Why I never learned to swim


I don’t remember the trauma I experienced nearly 70 years ago. And yet, I can recall it as if it had happened yesterday.

I was two, four years younger than my older brother. We lived on a channel that connected two glacial lakes southwest of Akron, Ohio. Our father was supposed to be watching us while our mother was away for a while. Dad being Dad, he was preoccupied with something else. I still recall the disdain and anger that our usually gentile mother expressed toward our father as this family story was told and retold over the years.

It was this dramatic retelling that etched a lifetime of fear of water into my psyche. Consequently, I never learned to swim. Shoot, I even take showers just to stay safe. It is my only logical explanation of this unfounded, yet realistic phobia.

It was a lovely summer day, warm but not too warm. So Dad sent my brother and me unattended outside to play. Of course, the first place we headed was to the wooden dock that jutted into the canal that connected North Reservoir with Turkeyfoot Lake. The magnetic dock drew my brother and me as if we were steel ingots, not flesh and bones.

We loved to feed the ducks that frequented the waterway that lazily flowed only a few feet behind our waterfront bungalow. This time, however, my brother and I didn’t have any bread to feed the ducks that swam over to the dock where we stood. We must have bent over to get a closer look at them.

Though I was too young to remember it, the next thing that happened was a plop, plop. My brother and I each fell into the water like rocks. The dock wasn’t magnetic after all.

I know these specifics and this sequence of events because our next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Nussbaum, was outside hanging up her wash on the laundry line. She had heard Craig and me talking but could not see us because of the strings of clothes. But she knew what the double-barrelled splashing sounds meant.

Without knowing exactly where we had fallen into the water, Mrs. Nussbaum rushed to the channel and jumped in, her dress flying up like an umbrella. My brother surfaced just as she entered the water, which made it easy for her to rescue Craig. She placed him safely on the shoreline and returned to search for me in the now murky water.

Mrs. Nussbaum quickly found me. She told my father that I was lying dead still on my back at the bottom of the channel, eyes wide open staring straight ahead. She scooped me up and put me on the shore beside my brother.

The conversation between Mrs. Nussbaum and our father was never revealed to me, or if it was, I didn’t understand the meaning of some of the words. However, without knowing the verbal details, the emotion evoked when our mother arrived back home, and Dad had to confess the nearly tragic accident to her remains with me still.

If only for brevity, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. Mom, of course, was furious and that fury lasted every time the story was told. As the years passed, a little humor was added, but as I recall, very little. Mom was still upset, and Dad, well, he was still irresponsible when it came to domestic duties.

My brother learned to swim. I never did. To this day, swimming means staying alive while I’m in the water because that long-ago trauma still floats in my head.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Seeing my baseball dreams come true

Grandson at bat.

As a kid, I always wanted to play third base for the Cleveland Indians. Bubba Phillips was my hero.

I know. I could have picked a more respectable team like the dreaded New York Yankees. But I was born in a blue-collar steel town in northeast Ohio. Cheering for any other team was tantamount to treason.

I began playing baseball at age seven. Right away I had a strong inclination that I wasn’t major league baseball material. A one-hopper hit me square in the mouth loosening a few front teeth.

Still, I kept at it until my college days where I watched the Kent State University baseball team. A couple of years later the team’s catcher, the late, great Thurman Munson and fellow Cantonian, would become an all-star backstop for the Yankees.

Thurman lived my dream, just in a different position, although I spent most of my Little League and Hot Stove baseball days behind the plate as well. I never took one in the mouth though. Wearing a catcher’s mask helped with that.

Before the pitch.
Imagine my joy when our oldest grandchild took to baseball like a duck to water. He was a natural from little on up. Now he’s 15, a high school freshman, and pitching for the varsity baseball team. Did I mention that he also plays third base, and shortstop, too?

Like other youngsters, Evan started with t-ball and kept playing until he progressed to the varsity squad. Nana and I couldn’t be more proud.

I try to let the coaches do the instruction. I do share stories with Evan from my playing days, usually some of my own baseball bloopers. With my talent, what else do I have to say? Evan always politely listens, often without comment. His parents have taught him well.

At the games, I focus on capturing photos of Evan pitching, hitting, and fielding. It’s harder to yell at the umpires with a camera in your face.

My wife and I have enjoyed this baseball journey with Evan and his family so far. We take in as many games as possible. That means huddled up in winter coats and blankets in the spring to keep warm. In the summer’s scorching Virginia sunshine, we share any available shade and try to stay hydrated.

And the pitch.
Evan goes all out in the sport he loves, sometimes much to his mother’s chagrin. I feel her pain when he slides headfirst into a base. A cloud of red dust rises around him from the powdery Virginia infields.

But the uniform always is ready for the next game, just like the young man who wears it. Win or lose, it is pure joy to watch him play. I don’t mind sharing my dreamy baseball romanticism with Evan at all.

I’m overjoyed that our grandson shares my passion for the game. I am even more grateful that he has had many opportunities to play and performs well, whether in the field, on the mound, or at bat. Sure he makes errors, gives up hits, or strikes out. But he is improving, gaining confidence, learning the game, and living his dream and mine.

Even as a grandfather, I still envision playing third base or perhaps pitching for the Cleveland Indians. Lord knows they could use some decent pitchers right now.

My dream is and was a fantasy. I knew that from the time the ball bloodied my lip decades ago. My grandson’s aspiration, however, is just now unfolding. I’ll let you know when he takes the mound for the Cleveland Indians.

Safe at third.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

A more personal March Madness

Amelia Island FL, sunsets
One of my favorite photos, a sunset in northern Florida.

My wife and I love to watch college basketball. It’s how we often spend many quiet winter evenings together at home.

We’ll watch a college hoops game at 7 p.m. and even switch back and forth to other collegiate games that are simultaneously broadcast on TV. At 9, we start the process all over again, usually until half time when it’s lights out for this tired and retired couple.

When its tournament time, more commonly known as March Madness, we are in basketball heaven. Neva claims the love seat while I relax in the recliner. Now, it’s not like all we do is watch talented athletes run up and down the court making incredible plays and acrobatic shots.

In our 48 years of marriage, Neva has taught me to multi-task. With the game going full blast on TV, she reads or works on her iPad while I often write or edit photos to post on my online blog or social media. Of course, the game gets our full attention if it is close, especially as the game clock ticks down.

The happy couple.

Basketball isn’t the only kind of madness happening in March for us. We just celebrated our wedding anniversary. How and where we met and when we married is the rest of the remarkable story.

It was one of those “meant to be” situations. In June 1970 before we ever knew one another, Neva and I separately agreed to supervise a group of 10 energetic youth from the church I attended. It was a weeklong work-study project deep into eastern Kentucky’s coalmine region. The first time I saw her was when the group assembled to leave.

Our work involved hoeing three acres of cucumbers in the morning’s coolness. We studied and visited local sites in the afternoon when the temperatures and humidity were both off the charts.

To further learn about the Appalachian culture, we visited local homes far up those infamous hollows. We also did home repairs. Short on tools, we used large rocks to pound roofing nails into tarpaper.

It was an inspiring experience. What impressed me most, however, was Neva. Love interfered with logic. We were married the following March at the height of both college and Ohio high school basketball tournaments.

Our fathers had to wonder about our timing. They both loved basketball. We thought for sure that Neva’s father would walk her down the aisle holding a transistor radio to one ear listening to a game.

Somehow we survived that day and all the days that have followed. We haven’t lived a charmed life together, and it certainly hasn’t been perfect. But we have thrived as both a couple and as individuals. Mutual forgiveness, love, and trust will do that.

birds
Male Red-bellied Woodpecker

Our skills and interests have nicely balanced our life together. Neva is a marvelous cook and I am a grateful, hungry husband. Neva prefers reading. I write. She sews. I bird. She quilts. I take photos. You get the picture, no pun intended.

As March plays out into April, Neva and I will be watching how the college basketball playoffs turn out. Of course we each fill out a bracket, making our best guesses as to which teams will be in the final four. The chances of our winning are low. Our marriage, however, has beaten the odds.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep holding hands, and doing what we can to make this world a better place. We have celebrated another personal March Madness milestone and look forward to many more together.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Why the shortest month seems so long

winter in Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
The harsh winter weather has made February seem like a long month.

Every year I get the same sensation. February, the calendar’s shortest month, seems like the longest. A wide range of reasons could account for this annual hunch.

Much of that perception may have to do with February’s unfortunate spot in the calendar birth order. As the year’s second son of 12 siblings, February is bound to have an inferiority complex. Even with an extra day in a leap year, February still can’t measure up.

It certainly doesn’t help to be sandwiched between January and March, each with the maximum 31 days every year. Nor does it help that February is the last full month of winter. By now, humans north of the equator have had it with winter, especially this year. They can’t wait for spring.

Is the shortest month merely clamoring for attention with its temper tantrums of weird and wild weather? To be sure, the weather all across the northern hemisphere has been wicked. A lot of complicated and interconnected reasons account for that. Still, February cannot solely be held responsible.

The polar vortex, which usually calls the Arctic region its winter base, ran away from home this year. It escaped in the waning days of January, and the frigid and frozen effects spilled into February, adding insult to injury.

weather warning map
The latest February weather warning map.
The vortex settled into the eastern U.S., forcing the ordinarily westerly jet stream to warp south around it. We all paid the consequences of that detour, including February.

Blustery winds sent wind chills into the danger zone for millions of citizens, making the environmental conditions all the more brutal. When people thought they couldn’t take it any longer, the vortex slunk away, and a warm front helped set the jet stream aright. Soon, vehicles were mired in muck from a rapid thaw.

About that time, weather officials confirmed an El Nino had developed in the Pacific off southern California. Wave after wave of rain and snowstorms blasted the entire west coast, incapacitating major metro areas.

Damaging floods, mudslides, and icy and snow-clogged roads inundated areas not used to extreme winter weather. Even Hawaii got snow.

More rain pelted down in California. Another snowstorm blasted the state of Washington. Additional freeze warnings plagued northern Florida. All this and February still isn’t over yet. How long does it take 28 days to pass?

It would indeed be unfair to lay all of the responsibility for the climatological miseries on poor February. It was merely an accessory to the crimes, guilty by association.

Ignore the weather, and February has a lot to offer for being the shortest month. It boasts about hosting more holidays per diem than any other month.

February’s progressive party includes Groundhog Day, Lincoln’s birthday, Valentines Day, Washington’s Birthday, and Presidents’ Day. Of course, all of those human conceived days have morphed into nothing more than flashy marketing ploys for a small town in Pennsylvania and retailers big and small nationwide.

I suppose, however, that much of our February malaise comes from nothing more than cabin fever. Never mind the occasional warm day when you could poke your head outside. As we all know, that was nothing but a February tease. It’s safest to stay inside until March.

Despite February’s chilly temperament, she does offer us at least one advantage besides being the briefest month. From beginning to end, we gain almost an hour of daylight in February.

Winter’s darkness is waning. In that, we find hope, rejoice, and offer February our heartfelt thanks.

A snowy ride.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

News you may have missed in 2018

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s been another strange year on Planet Earth. So much craziness filled the headlines that some serious faux pas got overshadowed. Never fear. I kept track for you.

Jan. 12 – A British butcher who got locked in a walk-in freezer used a frozen sausage to batter his way out at his store in Totnes, England.

Jan. 16 – Eyelashes froze when the temperature reached 88.6 degrees below zero in Russia’s remote region of Yakutia.

Feb. 9 – An Alliance, Ohio kindergarten student took a loaded handgun to school for show and tell, but had the gun confiscated by his school bus driver when the boy showed the weapon to the only other student on the bus.

Feb. 23 – A third-grade student fired a police officer’s revolver by reaching into the hostler and pulling the trigger during a safety demonstration at a Maplewood, Minnesota elementary school.

Feb. 27 – Entrepreneur.com reported that the three fastest growing franchises in the U.S. were Dunkin Donuts, 7-Eleven, and Planet Fitness.

March 13 – A study by Bar-Llan University showed that the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors was transferred to their children and grandchildren.

March 14 – A Seaside, California gun safety teacher’s weapon accidentally fired in class, injuring a student.

March 23 – Orange snow fell on much of Europe due to the combination of sandstorm winds mixing with moisture in snowstorms.

April 5 – A report that studied the Sahara Desert from 1920 to 2013 revealed that the desert, defined by areas that receive four inches of rain or less annually, had expanded by 10 percent in that timeframe.

April 9 – Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois became the first sitting U.S. Senator to give birth while in office.

April 13 – A photographer in Madeira Beach, Florida captured a shot of an osprey in flight carrying a shark that was eating a fish.

May 2 – A new report indicated that Americans ages 18 to 22 were far more likely than senior citizens to report being lonely and being in ill health.

May 3 – According to federal research released, the rate of people infected by ticks and mosquitoes has tripled in the last 13 years.

May 9 – A new study by researchers at MIT indicated that fasting could dramatically boost stem cells to regenerate.

May 15 – A Gaylord, Michigan couple opened the hood of their car to discover a squirrel had stuffed 50 pounds of pinecones in their engine compartment.

June 7 – A study showed that seven out of 10 Americans were experiencing news fatigue.

June 25 – A kangaroo bounded onto a Canberra, Australia soccer field, interrupting the play between two professional women’s soccer teams for 32 minutes.

July 3 – Mark Hough of Altadena, California found a black bear bobbing in his backyard hot tub and that the bear had finished off the margarita Hough had left behind.

July 10 – Costa Rica became the first country to ban fossil fuels.

July 21 – After receiving a ticket for speeding, an Iowa woman sped away from police who clocked her at 142 m.p.h. and gave her another citation.

July 27 – A pawn shop in Somerville, Massachusetts bought a stolen violin for $50 and discovered from police that its real value was $250,000.

August 1 – A State of the Climate report indicated that 2017 was the third warmest on record globally after 2016 and 2015.

August 5 – Right-handed reliever Oliver Drake became the first Major League Baseball player to pitch for five different teams in the same season.

August 10 – A new scientific study reported that insect-eating birds consume about 400 million tons of insects each year.

September 10- The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center reported that 600 million birds are killed annually in the U.S. by flying into buildings, most often at night when they are lured by illuminated office windows.

September 14 – New census data reported that Social Security, food stamps, and other government programs kept 44 million Americans out of poverty last year.

September 25 – A record 1,260 dogs attended the baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox during Chicago’s promotional Dogs’ Night Out event.

September 26 – The United Nations Refugee Agency reported that an unprecedented 68.5 million people globally have been forced from their homes.

October 15 – A report by the University of Missouri indicated that honeybees stopped flying during the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017.

October 31 – The journal Nature published a report that showed over the past quarter-century the Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat than previously believed.

November 6 – The World Health Organization listed depression as the leading cause of disability in the world, with the U.S. leading the way with 13 percent of its population on anti-depressants.

November 9 – The Center for Disease Control reported that smoking rates in the U.S. at an all-time low, with 14 percent of adults who smoke cigarettes.

November 25 – A Bank of America ATM machine in Houston, Texas dispensed $100 bill instead of $10, and the bank allowed customers to keep the extra money.

December 8 – A 29-year-old Summerville, South Carolina man was arrested for arson after he allegedly burned several of his neighbors’ outdoor Christmas displays.

December 12 – The CDC listed fentanyl as the deadliest drug in the U.S., causing 18,000 deaths from overdoes in 2016.

December 14 – Snopes.com reported that the busiest day of the year for Chinese restaurants in the U.S. is Christmas Day.

Here’s hoping 2019 is a better year for our planet and all its inhabitants.

Happy New Year!

Let’s let the sun set on 2018.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

How a pair of leaky boots sent me back in time

flooding, river in my bakcyard
A river ran through it.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Memories often materialize in the most unusual of circumstances.

It was early June, and we had endured rainstorm after rainstorm. At times, the rain pelted down at the rate of two inches an hour.

When you live between two mountain ranges and groundwater has already saturated the sticky, red-clay soil, that much precipitation spells trouble. And trouble found lots of folks throughout the picturesque Shenandoah Valley.

High water flooded roadways, keeping fire departments and rescue squads busy with multiple water rescues. It was still pouring when a river of muddy water rushed through our backyard.

I decided to check the five-foot crawl space beneath our ranch home. I slipped on my old black gumboots and jumped into eight inches of water. Instantly, cold, yucky water surrounded my right foot. The combination of old age and wear and tear had finally taken their toll on my versatile rubber boots.

I was grateful a local plumber was gracious enough to bail us out despite being swamped with other calls. Everything beneath our home seemed to have weathered the storm except my precious boots.

rubber boots, gumboots
My old friends.
Gumboots are knee-high footwear made of rubber and fabric designed for all kinds of outdoor activities. Those boots and I went way back. They had served me well in a variety of conditions over several years.

I remember where I bought them nearly three decades ago at a now-defunct shoe store in Mt. Hope, Ohio. I wore the boots often in many different situations. I had depended on them time and again, often in dire instances.

When a storm hit, I put them on to check my roads as a township trustee. I can’t tell you how many flooded streets and ditches I waded through wearing those boots. I traipsed through many snowstorms with them, too.

Once after a big snow, I spied a grizzled old opossum munching birdseed from a feeder that sat atop a picnic table in our backyard. On went my coveralls and those gumboots. I intended to shoo off the unwanted mammal. As I opened the door, our pet rat terrier Bill shot out the door ahead of me.

Charm OH, Ohio in winter, ice cycles
Scene of the rescue.
Bill’s fearless instincts immediately kicked in when he spotted the opossum. The little dog circled the unimpressed marsupial once, and on his second pass, Bill leaped for the much larger animal’s tail. The opossum hit the ground with a thud, dead on arrival.

Those boots even helped me as a volunteer firefighter and EMT. On one run, I found myself standing in the shallows of a stream holding up an elderly victim who had fallen into the rushing creek. I still remember the fire chief’s surprised expression when he saw me in the water with those black boots.

Another time, on an early subzero February morning, I spotted our Amish neighbor heading across frozen farm fields toward our house. Levi was delivering the promised fertilizer for our garden. Steam shimmered in the morning light as it rose from the hardworking draft horses and the load of manure they were pulling in the spreader.

By the time I dressed and pulled on my gumboots, I was too late. Levi and his pitchfork had already deposited a still-steaming pile of manure onto the garden plot. Standing in that frigid, fragrant morning air, I asked him how much I owed for the delivery. Levi just smiled and said wryly, “Nothing. I don’t have anything in it.”

Like I said, sometimes the strangest circumstances stir the fondest memories.

Ohio's Amish country, winter, Holmes Co. OH
Our Ohio backyard winter scene.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018