Where everybody knows your name

poorly addressed letter
The way it began.

By Bruce Stambaugh

There are some definite benefits to living the rural life. The perks will make your life rich, but you won’t necessarily become wealthy.

I recently had a week’s worth of devotions published in a church periodical, Rejoice!. I received an honorarium for my efforts, but that wasn’t the real motivator. I just enjoyed sharing personal and pertinent stories.

What happened after the devotions published became the real reward. A few folks who know me expressed their appreciation for my daily commentaries. An elderly man from Bern, Indiana even sent a nice handwritten note.

He thanked me for my writing and then spent the rest of the letter telling me about his car dealership, now in its fifth generation. That was fun. But it was amazing I received the letter at all.

mail carrier, U.S. mail
The mail cometh.

The kind man simply mailed the envelope with only my full name and Millersburg, Ohio written on the front. No street address. No zip code. And I got it.

The truth is, I wasn’t surprised at all that the letter arrived in our mailbox. It’s not that I’m famous. The fact that my wife and I happen to be the only Stambaughs in the county had to help. However, this was the United States Postal Service, a federal government institution that has had its share of lumps and negative publicity.

That reputation of bigness doesn’t necessarily hold true in Holmes County, Ohio. This isn’t the first time we’ve received a skimpily addressed letter.

Once we had a card from a friend with our name, town and zip on the envelope accompanied by a note scribbled on the envelope that said, “The same road as the restaurant.” When you don’t know the road number, improvise. It worked.

It gets better. Years ago when we lived in the southwest section of the county my ornery older brother sent a letter addressed with only the first names of my wife and me and 44637. That’s the zip code for Killbuck, Ohio. Once again, we got it. My brother couldn’t believe it.

rural life, Ohio's Amish country
Rural defined.

It was a perk of personally knowing the postmaster. A lot of people in the area could say that. In fact, when we moved east to our current location our mail was forwarded far beyond the required time. It stopped the day Bob House retired as Killbuck postmaster.

Bob went above and beyond the call of duty. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to do so. He exemplified the personal consideration and dedication of many folks we have met over our lifetime in this marvelous rural county.

Folks welcomed us into the Amish culture, too, when we relocated to the eastern end of the county. Neighbors invited us to picnics and Amish weddings.

We especially appreciated the invitations to Amish church services. Though we didn’t understand most of what was said, we got the message in the spirit of being treated with kindness and respect.

As educators in the local public schools, my wife and I were shown the highest regard of reverence for our responsibilities with the children of Amish and English alike. Families invited us for meals and visits. We felt more than welcome in both East Holmes and West Holmes.

It’s not always easy living in a county with a population that is less than that of a small city. But as you can see, there are distinct advantages to residing in a locale where everybody knows your name, including the mail carrier.

rural sunset, Holmes County Ohio
Rural sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Life lessons from Uncle Jack

bubblegumpetuniasbybrucestambaugh
From the front porch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

After lunch, I took a glass of my wife’s incredible lemonade and a fresh baked chocolate chip cookie out onto the front porch to warm myself in the noontime sun. It was one of those perfect September days, fluffy white clouds sailing in blue sky, driven by a steady, cool northwest wind.

In front of me bumblebees and honeybees and Clouded Sulphur butterflies worked the patch of Sweet Williams and splay of fragrant Bubblegum Petunias. Under such a spell, my mind wandered back to similar days, days of my youth when our grandfather would come calling.

Even if we weren’t outside, we knew Grandpa Merle had arrived. We could hear our Uncle Jack, who always accompanied our grandfather, long before they entered our brick bungalow in suburban Canton, Ohio.

brickhousebybrucestambaugh
The brick house where I was raised.

Jack’s speech was loud, unintelligible, and inarticulate. We knew though that Jack was a good soul stuck in a damaged body. Jack had suffered a traumatic, life-threatening head injury as a young child. He and my father, Jack’s only brother, were seriously injured in an automobile accident 90 years ago.

Their grandfather had taken them for an impromptu Sunday afternoon drive in 1923 in his brand new car on a lovely summer’s day, like the one I was enjoying. Just one block from returning home, a drunk driver hit their car, killing my great grandfather instantly. The other driver was uninjured, and never charged for causing the crash.

Both my father and Jack suffered serious injuries. Back then trauma medical treatment was limited. Fortunate to be alive, Jack’s injuries were permanent, leaving him mentally retarded. Our father was less injured, and recovered more quickly.

The accident devastated my father’s family. To say raising Jack became difficult wouldn’t do the situation justice. With no social or educational support available in those days, caring for Jack became tedious and demanding, and eventually frayed my grandparents’ relationship.

Less than a decade later, they were divorced, and grandpa spent the rest of his life discouraged, wrought with the pressure of raising Jack alone. He worked long and hard to make a go of life for them both.

His grandchildren were his safety net. He and Jack often visited us on Sunday afternoons. The five of us grandkids greeted them with a mix of eager anticipation and reverent reserve. Grandpa Merle usually brought candy, perhaps to sweeten the harsh reality of Jack’s presence.

unclejackbybrucestamaugh
Uncle Jack in 1990.
Because of his brain damage, Jack had some unique physical idiosyncrasies that could be construed to be bothersome. Besides his boisterous incoherence, Jack slapped himself frequently. When he sat, he generally crossed his legs, the top one wiggling nervously like an out of control metronome.

I don’t remember any of us ever being afraid or even ashamed of Jack. We managed to get the gist of what he was saying and knew he meant well.

I wish others had had the same view. Because of his quirky antics and loud manners, Grandpa Merle had to be careful where he took Jack. Out of fear and ignorance, some people were really mean to him.

As I look back on it, I realize that despite his social and mental limitations Uncle Jack had much to teach us. Tolerance toward others, acceptance of people as they are, and compassion for the less fortunate were just a few of the life lessons Jack imparted.

I also recall that Jack liked pink petunias and white, fluffy cloud days.

No matter where they live, people are people

enjoyingthegamebybrucestambaugh
Baseball fans enjoying a game.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I find people fascinating, a joy to watch. I can easily pass the time observing crowds at airports, sporting events, meetings or shopping.

Humans come in a kaleidoscope of shapes, sizes, races and ages. They adorn themselves with a variety of intriguing duds and accessories. I marvel at and learn from their diversifications.

mariebybrucestambaugh
Marie was tickled pink that I wanted to take her picture on the dock at Lakeside, OH.
I remember a specific time many years ago when the shoe was on the other foot. My wife and I were visiting her cousin in southern California. Barb had two daughters, ages two and three months. Our daughter was two months old.

I was informed that we were going shopping one afternoon at the local mall. We were quite the sight and unintentionally created an intriguing distraction as we sauntered around the sprawling mall with a toddler and two infants in strollers and two lovely mothers and one man.

When I volunteered to care for the girls while the women ducked into a few stores, the fun began. We became the mall’s main attraction. The kids drew passing shoppers in like they were magnets.

I found myself engaged in conversations with people curious about the children. Were the babies twins? When I said they were born three weeks apart, I could see the mental wheels turning in the questioners’ heads.

When my wife and her cousin, who are close in age, returned to check on us, the eyebrows really arched. People’s non-verbal communication revealed their conceptual inferences about one man, two wives, and three little girls.

learningaboutconflictbybrucestambaugh
Dr. Catherine Barnes (center) taught the Conflict Analysis course during the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.

In reality, that’s how we operate as social beings. We reach conclusions based on what we see, and interpret observations based on our own life’s experiences and values. Many times, like my mall experience, those assumptions frame and tilt what reality is if the truth is not properly explored.

Recently I was asked what the single most important point I had learned at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute that I had attended in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The answer flowed easily.

“The most significant concept I learned was that people are people,” I said. Not exactly profound, but true nonetheless.

Not wanting to come across as cryptic, I further explained my seemingly glib answer. Based on what I had gained first hand from my global classmates, we all strive and often struggle for the exact same things. We desire basic human needs and rights regardless of our culture, race, religion, wealth, ethnicity, or gender.

groupprocessingbybrucestambaugh
Much of the SPI class involved small group interaction among class members.

Our modest class consisted of female and male inhabitants from four continents, 13 countries, and multiple races and religions. Yet, we were all there for one common purpose. We wanted to gain practical and applicable methods for understanding and resolving conflict.

To that end, the cultures, traditions, and primary languages of each class member became secondary to the overall goal. No barrier would deter our learning, thanks to an outstanding professor guiding dedicated students.

We all had too much to lose by allowing prejudice to cloud our thinking. After all, most of the astute class members would return home to implement and teach the knowledge they had acquired. In too many situations, that would be done in hostile, dangerous, unstable conditions.

Our class discussions easily revealed that people universally desire the same life goals. We all need food, shelter, security, identity, dignity and the freedom to grow and explore in an ever-changing, challenging world.

No political bend could deny the obvious. Regardless of roots of origin, people are indeed people, and they ache to be treated accordingly.

classmatesbybrucestambaugh
Friendships formed from the classroom interactions.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

At my age, “old” is a relative term

Reflections by Bruce Stambaugh
Reflections in a farm pond near Benton, Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Soon I’ll be 63. I used to think that age was ancient. I probably was 36 then.

Of course, there was a time when I viewed 36 as old. I was probably 18. When I was nine, 18 was old. You get the pattern. “Old” is a relative term.

I am not saying that I don’t feel my age. I do. I say that because whoever said 60 is the new 50 must have been 50. They sure weren’t 60.

Ever since I hit the big 6 0, an invisible physical switch seems to have been flipped. I eat less and gain more. I tire too easily, but find consistent restful sleep evasive. I have far less hair than five years ago, and what’s left is mostly gray.

My memory isn’t as sharp as it once was, my dexterity not as nimble. Aches and pains seem the rule rather than the exception they once were, even after only moderate exercise.

I might feel the various bodily effects of aging, but my mind says I’m still young at heart. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I sometimes act like I’m still 18. But after a half dozen tosses of the baseball to my grandson, my arm feels like it will fall off.

I recently spent an inspirational afternoon with a handful of young people, all in their 20’s. The outing was intended to be an opportunity for quiet reflection and introspection.

When it was time to share at the end of the retreat, I told those assembled that I really felt for them. Here they all were, young, talented, each one much smarter than me, and yet, they were struggling to find jobs that fit their training, experiences and dreams.

I shared how it was so much different for baby boomers like me when we were their age. We graduated from college, and we could basically name our price and place to work. They all laughed when I said, “And I chose Killbuck, Ohio.”

It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Killbuck Elementary School was where I began my teaching career. I was 21, right out of college with a degree in journalism. The only education class I had had was driver education.

That didn’t matter. There was a teacher shortage, and since I had a bachelor’s degree and heartbeat, I was offered a contract 20 minutes into my interview. I made $6,000 that first year, and $186 more the second.

But like most educators, I clearly didn’t teach for the money. I taught because I loved the kids, the personal interaction, the daily battle between routines and spontaneous interruptions, the classroom characters, and the challenging instructional process. In all that, I felt welcomed with open arms and loving hearts.

Sure there were things I detested. Every job has that. That’s where age has an advantage. I have found it more convenient, healthier, and safer to let the good memories override the bad.

I told that crew of young people that I never ever expected that we would be in a situation where good jobs would be so scarce. In hindsight, I realize just how fortunate I was back then, salary not withstanding.

My birthday is my personal reminder that time is short. I want to be as productive, as positive, and as purposeful as possible. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

I want to get up everyday with a spring in my step, a song in my heart and an audacious hope that I will remain forever young regardless of how “old” I am or will be.

One room school by Bruce Stambaugh
The one room Beechvale School near Benton, Ohio has been abandoned for several years.