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

Simple writing prompt mentally sends me back in time to the classroom

By Bruce Stambaugh

The assignment was to write about an object of our choosing located in this sterile college classroom. Typical for a writing workshop, the prompt was designed to get the participants to use sensory descriptors to illustrate the object.

I chose the pencil sharpener affixed to the wall by the only doorway in this institutional setting. The sharpener stood out for me because it seemed so out of place in this 21st century technologically driven global society of ours.

manual pencil sharpener
An old pencil sharpener.
I wondered what in the world an old-fashioned pencil sharpener was doing in this classroom in 2017? Did anyone even use pencils anymore? I thought college students recorded everything on smartphones, iPads and laptop computers.

The answer to my silent wondering became evident as I scanned this bland environment. Everything in this classroom screamed 1977.

Boring blue-gray paint covered the cement block walls on three sides. Strange, random circular insets pockmarked the poured cement west wall. Front and back white boards with telltale scribbling from previous lessons served as classroom bookends. Parallel rows of the old-style fluorescent lights emitted a familiar faint buzzing sound. The textured tile of the suspended ceiling held the lights captive. The well-worn Formica tabletops told their age. I wiggled in the uncomfortable hard plastic molded seats riveted to shiny steel supports that were the student chairs.

My eyes kept returning to the pencil sharpener. It engaged my mind, generating pleasant, personal flashbacks to my teaching days now long past. Nostalgia washed over me as I studied the sharpener and rapidly scrawled my notes. I pictured my classroom setting.

Keen, evocative thoughts flooded my brain bringing a smile to my face. This pencil sharpener was situated exactly where all of the others in my elementary classrooms had been, right by the door and hung conveniently above a wastebasket.

The sights, sounds, smell, and textures associated with sharpening a pencil mentally filled my senses. I fixated on the circular dial with holes on the sharpener’s face. It accommodated various pencil sizes, the bulbous container that held the shavings, and the crank handle. The sharpener possessed me.

elementary school
Where I was principal for 21 years.

To keep the custodian happy, I often emptied the pencil sharpeners of their spent contents myself. Students occasionally managed to somehow miss the wastebasket, spilling the shredded pencil shavings and pulverized lead and graphite residue onto the floor.

The pencil sharpener was the office water cooler of the elementary classroom. If a line formed, I instinctively knew students had more than pencil sharpening in mind.

Some students made a game out of it. They would stand quietly and crank the sharpener’s handle, grinding the poor pencil to a pulp.

Despite my obsession, the sharpener’s reservoir often overflowed its ground up contents. The intermingled woody, metallic scent of the shavings invigorated my senses. That pungent freshness helped compromise the curious blend of 30 human body odors. I’ll let your imagination fill in the details.

black and white photo of students
Some of my first students.
With the students studying at their desks, I quietly emptied the sharpener’s mutilated remains into the wastebasket with several quick shakes back-and-forth to ensure all the grindings found their mark. I replaced the sharpener’s rounded case with a metal-against-metal clink and returned to my instructional duties.

I was both surprised and elated by how this unique, unsophisticated classroom mechanism had spawned such poignant recollections for me. This writing assignment triggered treasures long forgotten, aromas and delightful textures resurrected from my 30-year career as a public school educator.

I wouldn’t trade them for anything, not even an electric pencil sharpener.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

That old house served us well

home, fall scene
That old house in the fall.

By Bruce Stambaugh

By the time you read this, my wife and I will be settling into our new old home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. We’re excited about the change as we enter the autumn of our lives.

We’ll do our best to keep in touch with our friends and relatives in Ohio and elsewhere. They have been the fibers that helped stitch our lives together.

Of course, we will miss our old home, too. It served us well for 38 years. That’s a long time by today’s standards where Americans move on average of 11 times.

When we bought our home in eastern Holmes County, it was as young in housing as we were in parenting. The house was unfinished and budding, like our two and four-year-olds. Neva and I had been married eight years.

That old house helped us raise our daughter and our son from toddlers into productive young adults. It served as ground zero for my amazing wife to hone her effusive hospitality skills.

Our former home holds more memories good and bad than I can recall. But it knows. The house’s walls harbor nearly four decades of our personal saga.

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The house has a beautiful setting that we so enjoyed. We had excellent views of our Amish country surroundings. We could see five miles north to Wayne County. To the east, explosive sunrises stirred our bodies and our souls into another day. To the west, sunsets often thrilled us far beyond their beauty. To the south, our road still looked like an Olympic ski slope as it curved up, then flattened out, and then quickly back down past our house.

The property itself was a sanctuary. People often complimented Neva on her annuals and perennials that kept the old place bathed in colors spring to late fall.

The many trees and shrubs I planted matured, providing habitats for wildlife I never could have imagined. The skunks and raccoons could have found other homes though. The many birds, however, were always welcome.

The old house endured many storms over all the seasons and years as Nature used her full arsenal. Deep snows, large hail, six different lightning strikes, damaging winds, earthquakes, and the severe ice storm of late December 2004 pounded away. They all altered the property but could not subdue it.

The most memorable events though weren’t earth shattering at all. They were the everyday, common occurrences. Crackling fires in the fireplace on a cold winter’s night; sleepovers; the productive, magical hum of Neva’s sewing machine; both planned and impromptu visits from friends, neighbors, and church youth groups, and the whoosh of chimney swifts that rattled the glass fireplace doors only begin the recollections.

None of those, however, can hold a candle to the memories of the grandkids. They were mesmerized by the clop, clop, clop of horse and buggies trotting by, rosy-cheeked from snowball fights and sled rides, giddy with wonder and excitement on Christmas morning.

family fun, roasting hotdogs, roasting marshmellos
Hotdog roast.
After all, the grandchildren are the main reason we uprooted ourselves from all that we have been. They are the reason we will settle into new routines, new roles, and our new home in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley.

Time is short. Neva and I have chosen to fill our elder days with the activities, joys, and disappointments, competitions and achievements of our progeny’s children.

Those will be the sights and sounds, fragrances and satisfactions of all our days ahead, however many or few they may be. Perhaps those memories will be just as sweet, if not sweeter than those generated by that old Holmes County house we called home.

They will not, they cannot replace them.

We wish the new owners well and hope their memories are as fruitful, meaningful, and lasting as ours.

Snow, Ohio
Our old house.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

A lesson learned from packing to move

springtime in Ohio's Amish country
A lovely and familiar Holmes Co. scene.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The time has nearly arrived. My wife and I have worked diligently for a year and a half to prepare for this moment.

After spending our entire adult lives in one of the most beautiful, friendly places in Ohio, Neva and I are preparing to move to Virginia’s picturesque and historic Shenandoah Valley.

I’m glad it has taken us that long to transition from one place to the other. We deliberately took our time. We didn’t want to merely cut and run from the people and place we love.

grandchildren
With the grandkids.
That interlude gave us the opportunity and space we needed to adjust to this major, life-changing decision. We’ve spent much effort sorting and packing clothing, furniture, and household goods. We’ve also met with close friends and family before we exit, often over meals.

We’re moving for the very best reason. We want to be closer to our grandchildren to watch them grow and assist their busy household. Ironically, my older brother and his wife are doing the same thing for the same reason only in reverse. They’re moving from Virginia to Ohio, Holmes Co. in fact.

I jokingly tell people that we have to move because decades ago the county commissioners passed a resolution ensuring only one Stambaugh family at a time could live in Holmes Co. Therefore I have to yield to my big brother.

Silliness aside, Neva and I have learned first-hand that we don’t need as much as we have. Being snowbirds taught us that by living in much smaller quarters with limited storage space. It was a valuable lesson to learn. Since we are downsizing to a smaller ranch home with no basement or attic, we’ve been busy deciding what to take and what to give away or sell.

In sorting through drawers, closets, and shelves, and prioritizing furniture, we uncovered many fond memories. It was easy to decide I didn’t need two-dozen dress shirts. It was much harder jettisoning personal items that served only to remind us of many precious days gone by.

Amish farmers
Neighbors making hay.
We had no other choice. Our new house can only hold so much, so we identified the essentials we’d need and what we didn’t. Our current home is filled with antiques, mostly from all sides of both families, which added to our conundrum.

Our son and daughter took certain items to keep them in the family. We reached out to extended family and close friends, too. But most of them are our peers. They don’t want to add to their lifetime collections either.

What do I do with my grandfather’s first-grade reader? Can I bring myself to sell an old garden tool a friend long-deceased gave to us? Practicality had to override nostalgia.

We met with the local mover that we hired. A sincere young man, he clearly knew his business. We found the combination of his expertise and experience immensely helpful in deciding what to take and what to leave.

As we rapidly approach the moving date, Neva and I reflected on what we have learned from all of this sorting, cleaning, and packing, this drastic rearranging of our lives. The most important lesson was evident. But having lived in the same house for 38 years, we never had to confront it before.

Our most valuable possessions don’t fit in boxes. Rather, family, friends, our little church, neighbors, relationships, and memories are lovingly stored in our hearts.

blooming dogwood
In our memories of Holmes Co., it will always be springtime.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Making meaningful memories

Amish farm
Tourists flock to Holmes Co., Ohio simply to rekindle memories of the way things used to be.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Whether we realize it or not, we make memories every day.

Memories don’t have to be from times long past. Often they are the moments at hand that we cherish the most. The older I get, the more emotive I am about the everyday happenings in my life.

Some memories come from yesterday. Others bubble up from the yesterdays of long, long ago. Some are innocent, innocuous ditties while others are serious, life-awakening treasures.

The odd thing about memories is how they so often just pop up at the strangest times and places. It’s why we need to be mindful of our constant memory making.

flexible flyer sled
The Flexible Flyer now serves a different snowy purpose.
A spark down deep spontaneously ignites and I’m hiking a switchback alpine trail inhaling thin, clear mountain air. Another moment I’m in the delivery room of the local hospital watching my lovely wife deliver our second child. Soon our family doctor holds our newborn in front of us, exclaiming, “She’s a boy!”

In another flash, I’m a child myself, belly flopping on my Flexible Flyer through heavy, wet snow, shouts of glee echoing off the blanketed hillsides. I still have that magic sled.

I remember our daughter, only two at the time, ordering a male guest who tried to leave to sit back down. Her little tea party wasn’t ready to end. The man laughed and complied.

I remember racing to beat the rapidly rising tide to the beach in a shallow bay on Cape Cod. I’ve checked the tidal charts ever since. Then there was the warm summer’s evening I climbed the 897 steps in the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital. The walk back down wasn’t nearly as exciting for this 16-year-old.

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Other less joyful memories we wish we could erase of course. But they, too, are indelibly etched in our minds, resurrected at the strangest, most inappropriate times. We cope with thoughts and prayers and tears, always moving forward in our too short lives.

Many of the memories my wife and I have mutually maintained involve travel with family and friends. I hadn’t been to Hocking Hills State Park since I was a teenager. I enjoyed a recent trip with friends as much as I did the one 50 years ago with family.

We strolled trails, discovered waterfalls, explored caves, and enjoyed every color of green imaginable. We wandered forests of towering trees with unfolding canopies and floors of thousands of feathery ferns.

wedding cake
The wedding cake.
The best memories don’t have to come from exotic, far away places either. They can be pretty close to home. And, too, some settings are made to be memorable.

Ideally, wedding ceremonies and the ensuing reception are memory machines. This celebration was especially so. We witnessed the wedding of our Amish neighbor’s daughter. It’s always an honor to be guests at such occasions.

We loved the focus on family and personal commitment. It was a happy yet solemn occasion. The combination of the simplicity and the significance of the marriage sealed the moment into my mind. There was no flowing wedding gown, no tuxedos, no flowery bouquets, only serious contemplation.

At the reception in the barn, the buzz of the lively conversations further seasoned the already scrumptious food passed up and down long, pleasantly decorated tables. It truly was a life celebration worth remembering.

Memories are potent reminders of life’s sweeping landscapes. What endearing memories will we make today that will be worthy of future recollecting?

Ash Cave, Logan OH
Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, Logan, OH.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Sorting files and memories

Killbuck Elementary School, Bruce Stambaugh
My fifth-grade class in 1978.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Winter in Ohio usually means snow and blowing snow, and snow days, and power outages, and quick trips to the grocery store, and laughter in the wintery elements, and the stunning beauty of a Northern Cardinal’s crimson red against the season’s fluffy whiteness.

When all this happens, it’s a sign from Heaven above to my loving wife that it’s time for her favorite indoors sport, sorting. So we sort.

I am not critical here. Neva is a master organizer. I’m a left-brain thinker, dreamer, and doer of all things distracting from the task at hand. When we’re stuck inside unwilling to brave winter’s sharp teeth, we bind our already long marriage by going through “stuff” one drawer, one box, one file at a time.

northern cardinal
Male Northern Cardinal.
I know it sounds boring, but it’s not.

Neva is also a multi-tasker. She sorts, reads, does jigsaw puzzles and watches college basketball on TV simultaneously. Me? I just watch the game, and, oh, usually munch on some snacks, too.

But when Neva plops a pile of long-forgotten “treasures” determined to be mine in front of me, I know it’s time to put down the chips and get busy. So like any good husband, I do. That’s what I said nearly 45 years ago, and I still mean it. So I dig into the pile.

We went through such a scenario the other night. However, all reorganizing came to a halt when I found a photo of the last fifth-grade class I had taught before I moved on to being an elementary principal.

My attention went to the gaggle of youngsters standing on risers loathing this photo op, as 11-year-olds are wont to do. I examined every face in the three rows of 27 kids, and to my amazement, I could only name a handful of them.

I quickly abandoned the basketball and scanned the photo to my computer. I innocently posted the slightly faded color photo on my social media Facebook page to see if others could help awaken my sleeping brain. I depended on a few of my former students who are in my Facebook circles.

classmates, student ID
Sailing into the past.
Boy did they come through. One of my students in the very first class I taught asked to post the photo on a Facebook page appropriately titled “The Killbuck Gang.” I taught at Killbuck Elementary School in Killbuck, Ohio.

To my surprise, lots of former Killbuck School folks began commenting on the photo. A lengthy online discussion ensued. The student identification process would have made the FBI proud.

Several former classmates, now all adults, joined in the “name that student” game. In a matter of hours, every student was identified, and everyone seemed very pleased to have taken the stroll back in time together. I know I was.

It did this old heart good to see the enthusiasm and interaction of former students and friends as they recollected and reconnected. They filled us in on who was currently doing what in life. Sadly, a few students pictured had passed away, and I was sad to hear that news.

Still, this simple idea of posting the photo went viral in its special way. It refreshed many good memories that had been filed deep in my cranial vault.

I was glad to have all of the students appropriately identified. My wife was equally pleased to have me back in my easy chair once again sorting away.

buggies in snowstorm
Winter in Ohio’s Amish country.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Painting stirs fond memories

autumn in Virginia, landscape
Virginia in the fall.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I haven’t been to my maternal grandmother’s family farm in southern Virginia for years and years. When I arrived in the state’s Shenandoah Valley recently to rejoin my wife, she had a pleasant surprise for me.

The watercolor landscape of Grandma’s family farm hung in the hallway of the apartment we had rented for the fall. We were in Virginia to help our daughter and her family on the home front during the fall. She had loaned the painting to decorate our temporary quarters.

My late mother had painted the landscape of the farm years ago. Dad framed it with well-weathered barn siding he scavenged and repurposed from the farm. There was nothing abstract about this rendering.

I can’t help but smile every time I pass by the farm scene. It brings back such pleasant memories for me.

Growing up in northeast Ohio, we seldom visited the Virginia homestead. It was just too far for a budding young family to travel. Back then it was a three-day drive without the expressways of today.

My grandmother’s two unmarried sisters, Evie and Gertrude, lived on the farm their entire lives. Like many in the south in the 1950s, they worked in a textile mill.

I keenly remember the one trip we did make to the farm when I was a youngster. With no air conditioning, the summer trip south was long and hot.

Signs I had never seen before confused me. As a youngster, I couldn’t fully comprehend “blacks only” notices pointing to the back entrances of businesses. Clearly and thankfully, those were different times.

The farm lane from the highway to the old homestead was little more than two tire tracks that twisted up and around the tree-lined hill to the house. We must have bounded out of the car like a bunch of freed puppies from a cardboard box.

As you can imagine, Grandma’s sisters were gracious hosts. But I could tell having children clamor about their house and property interrupted their normal life. I felt their constant gaze.

Family heirlooms filled the comely old home. Large photos of our great, great grandparents hung in antique oval frames on the living room wall.

The weathered tobacco barn stood behind the house. The two shed-like sides leaned away from the barn’s higher center where the tobacco was hung to dry.

Virginia family farm. watercolor
My mother’s watercolor of the Virginia family farm.
Mom made the barn the centerpiece in her watercolor. The white clapboard farmhouse peeked out from behind.

Mom painted from the perspective of the narrow path that ran down the hill to the spring that supplied the house with water. I had walked that very way with Dad to check the water level to assure our gracious hosts that we would not drain the cistern.

The highlight of the trip for me surely had to be the sumptuous Sunday dinner these two elderly ladies prepared for us. Of course, southern style fried chicken and mashed potatoes served as the main course.

Dessert is what I remember the most, however. It was the first time I had ever had German chocolate cake.

I can still taste that made from scratch layered masterpiece, slathered with yummy brown sugar frosting sprinkled with sweet coconut. I don’t know if it was the heat or by design, but that frosting just oozed down the cake’s sides.

My mother’s painting perfectly captured the Virginia farmstead. The watercolor is both a work of art and a precious timepiece of family history.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015