It’s no joke: April 1 used to be New Year’s Day

By Bruce Stambaugh

If there was one day I dreaded each school year of my three decades in education, it was April 1st, better known as April Fools Day.

The students, and even a few of the teachers, were merciless with their inane April Fools jokes. I was relieved if April 1st happened to fall on a weekend.

But five times out of seven, it did not. As teacher then principal, I was forced to endure the school-wide silliness. I gave a little more slack to the younger children who dared approach the principal to try to trick him. I did my best to play along.

I remember fondly their coy smiles with their giddy calls of “your shoe’s untied.” I always took the bait, waited for the giggles and moved on down the hall until the next juvenile ambush.

It was harder for me to tolerate the older students who tried unsuccessfully to be more sophisticated with their trickery. I didn’t have much patience with students who released the distracted teacher’s pet garter snake in the room or for those who put tacks on teachers’ seats.

I wondered who in the world ever invented such a silly day. After all these years, I decided to quit wondering and investigate.

My do diligence was a thorough if not speedy search on Google. The results didn’t really lead to any definite conclusions, other than to surmise that the antics of the crazy day likely got started way back when the Gregorian calendar was introduced. This major change, which had to make health care reform seem simple, revamped the annual calendar in the entire civilized world.

The King of France, Charles IX, instituted the switch in 1564. Foremost was beginning the New Year on January 1st instead of on April 1st. Problem was 16th century communications were not what they are today. Of course, given the state of the current Twittering world, that may have been a good thing.

Word of the calendar change took several months, even years, to make its way around Europe and beyond. Not surprisingly, there were those who resisted the change, and instead preferred to maintain the status quo, which included celebrating a new year beginning March 25 and culminating on April 1. Just imagine New Year’s Eve lasting eight days. Sounds a lot like Mardi Gras to me.

Those who refused to honor January 1 as the beginning of the New Year and instead continued to use the April 1 demarcation became known as April Fools for their obstinacy and resistance to change. As the lore goes, April 1 was dubbed April Fools Day for those who clung to their old ways.

Those poor fools, excuse the pun, who refused to accept the new calendar were sent off on ridiculous errands and were made the butt of practical jokes, like sticking signs on their backs that said “kick me.” It reminded me of those good old school days.

Perhaps because it took so long for the new calendar to be accepted, the practice of nonsense on April 1st became an annual event. The silliness gradually found its way to both the British and French colonies in America.

Apparently traditions, whether good or bad, die hard. Students have been pestering teachers and principals, and probably parents, ever since. With that in mind, you just might want to check your seat today before you sit down.

Birding Ohio’s Amish Country

By Bruce Stambaugh

Horses and buggies. Pastoral, broad valleys amid rolling hills frescoed with quilt-like patterns of crops. Fine, handcrafted furniture. Delicious, bountiful meals at reasonable prices.

All of the above are reasons scores of people from far and wide annually travel to Ohio’s Amish country. There is yet one more unassuming category to add to the list: birding.

With its diverse topography, greenery and abundant waterways, Ohio’s Amish country is a birder’s paradise. The area offers both a wonderful spectrum of bird species and excellent birding locales.

Ohio’s Amish country offers something for the novice, casual or serious birder. Birders can find migrating birds, native residents and the occasional rare visitor. The area affords numerous birding spots easily accessible for persons of all ages. A good pair of binoculars will help enhance any aviary quest in Amish country.

A good place to start the birding expedition and get a little exercise as well is the Holmes County Rails to Trails that cuts an easy diagonal through the county. The main starting point and parking lot is at the old railroad depot just north of West Jackson St. in Millersburg, the county seat. This 15-mile paved trail runs from Fredericksburg in Wayne County to Killbuck in southwestern Holmes County.

Following this trail provides a sampling of the birding habitats found throughout the area. However, its dominant geographic feature is the Killbuck Creek valley, a major north-south flyway for migrating birds and a wonderfully dense habitat for year-round bird residents. Woodlots, marshland, open water and cropland are in close proximity all along the trail’s length.

Birders should be aware that horse and buggies, horseback riders, bicyclists, runners and walkers use the trail, too. Birding etiquette and safety dictate setting up spotting scopes or viewing with binoculars on the side of the trail. All types of waterfowl can be found among the reeds and rushes in the marsh areas. Even a rookery of Great Blue Herons can be seen.

Not far from the north end of the Holmes County Trail is another outstanding birding area, the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area. An excellent observation spot is at the east end of Force Road, which is accessed from Valley Road east of Shreve.

From this vantage point, if one is patient, birders can view an array of species. American Bitterns, a wide variety of ducks, rails and even Bald Eagles may be seen. The Killbuck Marsh is a state run wildlife management area.

Two other state-owned areas in Ohio’s Amish country also offer excellent birding opportunities. The Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area is located in Wayne and Ashland counties, and Mohican State Park in southern Ashland County.

With its moist soil and shallow water habitat, the Funk Bottoms is a natural wetland area consisting of about 1,500 acres, mostly along State Route 95 near Blachleyville. The Ohio Division of Wildlife said birds that frequent the area include 23 species of migrating waterfowl, including Tundra Swans and Sandhill Cranes, and 28 species of shorebirds. A variety of raptors also winter over and are seen during migration.

Mohican State Park is a spectacular location for many activities, especially hiking and birding. With its dense forests and large open body of water, Bald Eagles and Ospreys have been spotted. The park is located just west of Loudonville between State Routes 95 and 97.

In the eastern end of Amish country sits another ideal birding spot, The Wilderness Center. It provides excitement for even the most novice birder. The Wilderness Center is located on Alabama Ave. off of U.S. 62 near Wilmot in Stark County.

With marked trails, an informative and hands-on interpretive building, it is the perfect place for families. From restored Ohio prairies to old growth forest, The Wilderness Center is host to a wide range of birds, especially songbirds.

With its checkered, rolling farm fields, spring-fed streams and treasured woodlands, many species of birds can be observed merely by driving around the back roads of Amish country. If you happen to see a farmer spreading manure in the winter, look for Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. If hay is being mowed in the summer, watch for Barn, Tree, Bank and Cliff Swallows circling for insects.

The area also boasts high numbers of Bobolinks, Eastern Bluebirds and Barn Owls. Since many avid birders live in the area, visitors can find good advice on where to bird and what might be found simply by asking.

A pair of juvenile green herons perched on a TV antenna.

This article appeared in the March 2010 edition of Ohio’s Amish Country.

39 years is a long time

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I will soon celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary.

I could be mean and say that 39 years seems like a really long time. It has been, but in a good way. Not that our marriage has been all peaches and cream and full of roses. There have been a few thorns along the way. But I won’t presume to tell my wife’s side of the story.

Let’s just say we are both human. And I recognize I that I have not always been the easiest person to live with. But I do my best to make it interesting.

As I look back over all those years, there are a lot of stories to be told, and then there are some that will never be told. Perhaps the most intriguing is how we met.

The short answer to that is that I chased Neva around a three-acre field filled with tender cucumber plants. We were on a mission/study trip in Kentucky with the youth from my church. The group’s assignment was to hoe the weeds in the field. Once Neva realized I was hoeing faster to catch up to her, she increased her weed eradication, too.

I just took that as sign that she liked me. You know how women can play hard to get. Well, I must have been right about her feelings because nine days after we had met we were engaged. You read correctly. Nine days. And if you thought that was fast, we married just nine months later without the shotgun. I was 23, she 21, both much too young.

We made sure we told our children not to repeat such foolishness in their own romantic adventures. That bit of advice probably wasn’t necessary. I think they saw the silliness in our story more than we did.

Regardless, facts are facts, and love is love. We’re still married after all those years. Of course, we have made our share of mistakes and misstatements. But rather than dwell on details, we’ve each managed to find forgiveness time after time.

As I recalled those 39 years, certain instances came to mind as if they had happened yesterday. The wedding day was one of those recollections.

The thing I remember foremost was just how scared I was. It wasn’t that I was having second thoughts. I was so out of it I’m not sure I was having any thoughts at all, and I hadn’t even had a bachelor’s party.

Thing is, I thought I was calm until an uncle made a sarcastic comment about how nice it was that the farmer across the road from the rural church had spread liquid sunshine on his field. I had to ask what he meant.

My uncle couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed the pungent manure odor. I’m not sure I smelled it even after he had said something.

I remember that most of my fourth grade class came in Paul Rohr’s refurbished school bus. During the ceremony they were the quietest they had been all year.

I remember that it took so long for the greeting line to end that people were leaving the reception before the bride and groom arrived. I also remember accidentally stepping on my wife’s wedding dress as we exited the church, and her finger wagging in my face. I knew I was a goner right then and there.

Somehow, we have made it this far, two houses, two children, both grown and happily married, and three grandchildren later.

Through good times and bad times, in sickness and in health, at work and at play, we have tangoed together for 39 years. Here’s hoping year number 40 will be the best one of all.

Bad back

I wonder if there has ever been a poem
written about a bad back.
You know. The kind of chronic
back problem that causes enough
pain to prevent you from doing
the simplest of chores, like bending
over to pick up anything off the floor
or putting on your socks or pulling open
a sliding glass door, standard, everyday
stuff that we all take for granted.

Any of those movements or even
no movement for that matter causes
excruciating pain, the kind that is sharp,
stinging, unpredictably shooting down
your legs, first the left, numbing your
little toe while needles prickle your calf.
You adjust, then the right leg gets
the same treatment, and you adjust again,
walk like an old man, though you’re a long
way from collecting Social Security.

As I think further about it, anyone
with such severe pain likely couldn’t
sit long enough to write, print or type
such a poem. Logic would dictate that
such persistent pain would make him
delusional. Besides, even if he did,
the poor fellow would be considered too
wimpy, too self-engrossed, too brash
exuding too much self-pity to dare
write, much less publish such a ditty.

Has there ever been a poem
written about a bad back?
Probably not.

Bruce Stambaugh
March 24, 2010

The winter that wouldn’t end

By Bruce Stambaugh

The winter that seemingly would not end finally has. I hope.

Spring is now within sight. The vernal equinox officially arrives on Saturday, March 20 at exactly 1:32 p.m.

That milestone won’t guarantee that winter won’t quit. But it’s nice to know that if it does show its frosty face again, the odds are in our favor that a late winter sting won’t hurt us like the series of heavy snows we incurred in January and February.

For a while there, it seemed like everything had come to a freezing halt. It would snow. The road crews worked hard to free the highways of their slippery burden, and just when you thought it was safe to travel again, it snowed again.

During a normal winter in the western Appalachian foothills of Holmes County, Ohio, a couple of feet of snow are spread over several months. This winter we recorded more than three feet of snow in February alone.

With the weight of this winter still upon us, it seems spring has been a long time in coming. It was magnificent to get an early peek at what lies ahead with the recent string of sunny, warm weather here in Ohio’s Amish country.

It’s truly amazing what warmer weather does. I only had to step outside to fully appreciate the preview of spring.

The backyard birds filled the air with their choruses. Robins came out of hiding in the thick woods to begin scouting out their nesting territories. The resident Song Sparrow, which became reclusive in winter and played it low to the ground, perched high in a crimson maple, tilted its head back and cut loose.

Over the course of just a couple of days, the blanket of snow vanished altogether. Even the huge piles of plowed snow were greatly humbled by the bright sun and balmy temperatures.

If ever there were a perfect example of cause and effect, the melting snow would be it. The ground was so saturated from the abundant moisture that Mallards swam the temporary pond in my neighbor’s grain field.

Flower petals pushed through the mushy earth, as if reaching for the inviting sun. The daffodil heads swelled, readying for their brilliant birth. In our flower gardens, Johnny Jump Ups were the first to bloom.

Life stirred in my little garden pond, too. The mountain of snow that once surrounded the poor pool did a glacial retreat. The caretaker pair of bullfrogs ventured out in search of any wayward insects, and to bask in the sunshine’s warmth.

The school of goldfish revived. The largest broke water as I cleaned out the gunk from the pump. I don’t know if it was showing off or begging for food. The pump filters were so clogged with slime it was a wonder water still flowed over the little waterfalls.

I couldn’t help but notice doors and windows open in homes, shops and cars alike as I ran errands. Shoot, those with convertibles were driving around like it was July. After this cold, snowy winter, I couldn’t blame them. It felt like it.

People personally expressed their relief that an end to this nonstop winter seemingly had arrived. They appeared more congenial to the point of being jovial.

For those who longed for an old-fashioned winter, you got your wish. Let’s hope those that hunger for a perfect spring get theirs, too.

St. Patrick’s Day Sunset

Could there have been a more generous sunset,
and on St. Patrick’s Day yet?

The perfectly clear, but not empty sky
silhouetted the naked tree line at the top
of the neighbor’s pasture field.
To the right, three does grazed
unaware of my distant spying.

Above them, as if it mattered, Venus shown
bright and true, and still higher above her
the first sliver of March’s eventual full moon
cradled the amazing earthshine tenderly, boldly,
for all who cared to see to see.

I saw. I cared, glad for St. Paddy’s celestial gift.
I don’t know about the deer though.

Bruce Stambaugh
March 17, 2010

The case of being too fat to fly

Black Vultures hang around a large alligator at Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, Florida.

By Bruce Stambaugh

As the plane sat on the tarmac waiting permission to take off, I filled my idle time peering through the thick porthole. Meadowlarks chased one another and American Kestrels swooped for rodents above the broad grassy areas between the concrete avenues.

I watched other jetliners defy both logic and gravity, race down the runways and lift into the air. Aerodynamically, their appearance belies the fact that they actually can get airborne. The jumbo jets especially seemed too fat to fly. Yet, they taxied, throttled and despite their bulkiness climbed into the sky effortlessly.

When the words “too fat to fly” came to mind, I flashed back a month to our time in Florida. My wife and I and our good friends had taken a boat tour on a lake at Myakka River State Park. The guide filled us in on the unusual appearance of hundreds of vultures gathered all along the shorelines. Most were Black Vultures with a few Turkey Vultures thrown in, their red baldheads making them conspicuous.

We had gone to the park to see alligators, shorebirds, birds of prey, and to learn of the local floral and fauna. The congregations of vultures were an unexpected bonus, present everywhere. To the locals, the flocks of homely birds were a necessary nuisance, even roosting on campers and cars.

Their appearance was easily explained. Prior to our arrival in the Sunshine State, which was mostly cloudy and cool while we were there, an extended cold snap had settled in.

Between the below freezing temperatures and the lack of sunshine, both the water and air temperatures had dropped well below normal for a sustained amount of time. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico had registered 49.6 degrees Fahrenheit, amazingly cool for that expansive tropical body of water.

Citrus and produce farmers fought the cold conditions by misting their nearly ripe crops. The cold temps effectively coated the fruit with ice, saving most of the delicate commodities. Fishermen had no such option. The unusually cold water killed tens of thousands of fish.

Upper Lake Myakka was no exception. The guide said that at least 30,000 fish had died from the shallow lake’s much reduced water temperature. Of course, the dead fish soon washed ashore and the throngs of vultures voluntarily arrived to clean up the mess. Their sense of smell is truly amazing. The fishy smell we sensed was equally amazing, even weeks after the big kill.

The impressive, black birds had cleaned up most of the carcasses by the time we took the tour. Nevertheless, the pungent odor lingered, as did the vultures.

Days after the fish kill, park officials noticed something odd about the vultures. The unsightly creatures just lay around as if they were sick. Concerned, biologists easily caught and examined a few of the birds to find the cause of their lethargy.

After running multiple tests, the scientists came to a very logical conclusion. The vultures had eaten so many dead fish they were simply too fat to fly or even walk for that matter. All they needed to do was to stop eating, and they would be fine.

By now, it was our plane’s turn to take off. I double-checked my seatbelt, readied myself for the runway sprint and sudden ascent into the cloudless sky. But with the overstuffed vultures on my mind, I didn’t want to take any chances. I said a silent prayer that this particular bird wasn’t too fat to fly.

Competing in the winter Olympics, Texas style

By Bruce Stambaugh

I have had a long infatuation with the winter Olympics. This year was no exception. In fact, instead of just watching on television, I actually got to compete.

Coupled with the fatigue of the seemingly endless Ohio winter and the desire to visit our Texan grandchildren, my wife and I scheduled a trip to the Lone Star State right in the middle of the winter Olympic games. We were especially eager to see our four-month-old granddaughter, Maren. She was just a week old when I last saw her.

Just what does this have to do with competing in the winter Olympics? Plenty. Given the crazy weather of this weird winter, it didn’t snow in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the Olympics were hosted. But it did snow deep in the heart of Texas.

Of course, like everything else in Texas, it snowed big. At times, the snowflakes were huge. In a location where snow is seldom seen, the accumulation reached up to four inches.

The school kids were ecstatic. When they arrived home from classes, the Texas Winter Olympics were on. The entire neighborhood joined in one event after the other. The only qualifying necessities were to dress warm and have as much fun as possible. The rarity needed to be enjoyed while it lasted, since the snow likely wouldn’t linger in the south central Texas clime.

And have fun we did, including Maren. However, she wisely chose to serve as the beautiful, babbling, blue-eyed commentator from the warmth and safety of her parent’s home.

I felt like a kid again. Often, when the grandkids visited Nana and Poppy in Ohio’s Amish country in the winter, we seldom had snow. Now we were in their southern home territory, and the snow was perfect for any and every kind of wintry game.

The gathered Olympians participated in sledding, snowball throwing, snowman building, and of course the ever popular snow tasting contest. The results, which required no sophisticated judging, were measured in enjoyment rather than technical point calculation.

The lead sledding team, kindergartner Nola and her energetic father, Michael, won that event hands down. They were the only ones on the block with a sled. Even then, they had a rather short slope to navigate, another neighbor’s diminutive front yard.

To no one’s surprise, the snowball throwing drew the most participants and thus was gauged a Texas-sized success. The awards were meted in smiles and laughter rather than shiny medals. Evan, our nearly six-year-old grandson, won the artistic award for creating the most symmetrical snowballs. They were perfectly round and hand-packed hard.

The ever-daring three-and-a-half year old grandson, Davis, ate more snow than he threw. He said it tasted better than ice cream. You never know what those lefties will say.

As for the snowman contest, Poppy was in the lead for most of the way until he realized that the large rolled up snowball was more of a load than he should be pushing. His back disqualified him, and he had to call in reinforcements to complete the job.

Not surprisingly, Davis was a good helper. However, true to form, he wanted to eat the carrot rather than use it for the snowman’s nose.

Next day, when the snow quickly disappeared with Vancouver-like temperatures, the Texas Winter Olympics were declared closed, at least temporarily. With this strange winter weather, it could snow again in Texas. Vancouver could only hope.

Davis and Evan
My grandsons with their Texas snowman. Davis and Evan are on the left.

Turning thoughts into actions

By Bruce Stambaugh

I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of thinking while I’m shoveling snow. Given the amazing amounts of snow that have fallen this winter, my brain is about as strained as my back.

With two feet of snow on the ground, the most logical thought was obvious. Where would I put it all? The sidewalk already looked like the Grand Canyon, and the piles that lined the cement parking pad and limestone driveway were even higher.

As I shoveled my way around the house, making access to bird feeders easier, I realized my thinking strayed far from my physical task. My thoughts were so meandering that I absent-mindedly pitched the snow upwind.

Even with that rude awakening, my mind continued to wander. Is this a symptom of cabin fever or old age or am I just a typical man? Since I am not really expecting answers, we’ll go with all of the above.

I found Mourning Dove feathers in a couple of places. I wondered what predator dined on this prevalent and apparently delectable bird. Was it an owl, a hawk, a cat? I brushed the feathers aside and kept shoveling.

I thought about my friend, Jose, a coffee farmer who lived near San Marcos, Honduras where I visit occasionally. Jose, a tall, quiet, generous man, was killed recently in an accident while trimming a tree on his farm.

Jose was such a hard worker, a family man, dedicated to representing his little community the best he knew how. I’ll never forget the day I rode in the cab of his old, dented pickup truck, up the switch-backed, bumpy, one lane road to his two acre stand of vibrant coffee bushes growing on a steep mountain slope.

Though Jose knew no English, and I little Spanish, his non-verbal communication oozed hospitality. He turned our small group loose on those poor coffee plants and enjoyed the show, his welcoming smile continually flashing.

Several cardinals took flight as I rounded the house to the backyard. I had interrupted their lunch of cracked corn and oil sunflower seeds.

I thought about the Sunday morning service at the little church we attended while vacationing in Florida. I had already enjoyed some local birding opportunities, but never expected to be able to do so while at church.

The service was held in a room with large windows that faced a broad stream that met the Gulf a mile away. The faithful pastor had his back to what was happening outside.

While he preached, Black and White Warblers and Phoebes played in the banyan trees, live oaks and palms. Beyond the lush banks, Buffleheads scurried through the stream’s shallow water. Snowy Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons waded, too.

I had just about completed my shoveling when I thought about my new friend, Fritz. He and his family had survived the catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and had miraculously found their way to our little corner of the world in Ohio’s Amish country.

I remembered Fritz staring straight ahead while he related his harrowing story as if he were reliving each horrific moment. All I could do was listen. I felt for Fritz and his family. They had lost everything, including close relatives.

Amid the natural beauty around me, in Sarasota, in the mountains of Honduras, even in ravaged Haiti, my contemplative jigsaw puzzle reminded that life wasn’t always pretty. My efforts resulted in much more than snow removal.

Long after this deep snow has melted, opportunities to help others in need will abound. That conclusion doesn’t take much thought.