticks
Sometimes birthday cakes are not always “cakes.” © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
That approach may have come naturally. Ever since I can remember, birthdays have always been important in our family. My brothers, sisters and I joyfully anticipated our special day.

Our poor, already overworked mother would bake the cake we wanted. Even though chocolate was my favorite, I always asked for pineapple upside down cake. I had my reasons.

I loved pineapple. I also loved maraschino cherries. The citrus and syrupy sweet flavors melted into an irresistible caramelized topping that made the yellow cake extra moist and pleasing.

I have to confess that I also had a secret reason for requesting that cake. My other brothers and sisters didn’t like it as well as I did. You know what that meant? I downed more than my fair share of my cake all by myself.

Though our family was never rich, that didn’t mean we didn’t celebrate. It took love, not money, to make birthdays special. Every once in a while, each of us five kids was allowed to have a real birthday party. That meant a bunch of rapscallions whooping it up until the cake and ice cream were served.

birthday presents, celebration, Bruce Stambaugh
Birthday presents. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Usually, though the parties were confined to the immediate family. The cake naturally served as dessert for the evening meal. After dinner, came the present.

What should have been an exciting time didn’t always turn out that way. For my 16th birthday, my folks got me a car, a toy car. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

That may have been the consequence of having a birthday sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I always suspected that my parents bought what they could afford and thought I needed, needing to save for Christmas.

On the other hand, having been born in December made the birthday tradition at my elementary school pretty easy. Students were expected to bring a treat on their special day. I often handed out store bought Christmas sugar cookies, stars, wreathes, and candy canes sprinkled with red and green sugar, to the joy of my classmates.

Birthdays were equally greeted with cake and occasional parties in the home in which my wife was raised. One year a neighbor made her a cake so pretty the family froze it instead of eating it.

We tried to make our own children’s birthdays special, too. Neva pulled out all the stops to make or buy special cakes, often in the shapes of baby dolls or baseballs or whatever our son and daughter fancied. Of course, they had parties with friends, neighbors and relatives some years, too.

first birthday, birthday party
There is only one first birthday. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
This year I get to celebrate my birthday, never mind which one, with my three grandchildren. They live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a place that is lovely any season of the year.

I’m really looking forward to the time with the grandkids since my wife and I don’t get to see them regularly. Our home is west of the Appalachians, and theirs is set on the mountains’ eastern foothills.

I’m sure they will enjoy watching me blow out all those candles. I just have two birthday wishes though.

I hope my array of burning birthday candles doesn’t set off their fire alarm. And I hope they don’t like pineapple upside down cake.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Pair of Pileateds

Pileated Woodpeckers, Bruce Stambaugh, birding,
Pair of Pileateds. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

When I hear that distinctive, penetrating squawk outside, I usually grab my camera and head to a window at the rear of our home in Ohio’s Amish country. A Pileated Woodpecker, or maybe two, is brashly announcing its arrival. As a birder, I have been fortunate to have Ohio’s largest woodpeckers coming to the feeder regularly year-round. They especially frequent the feeder in the summer when the parents bring a juvenile to the peanut butter suet feeder that hangs from the backyard sugar maple tree.

I have had all three birds near the feeder at the same time, but never on the feeder simultaneously. As you can see, I can no longer say that.

When I glanced out a window recently after hearing that call, I was pleasantly surprised to see both the male and the female on the feeder opposite one another. Even as an average birder, I knew this was a very rare event. Most birders long to even see a Pileated Woodpecker, much less have them as a yard bird. Pileateds are normally shy birds that keep to the deep woods. Why this pair feels safe in visiting my backyard, I don’t know. I’m just glad they do. I know I was extremely fortunate to have both the male and the female together in the same photo.

“Pair of Pileateds” is my photo of the week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Being grateful extends far beyond a Thanksgiving meal

prostate cancer support group, Bluemen
The Bluemen’s Group and spouses. © Martha Stutzman

By Bruce Stambaugh

The five of us men sat around the breakfast table enjoying the tasty food and each other’s company. As much as I cherished knowing these friends, and the nutritious breakfast, it was the conversation that captured my attention.

Half way through the hour-long gathering, I realized I was smiling, grateful to be included in this forthright discussion about what really matters in life. The hard, direct questions about life and death enthralled me. The frank, honest, heartfelt answers fueled the no-frills banter.

fall sunset, landscape photography, Bruce Stambaugh
November sunset. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
This was a Thursday morning, the usual bi-weekly get-together of our cancer support group, affectionately known as the Bluemen. Blue is the color for prostate cancer, and that was a common denominator of the group, save for one member.

Our host, normally a reserved, contemplative man, was passionately engaged in the meaningful discussion. By early Monday morning, he had died.

When I learned of his death, I wasn’t shocked. Deeply saddened yes, but not surprised given that intense interaction I had witnessed regarding life and preparing to die.

That precious morning, I sat and listened mostly, participating only when absolutely necessary. I was too absorbed to interrupt the flow of the dialogue’s stream.

Our friend, Bill, had joined our cancer support group for just that kind of interaction. This diminutive but gentile giant of a man wanted our companionship in his journey with prostate cancer. We gladly welcomed him.

fall colors, red tree, Bruce Stambaugh
Red tree. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Bill immediately felt at home with us. One of the most humble individuals I had ever met, Bill easily joined in the group’s chitchat. He, like the rest of us, shared intimate details that only those with prostate cancer unashamedly reveal, even over breakfast.

At times, this quiet, simple man talked our ears off. Once he even tried to introduce politics, a violation of our unwritten protocol. We all laughed.

Though not a prostate cancer victim, Kurt joined our group because there are no living members to offer comfort for his kind of cancer. Just like Bill, Kurt held nothing back either.

Our table talk revolved around what it’s like to die, are we afraid to die, what will we miss, what will we look forward to in the afterlife? And so it went, at first monthly, then every other week when Bill had a set back a few months ago.

Bill wanted to continue to meet, so this affable man and his amazing wife invited us into their home. We ate, talked, and laughed some more. Sometimes we even shed a few tears.

barn in snow, Holmes County Ohio, Bruce Stambaugh, landscape photography
Barn in snow. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Besides cancer, the group members were bound as one by two other mutual traits. Our common faith, and our gratitude for the life opportunities we had had, and would have made us brothers.

We had no idea of what was about to play out with Bill following that marvelous Thursday morning gathering. I was glad for the multitude of thanks expressed then for all that had come our way in life. The good far outweighed the bad, even including cancer.

Each in our close-knit group was appreciative of life, to live, to love, to be loved. That was enough, more than any of us could ever have desired.

The turkey and all the trimmings of Thanksgiving are nice. Our group’s regular sharing affirmed that being grateful means so much more than a holiday spread. The Bluemen were most thankful for the immeasurable joy, love and fellowship of devoted families and friends.

Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really all about?

snow, black and white photo, snowy woods
Snowy woods. © Bruce Stambaaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Little red schoolhouse

one room school, little red schoolhouse, abandoned school
Little red schoolhouse. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

The red bricks of this abandoned one room school a few miles from my home stood in sharp contrast to the season’s first snowfall. Long since closed, this little red brick school once served as the incubator for future lawyers, farmers, housewives, teachers and business owners.

The outhouse on the right also played an important part in the school’s history. Right after World War II, the students gathered in the morning for class, but their usually prompt teacher wasn’t in the building. After several minutes, the oldest student, an eighth grader, went looking for the teacher, and found him sitting in the privy dead.

I always think of that story when I pass by the old Beechvale School. “Little red schoolhouse” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Dreaming about Florida, or was it real?

Sarasota Florida, Sarasota Bay
Sarasota, FL. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I dream a lot, vivid, colorful, goofy dreams. I often remember details of what I dream, too, including people and places.

Recently, I dreamt that my wife and I were in Florida, Sarasota to be exact. It was a very real and an unusually long, Rip Van Winkle type dream.

I must have lapsed into an uncharacteristically deep sleep. This dream seemed to last a week. At my age, sleeping through the night without waking at least once is rare.

But there I was, snapping photographs at my niece’s picture perfect wedding. The setting was on a lush lawn that separated an old money estate from the placid gulf waters.

At the open-air reception, we enjoyed tasty hors d’oeuvres, and a scrumptious, multi-course meal. A crescent moon hung at the end of a string of soft white party lights that illuminated the revelry.

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Just like that, the scene switched to the Celery Fields, a popular spot for birders to view beautiful tropical bird species. There I was standing on a platform practically in the middle of the marsh watching colorful species I’d longed to see.

Purple Gallinules, Wood Storks, Ospreys, and Roseate Spoonbills appeared. I saw more shorebirds, hawks, ducks, and even alligators. Only the scene changed again, and I was back at a lovely house where we apparently were staying.

Everything happened so quickly, yet the details were so clear, and the weather so marvelous, I didn’t want to leave. I hoped I never woke up from this surreal fantasy.

As dreams do, one location meddled into another. My wife and I were enjoying a wonderful lunch with my sister and her husband. Eating outdoors in ideal weather conditions just makes the food taste all that much better, even in dreams.

No trip to Sarasota, real or imagined, is complete without tickling your toes in the warm waters lapping onto picturesque Siesta Key Beach. This had to be a dream because the shorebirds out numbered the people on the normally crowded sugary white sands.

Still on the beach, the scene swiftly switched from the hot overhead sun to a magical sunset with golden rays streaming from behind clouds. Was I in heaven?

No, Pinecraft, the little Amish and Mennonite community in Sarasota. I’d been in the alley before between the Tourist Church and the post office, where the buses deliver the snowbirds from the north. Only the parking lot was empty. No Amish or Mennonite souls could be found.

Now I was in a jungle. Ferns, palms, massive trees with sweeping limbs, and crazy roots, and gorgeous flowers surrounded me. Walkways graced by cooling but strangely shaped canopies beckoned me.

In a blink, there was the bay again, teeming with birds, jumping fish, and boats of all sizes. Everything, sky, water, boats, was awash in some shade of blue, with gleaming white and silver buildings as the backdrop.

sugar maple, bare tree
Leafless. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Just as quickly, the scene turned horribly. It was cold, windy and rainy. I had to be back in Ohio. However, I was in a panic because I had lost my precious camera. But even this dilemma had a happy ending. I found the camera on a bench outside an airport.

It must have been that fright and the harsh elements that jerked me back to reality. All I know is that when I lapsed into my deep sleep, our stunning back yard sugar maple was at its peak color. When I woke up, not a leaf was left.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Sunset’s radiance

fall leaves, sunsets, fall colors, Ohio's Amish country
Sunset’s radiance. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Though the leaves had already reached their peak when I shot this scene, the setting sun’s radiance illuminated those leaves that remained. I was also amazed at how the low angle of the fleeting light bathed this Amish farmstead set in one of the many valleys in Holmes County, Ohio.

“Sunset’s radiance” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

For this baseball lover, it’s wait until next year again

Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians,
Michael Brantley strokes his 200th hit of the 2014 season. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve loved baseball since I was a kid. That’s a long time, never mind how long.

Baseball was in my DNA. I suppose my father’s love of the game, and that of my grandfather highly influenced me. Dad played baseball in high school. Grandpa Merle played in high school, college, and in summer leagues.

My big brother played sandlot baseball, too. Of course, I wanted to be just like him.

Rocky Colavito, Cleveland Indians, Bruce Stambaugh
Indians great Rocky Colavito threw out the first pitch of the August 10th game last year. © Bruce Stambaugh
Keep in mind that I grew up in the post World War II decade when the top two teams in the American League were the dreaded New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians. Yes, the Indians had consistently winning teams with memorable players like Rocky Colavito, Herb Score, Bob Feller, Minnie Minoso and so many more.

Youth was my golden era for baseball. I was young, innocent, impressionable, enthusiastic, looking for any diversion from either work or school. Baseball was it.

I started playing baseball when I was seven. The coaches put me at second base for very practical reasons. I was small and it was the shortest throw to first base.

As I grew, I played every position on the field. Catcher was my favorite. I could see the entire game unfold before me. Plus, it was the shortest walk to the bench after the inning was over.

Indians fans, Cleveland Indians, Bruce Stambaugh
Indians fans will travel the extra mile to support their team. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Did I mention that I wasn’t a very good player? Still, baseball was the sports marrow in my bones. Still is.

When I wasn’t playing, I listened to games. I was in my glory when transistor radios came out. I could listen to the Indians late at night, when we were supposed to be sleeping. And I listened to them when grandpa took us fishing. I liked that kind of leisurely multitasking.

I enjoyed how Jimmy Dudley, then the Indians play-by-play announcer, called the game. He drew me in like I was really there, and several fish happily escaped my baseball daydreaming.

I always wanted to play third base for Cleveland. Ken Keltner, Al Rosen, and Bubba Phillips were my heroes. Max Alvis not so much. My all-time favorite Indian, Lou Klimchock, also played third on occasion, but his main position was second. Mostly, I just liked his name.

I knew baseball statistics. I collected baseball cards. I even chewed that stiff, hard, usually stale, flat piece of bubblegum inside every pack of Topps cards.

Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians, Bruce Stambaugh
Michael Brantley and Tampa Bay’s James Loney both smiled broadly after Brantley’s 200th hit this year. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014
I collected hundreds of baseball cards, and a few cavities. My dentist took care of them, and my mother the cards.

I watched what few games were broadcast on television, at first in black and white, and only later in color. Mostly I relied on the alluring voice of Dudley to keep me informed of every pitch.

Our family attended a game or two each year. They were too expensive and too far away. Expressways hadn’t been invented yet.

As I grew from adolescence into adulthood, I continued my love affair with the Indians. I tried to pass that on to my own children, but times have changed, and so have they, for the better of course.

My wife also knows the game well. We attend a few games each year. We hope against hope that the Indians will someday win the World Series.

With the San Francisco Giants recently winning the game’s championship, Major League Baseball is over for 2014. Like any good Cleveland Indians fan will tell you, there’s always next year.

fireworks, baseball, Progressive Field, Cleveland Indians
Someday fireworks will explode in celebration of an Indians World Series championship. Someday, maybe next year. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.