Wiped Out!

Maybe I occasionally embellish Facebook tales – especially with an all-important topic such as “Cheating Grandchildren.” But folks, this photo is absolutely untouched. During Christmas break I sat down to play Sorry with Audrey, and ran into a string of bad luck that defies all mathematical odds. Not only did I get Sorried a zillion times, but my little yellow warriors just kept getting bumped back to oblivion. This is absolutely true: she won the game AND I STILL HAD ALL FOUR MEN IN START! I wasn’t even two squares down the street! This is like losing a World Series game 200 to nothing.

Is this even statistically possible – all four men still in Start? I honestly thought about sending this picture in to the Guinness World Records people, but am not sure I want to be known just for this level of ignominy. At the very least, can I get some pity from my fellow persecuted grandpas?

P.S. The photo above was taken during happier times; right now we’re not speaking.

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Audiobook Review: “Covenant Child”


             I was halfway through this audiobook before I abruptly realized something: this is the parable of the Prodigal Son. At least in this case, that completely changes the Amazon rating system.

               Blackstock is a superb writer, but frankly, if this is just a straight-up story of two orphan girls reclaiming the family fortune, it would get 3½ stars. The drama’s good, the dialogue’s all right, the settings are vintage small-town Mississippi. But every conceivable trailer-trash metaphor is thrown into the soup here: the selfish bumpkin grandparents who blow the kids’ inheritance in all-night-every-night binges in a local casino. Both girls drop out of high school at 15 (is that even legal?) and get jobs hustling tips at a truck stop diner. They sneak out to meet boys at the county fair; Kara gets pregnant and has a painful abortion. Kara’s smooth-talking boyfriend is out on parole for manslaughter. So no, this is not a subtle tale of woe.

               But as a modern-day retelling of Luke 15’s runaway child, what Blackstock offers us, either deliberately or accidentally, is utterly brilliant. Jesus’ parable, after all, is actually not about the lost wayward child, but the overflowing “prodigal” love of the anxious parent. In this tale, stepmom Amanda Holbrook is that mother. She has an estate worth billions; she has title to a mansion and wealth and comfort and corporate influence. And one more thing: she holds in her heart a loving blueprint of what she wants to bequeath to her treasured but long-lost stepdaughters.

               So all through the second half as the drama builds, no, she will not simply settle out of court and give Kara and Lizzie $50 million each. Because fancy clothes and booze and casino chips are not part of the Paradise life she wants to share with them. She wants to be both their mom and their mentor, their faithful guide. Her love for them includes the entirety of a new life away from the seedy selfishness and ruin of the trailer park.

               The early story is tinged by what often affects Christian fiction: a twinkly, faux cheerfulness where good-looking Christian men meet pretty girls and there’s a whole lot of winking and chuckling and aren’t-all-God’s-people-just-adorable saccharine. But Blackstock makes up for it with superb writing as Kara is inexorably drawn away from 13 bitter years of teen delusion, e.g. “Amanda’s nothing but a lying thief who stole our fortune.” A beautiful retelling of Jesus’ most stirring parable.

               By the way, actress Kirsten Potter performs this audiobook, and does a superb job. She and Tonya Foster Yancey are two of my favorite narrators, and this is an excellent effort.

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We told stories that spilled such fun

Bringing joy to everyone

Sneetches, Cats, even a Who

Don’t forget Thing One, Thing Two!

So you laughed, and sometimes sighed

Best of all, you always tried

To know what other people feel

When they slip on a banana peel

Then you grew up and had kids too

And shared our stories as they grew

But times had changed; our hearts grew too

So we said: “What shall we do?”

For sure we have to keep the Grinch

But if a story starts to pinch

And make a child feel rather small

Or not as super, not as tall

Or smart and special

On the ball

We’ll tuck that story in a drawer

And not forget what stories are for

To help us think and make us kinder

Dream up a friend, and then go find her!

New friends of every lovely shade

In all the colors God has made

We carry on with no excuse

So keep on reading Dr. Seuss!

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Do Your Duty

One of the most poignant, despairing moments in American cinema is when lawyer Atticus Finch delivers his closing plea to twelve racist jurors in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He fully realizes these men are locked into their biases; the vote outcome is already guaranteed to preserve the evil poison of prejudice. Gregory Peck can say whatever he wants; he can be as lofty and eloquent as MLK on the Mall. And it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference; these guys don’t care. All they want is to cling to things the way they already are.

So Finch lays out the inescapable facts once more, how Tom Robinson absolutely did not, could not commit this rape; he was incapable of it. Beyond that, how our nation’s only hope is for the legal system to function fairly, for even a black man to be equal in the eyes of the law when he steps into the dock. That when twelve men put their hand on the Bible and swear before God to do justice, that pledge ought to mean something.

And he closes with eight words that bring tears to the eyes of moviegoers: “IN THE NAME OF GOD, DO YOUR DUTY.”

Sometimes it really doesn’t make that much difference how one trial comes out. Because no matter how some cynical jurors may vote, millions of people around the globe are all watching the movie.

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“There Was A Sudden, Sharp, Shattering Sound”

Every Nov. 22 I feel a stab of pain emanating from Dallas. Even though I was just an eight-year-old kid, and even though we were in Bangkok, the news still shocked our secluded mission community. Most of us were just coming out of church (Sabbath morning, 17 time zones later) when the news began to spread across our hospital compound.

               Years ago I read the definitive Manchester book, “The Death of a President.” Things are going well; JFK and Jackie are glamorous and popular. The motorcade is gliding through the downtown area with cheering crowds. Then on page 229 is this one sentence: THERE WAS A SUDDEN, SHARP, SHATTERING SOUND.

               There are a million wrenching, poignant nuggets in this towering book. One that breaks my heart is where a Kennedy aide was arriving home later that night, his heart in a million pieces. A little neighbor kid paused on the sidewalk and said to him: “I’m sorry your President died.” Even in his grief, the aide paused right there. “Son, he was your President too. He was every American’s President.”

               The kid shrugged. “No, he wasn’t. My parents didn’t vote for him. Kennedy was nothing to us.” Just that story reminds me of what it means to be a citizen and to respect the framework of government our founders laid out for our lasting success.

               Back in 2003, I penned a series of VOP radio shows marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination. You can access it on Amazon for a dollar if you’re interested. Here’s the link:


               I also have to recommend Stephen King’s brilliant time-travel novel, 11-22-63, about a man who tries to go back through a wormhole in order to prevent Oswald from gunning down the President. If that story piques your interest, I did a similar vignette in The Time Portal, where a high school kid named Jordan Wickam is taken back to 1865 and is sitting in Ford’s Theater the night Abe Lincoln is shot.

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Mom! You Can’t Use That Word!

               It’s over. The last barrier shattered. Apparently the thirst for victory trumps all scruples around here. As of this moment in the moral universe, the Smith family stands for . . . absolutely nothing.

               Let me explain. Mom and I were playing our weekly Scrabble game and I had a slight lead. But the board’s triple-word square was suddenly in play and it was her turn.

               She scanned her tiles, murmuring to herself through her mask, and then brightened. “This is a word, right?” She laid down her choices and began counting up: “Four plus one one one; that’s seven. Times three – I get 21!”

               I gaped at her, blushing right down to my toenails. “Mom! You can’t use the word FART!”

               I’m not kidding you. Sometimes I do exaggerate, but this is a true story, folks. My flesh-and-blood mother, who led me in childhood prayers and who served as a missionary to Thailand for 17 years, had spelled out the scarlet word forever on the General Conference Banned List. But now she was the childlike picture of innocence. “Why not?”

               “‘Cause it’s evil! It’s nasty!” I pulled out of the cobwebbed family archives my departed dad’s blanket condemnation of all words with scatological overtones.

               Now, the fact is that any family with four red-blooded American sons, no daughters, is going to vibrate with the daily reality of flatulence. Some days that’s about all we did. We had nights around the dinner table that rivaled that gassy scene in Mel Brooks’ irreverent movie spoof, “Blazing Saddles.” We sang “Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit” in bilingual harmony. We often exchanged the 1965 version of fist bumps for exceptional rumbles: “Good one, Danny!” “Oh, man. Who cut the cheese?” “Yow, that’s a stinker!” (This was all said with machismo admiration but always feigned as pious indignation.)

               The reality though, was that the above-mentioned word (it still makes me blush to even type it) was the ultimate F-bomb in our house, in more ways than one. We didn’t actually verbalize the word F-RT, because we had access to forty zillion Thai euphemisms for the same social transgression. I’m not going to reveal them here because my brothers and I still take mission trips over to Chiang Mai, and I want to retain some credibility with my Asian friends. But believe me, people in Bangkok know full well how to describe a pungent toot.

               Anyway, back to Scrabble. I’m serious; Mom was adamant that she wanted her 21 points and that F-RT was suddenly an innocent cache of points. I hissed at her: “Mom, what if your friends here at The Villa see this? You’re still a pastor’s wife; you’ve got to set an example!” (I can’t believe I said that.)

               Sure enough. At that exact moment three of her girlfriends rolled over with their walkers-on-wheels and stared at our playing board. It took them a second to absorb the naughty euphemism and then all three of them tittered. “Jean, did your son play that?”

               “I did not play it!” I yelped. “That’s her word! See, that’s mine over there.” I pointed to the word “sanctify,” which had me using up all seven of my tiles. (Okay, I made that part up.)

               One of Mom’s senior citizen friends cackled out loud with a sudden stab of memory. “Who’s that man who always takes the extra enchiladas? He has a bit of a problem there.” They all guffawed, and I suddenly realized times have changed.

               It makes me think of the senior citizen who admitted to the doctor, “I’ve got a serious problem with silent gas, doc. Every few minutes a tiny cloud slips out. Like just now. Can you give me some pills?”

               The M.D. nods, grateful for his surgical mask. “I think so. But first we’ve really got to get you a hearing test.”

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The Scrabble Queen

            I’ve taken to playing outdoor Scrabble games with my mom, who’s a spritely 91 and a bit of a troublemaker at The Villa. The slightly Christian part of me has as a mantra: “Okay, she’s old; let her win.” Truth be told, though, after the last couple of games I’m ashamed to admit my own cutthroat instincts have jumped right back.

            We’re wearing masks and trying to sit six feet apart, tossing the letter bag back and forth across the playing board. And since I don’t lug a dictionary over to the retirement home, it’s hard to challenge Mom on words. The Holy Spirit (at least I think it’s Him) whispers to me: “Just let her have it.” But last week she innocently asked if “zee” was a word. I didn’t think so (turns out it is!), but acquiesced. She plopped the tiles down and I reluctantly gave her something like 24 points.

            On the very next play, she wanted to add a single “S” to it. ‘Cause if “zee” is a word, well, then I suppose an English teacher could have 40 or 50 “zees.” Tragically, the “S” took the entire word onto a triple-word premium, and she racked up 62 more points. All at once the game was out of reach! I kept a smile on my face underneath the mask, but swore revenge all the way home.

            This past weekend the literary piracy escalated. She peered at her seven letters. “Is ‘da’ a word?”

            “Just ‘da’?”

            “Uh huh.”

            “Mom, that’s Russian!” I yelped. “Are we allowing foreign words now?” Several choice Thai epithets popped into my brain and I eyed my own rack of letters.

            A few minutes later she drew a “y” and was anxious to put it in play. “How about ‘toey’? Is that a word?”

            I gave my standard rejoinder. “Use it in a sentence.”

            She thought hard. “Cousin Mildred was born with six toes on each foot. She’s very toey.”

            Lord, help me here. She’s my mom. I don’t want to make a scene and fling all my letters in the grass.

            The other thing that makes these games hard is that all her friends gather around to cheer . . . and never on my behalf. “You’ve got him on the ropes, Jean. Good one!” “Sure, ‘toey’ is a word!” One of them waved her cane menacingly and I visibly flinched.

            So I lost a couple of Scrabble games. I comfort myself with this bit of reminiscing. Back in ’57 I was a two-year-old toddler still in diapers when the five Smiths boarded the Steel Admiral headed for Thailand. Six weeks in two crowded staterooms on a diesel freighter. Mom and Dad would play marching games and follow-the-leader with Danny and me on the deck of the ship, feed us supper, give us our baths, say prayers with us, and then tuck us away for the night, the waves of the Pacific Ocean a gentle lullaby.

            Then she and Dad would get out the Scrabble game and have a nightly contest, enjoying the idyllic pleasure of a game with your very favorite person. With the rice paddies and the challenges of foreign mission service just over the watery horizon.

            So okay, maybe Mom deserves to win a few games. After all, she’s kind of the queen.

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O Captain, My Captain

               A friend stopped Lisa and me during our morning walk. “Are you running for office? Need my vote?” “No,” I told him. “I saw that yard sign too, but it’s some other guy.” I figure this other David Smith needs all the help he can get, and the more I can let voters know it’s not me, that can only boost his candidacy. Smith? That lame-brain flunked me in calculus! I hope he drowns in the reservoir.

            But it reminded me of a flight years ago where I’d spoken at some church and was just landing back at LAX. I still had on my suit, was seated in, like, Row 3, but my carry-on was way in the back of the plane. So I got up to stretch my legs and wait for everyone to disembark. Sigh.

            A nice lady with two kids eyed my suit, and then gave a little wave. “Thank you.”

            “Oh,” I said, startled. “I’m not the pilot.”

            “Oops.” She grinned and passed by.

            Twenty seconds later another passenger nodded appreciatively. “Good you got us home on time. Thanks.”

            “Um, I’m not . . . I just had a speaking appointment.”

            By now I figured it was no use. When a third weary flier thanked me for the flight, I decided to roll with it. “Sure. Thanks for flying with us.” She didn’t bat an eye.

            Soon I was really getting into it, bowing and scraping and offering to autograph people’s luggage claim stubs. “Yes, thanks so much.” “Glad to have you with us here in the friendly skies.” (This was Southwest.) “I’m telling you, that was some heavy turbulence up there.” “It’s a big old bird but we brought her down okay, I think.”

            I waved to one of the flight attendants. “Well, I’m off to Maui. See you ladies again soon.” I turned to the remaining passengers. “Anybody need cocktail coupons for your next flight? Frequent-flyer application forms? Want to see the cockpit? Take a spin around Griffith Observatory?”

            Two security guards showed up in the jetway and a passenger pointed right at me. “I was just kidding around,” I managed feebly. “David E. Smith. Running for Water District.”

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It’s a tragic reality that even the most heartfelt and somber protests can swerve off into eruptions of violent rage. Our First Amendment is a fragile jewel and it’s heartbreaking when a good cause is thwarted by temper tantrums – and sometimes outside opportunism.

I’ve lived a life of white middle-class privilege, so confess I don’t understand all the emotional layers of, say, a black-lives-matter rally. When a misguided person throws a brick or robs a Best Buy, I concur that the penalty needs to be swift and sure. At the same time, the person who fell into evil is my fellow human, my brother in this broken-down race. If I had a relative, say, a nephew who was arrested for his folly, I hope I would be both frustrated with him . . . and also sympathetic, praying and working for his redemption.

I’ve always appreciated Arthur Hailey novels for their social conscience. In his bestseller, “Wheels,” he lays open a scene on a Detroit auto assembly line, where workers of all races try to build the world’s coolest cars. An insensitive line foreman calls a young black worker “boy,” just an inadvertent slip. But another black employee takes offense and slugs the foreman! Pandemonium! The foreman wants the violent offender fired, the union wants the foreman demoted.

But one of the black workers makes this little speech, which is an eye-opener to me. “Man, you ain’t black, you don’t know what it means; not rage, not anger. It’s a million goddam pins bein’ stuck in from time you was born, then one day some white motha calls a man ‘boy,’ an it’s a million ‘n one too many.”

Here’s what’s wrenching to me as I leaf through the story to find this scene. I bought that paperback novel in the Hong Kong airport, August of 1973. The sticker’s literally still on it: 15 Hong Kong dollars. I was on my way back to the U.S. after teaching summer school in Bangkok following  my freshman year at Pacific Union College. This inner-city tale of woe happened a half century ago; some needed changes don’t happen quickly enough.

Again, I haven’t lived in that neighborhood and I haven’t worked on that assembly line. But for sure I’d say this. If federal forces need to be sent to a city to help keep things safe, okay,  then do it. But do it quietly and don’t do it with swagger. Don’t say things like: “If there’s looting, there’s shooting.” Don’t do it with jingoistic boasting and the waving of a metaphorical nightstick. Because these people are all our fellow Americans. They’re still family.


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There Are Bears in the Woods!


“Mommy! Kira took too big a bite! It’s way unfair!”   “Mommy! Kira took too big a bite! It’s way unfair!”

Both girls were out Christmas shopping at the big mall in Birmingham, and their mom had unwisely agreed to stop for an ice cream cone. “You can trade bites,” she decreed, but of course Kira, being the older sister, had a way bigger mouth.

“It wasn’t that much,” she protested, but the gaping hole in the side of the much-depleted scoop made her words seem hollow.

“Katrina can have three bites in a row.” Mom issued her decree and Katrina celebrated by sticking her tongue out at her big sister. “Ha ha.”

The mall was jam-packed with shoppers, and there were Christmas carols pouring out of all the speakers. All the huge department stores were decorated for the holidays and they had massive color posters out advertising the great December sales. The trio walked past J C Penneys, still licking on the last remnants of the cone.

All at once Kira felt herself almost swaying. Could her eyes be deceiving her? She pointed and bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. “Look! It’s Grandpa!”

“Where?” Katrina, being shorter, had to crane her neck to look.

“Over there. In the men’s department.”

Sure enough, there was a twenty-foot-high canvas mural and Kira’s very handsome grandpa was modeling the Penney’s brand of T-shirts. A number of female shoppers had paused next to the huge photo display; several forgot their Christmas bags as they basked in her grandpa’s photogenic handsomeness. “I didn’t know he was an underwear model,” Kira’s mom said in amazement.

“He’s way handsome, huh?” It was a bit embarrassing for kids to see their very own grandpa in shorts and a white V-neck T-shirt, but the cotton fabric did nothing to hide Grandpa’s rippling muscles and excellent skin tone. “I bet he got paid lots of money.”

Kira’s mom, who had often heard Grandpa lament about the price of airplane tickets between Alabama and California, shook her head and laughed. “When I was a kid, if an ice cream cone cost a dollar your grandpa would pout for a week. Things are certainly different now; that’s for sure.”

On the ride home in the car, Kira borrowed her mom’s phone and fired off a quick text message to her beloved grandpa. I just saw a certain old geezer modeling T-shirts! He looked quite a bit like YOU! Love from your favoritest granddaughter, Kira. P.S. See you soon!

She realized that her grandpa loved Miles, Audrey, Katrina, and her with equal fervor, but being the oldest, she and Grandpa had had several extra years together, just the two of them.

The truck slowed down to merge onto the freeway and Mom switched off the radio. “Sweetie, have you thought of some fun things all you kids can do when you get to California?”

“Uh huh. I have the most brilliant plan in the whole wide world.”

“Wow, so tell me. What’s your brainchild?”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I would say that Katrina and Miles and Audrey and me … we want to see if Grandpa and Grandma will take us out camping.”

The truck began shaking violently, and almost skidded against a green minivan. “Mommy! Watch your driving! What’s wrong with you?”

“Sorry,” Mom managed, her body still shaking with hilarity. “But that was really funny.”

“Why? I think it’s a brilliant plan. In fact, super-brilliant.”

“Well, it’s perfect,” Mom said. “Except for one thing.”


“Well, your handsome grandpa, whom you love so much, hates the woods. He hates camping. He hates mosquitos and the outdoors and sleeping in a sleeping bag. All of it.”

Kira could hardly believe her ears. It seemed completely out of character! How could her handsome grandpa not want to go camping with four adorable grandkids? It made no sense at all.

“I think you’re just joking,” she managed, and Katrina chimed in too. “Yeah, Mommy. We want to go camping with Grandpa!”

“Well, there’s only one way you’ll talk him into it,” Mom explained. “And that’s if the campsite is named ‘Hilton Hotel.’”


“That’s right. If you go camping at a Hilton, he might go.”

“Why wouldn’t Grandpa like camping? Camping’s awesome.”

“Yeah. Awesome!” Katrina was in that stage of life where she repeated much of what her big sister said.

“Well, just think about it. Hilton Hotels have big-screen TVs. Grandpa likes those. They have swimming pools. Grandpa likes those too. They have big buffet breakfasts where they serve yogurt and you can put little walnut bits in it. He likes stuff like that.”

Kira gulped. That did kind of sound like her grandpa’s Christmas wish list. Of course, she rather enjoyed the idea of swimming pools herself, especially the indoor kind where steam rose right off the nice warm water. Still, camping had its own rustic niceness to it. “But it’s fun sleeping in a tent,” she protested.

“Well, good luck getting your grandpa to go along with that,” Mom said. “To your grandpa, ‘tent’ is a dirty word. Say it in front of him, and he might wash your mouth out with soap.”

Kira dutifully filed the warning away, and began plotting ways she and Katrina could bring up camping but in a positive way that would make her grandpa understand such issues in a new light.

Soon enough all four grandkids were dashing around Grandpa’s spacious home in California, demanding horsy rides and leaving toys all over the living room rug. Kira challenged her grandpa to a series of games of Sorry, and by utilizing a number of cheating strategies managed to beat him seventeen times in a row. Urk, she thought as she tried to interpret the dour expression on his face. Maybe I blew it. I should have let Grandpa win that last game.

Then she had a tremendous new idea. “Here, Grandpa,” she offered. “I’ll get you a big bowl of ice cream.”

He brightened noticeably. “Thank you, sweetie. Grandma usually says no when I ask for ice cream, but you’re just a kid and all her monster rules seem to have melted away.”

That was true enough. Most grandmas had a difficult time keeping kids away from the freezer and the ice cream carton. Kira dished up a heaping bowl of ice cream–six or seven scoops of his favorite brand–and then doused the sugary pile with a lot of chocolate syrup. “Here, oh handsome grandpa,” she announced, letting her own voice get kind of sugary too. “All these scoops of ice cream are a high expression of my magnificent love for you.”

He squinted for a moment, and seemed to be trying to process the concept that Kira giving Grandpa some of the very same ice cream he’d paid for at Trader Joe’s counted as an expression of granddaughterly affection. Still, the ice cream had escaped Grandma’s guardian clutches, and that in itself made this a good Christmas holiday.

“Thanks, baby.” He took several bites and his demeanor lurched into the joyful category. “This is pretty yummy stuff.”

“Mommy and us were at the mall and saw your big T-shirt ad,” she cooed. “You were way handsome in it.”

“Oh, it’s no big deal,” Grandpa shrugged in his usual self-deprecating way. (Despite his overpowering handsomeness, he generally dismissed that kind of gushy talk.)

“Well, I’ll bet Penney’s will sell tons of underwear this Christmas,” she assured him. “‘Cause lots of wives will hope their husbands can look as awesome as you do.”

Grandpa took another bite and Kira noted with satisfaction that he didn’t seem to suspect this sugar-dripping conversation was actually leading to a beautiful and rustic campsite!

“I have an amazing and stupendous idea,” she told him, resting her head on his shoulder for a moment. “But hey, first you need another bite of ice cream. Sure you have enough syrup there, Handsome Grandpa?” She gave a prearranged signal to Katrina and her cousins and they all came over. She and Katrina began giving him synchronized kisses on both cheeks–Mwaah! Mwaah! Mwaah! Miles and Audrey, remembering Kira’s whispered instructions the night before, began massaging Grandpa’s feet and singing his favorite Christmas carols in beautiful two-part harmony.

All this might have been laying it on a bit thick–the trio of kisses, ice cream, and foot massaging–but like most men, her grandpa’s antenna was coated with Hershey’s syrup and he didn’t sense anything amiss. “What’s your stupendous plan?”

“Well,” she murmured between the continuing assault of kisses, hoping the pounding of her heart wasn’t audible, “it’d be so amazing to just sit in the great out of doors and then look out over a lake and see a gorgeous sunset. With nice Christmasy clouds floating by and … like that. And maybe we’d even see a deer.” Mwaah! Mwaah! Mwaah! She and Katrina dialed up the volume on the Kiss Cam just a tad.

“That does sound nice,” her grandpa agreed, smacking his own lips as another two hundred fat-coated calories slid past them.

“I know. And then you could read all of us kids some really great stories, like where Joseph’s dad gave him that coat that was two hundred colors.” Kira’s grandpa was especially fond of the great Bible adventures, and she already knew the story of Joseph’s coat was his favorite.

“Sure. That’d be all right.”

“And then we could have hot chocolate,” she said dreamily. “And maybe some marshmallows.”

“I can vote for all that,” he mused, his heart and soul sliding right into the adventure along with his granddaughter’s vibrant word pictures.

“And then we can all get in our sleeping bags and be all cozy, and the moonlight will spill into our tent and … and … we might hear a hoot owl way off in the distance, and it’ll be just way awesome.”

All at once it was like a lightning bolt of reality had awakened her grandpa from a deep coma. “Wait a minute,” he yelped. “Sleeping bags? How did sleeping bags get into this story and ruin it? I thought we were watching the sun go down over the edge of a silvery lake. Stuff like that.”

“I know,” she said. “And then we get into our cozy tent and snuggle up in sleeping bags, and Katrina and me and Miles and Audrey will all line up and give you ten kisses each, and that’s forty kisses total, and … and … please, Grandpa! Don’t say no! Camping’s awesome!

His face had the look of a sick child who just got forced to eat fourteen bites of puréed spinach. His lips worked for several seconds as though he was trying to get a bug worked loose from between his gums and lips. “Camping?” he croaked. “Did you say camping?”

“Uh huh.” Kira flung both arms around his neck and kissed him again. “We all want to go camping. It’s stupendous!”

“Yeah,” echoed Miles. “Camping is stupendous.” (This was a new word to him, but he managed to get it out, and looked around for some affirmation.)

“Camping is vomitous,” Grandpa contradicted them, his face suddenly a pasty white. “It’s snakes and it’s cold rain coming in through the cracks in the tent, and by the way, we haven’t got a tent! What do you want to do, take one of Grandma’s bedsheets out in the jungle and try to fasten it to a tree? And then it starts raining and all six of us drown and your mom has to take all our presents back to the store and what kind of Christmas is that?”

Kira gaped at her grandpa. This really was the first time she had seen him in such hysterics. “It won’t be like that,” she said. “I went camping with Elaina and it was way, way cool. The sleeping bags are cozy, and you can have Pop-tarts for breakfast, and it’s just tons of fun. And way pretty too,” she added, hoping to inject a spark of interest with the idea of pretty sunsets, which she knew he always liked.

“Well, there’s only one way I’m going camping,” he declared flatly. He held up six fingers. “Can you count up these six letters?” He spelled them out with a ferocious determination on his face. “H–I–L–T–O–N.”

Kira sagged. “Hilton? Like a Hilton Hotel?”

“That’s right. That’s the only kind of camping I like. Especially at a Doubletree. ‘Cause they give you a free chocolate chip cookie when you check in.”

“But Grandpa,” she wheedled, motioning for Katrina to start up the double-barreled kissing bombardment again. Mwaah! Mwaah! Mwaah!  “It’s really nice out in nature.”

“It is not nice out in nature,” he shot back, realizing, I think, that his arguments were a little bit ridiculous. “Sleeping in a tent involves exactly six things. Do you want to know what they are?”

“Not particularly,” she said, knowing he was about to tell her anyway.

“Okay. Here they are. One, it rains all over the tent. Two, the rain comes through the tent and lands on your head and gets all your clothes wet and gives you pneumonia. Three, at two in the morning, an old guy like me has to pee. Four, the camp bathroom is, like, clear on the other side of the lake and it takes twenty minutes to walk there through bear-infested woods. Five, speaking of bears, there’s forty thousand of those out in the woods. And six, speaking of peeing, that’s what bears do in the woods all day and all night. And not just peeing either.” He gave her a significant look that clearly broadcast the warning: So watch where you step.

It was an impressive recitation for a grandpa who hadn’t rehearsed his speech, and Kira had to retreat and regroup for the moment. Could a second bowl of ice cream soften her grandpa’s rigid opposition to her amazing Christmas plan? A look at Grandma’s face told her no.

“But … but …” Her mind was humming for a way to recover. “You can’t say no to the four most amazing grandchildren in the universe, can you?” Audrey came up and rubbed her soft cheek against Grandpa’s whiskers. “Pretty please, Grandpa dear?”

“‘N-O’ spells no,” he said with quite some finality, the power of his love for cute grandkids in inexorable retreat.

Just then Kira’s beautiful grandma came to the rescue. “How about if we just go for one night? Kira and I will cook macaroni and we’ll take a DVD player along and watch the Ralphie Christmas movie.”

“Yea! Go Grandma!” All four grandkids rushed to her side and gave her a quartet of hugs, glad to have found a new ally.

“That’s fine with me,” Grandpa said. “You guys go and I’ll stay here close to the big-screen TV and nine thousand NFL games.”

“No! It’s no fun without you, Grandpa.”

Bit by bit, bribe by bribe, with many stereo kissing bombardments, and ice cream bowl by ice cream bowl, the four relentless grandchildren wore their victim down. By the time he managed a feeble “Okay,” all masculine light gone from his eyes, he had gained fifteen pounds, all due to pralines’n’cream ice cream bribes.

“We can borrow that big camping tent from the neighbors,” Grandma reminded him, thinking to herself it might take an extra-jumbo-size tent to accommodate her husband’s suddenly ballooning form.

His face darkened, and Kira began to think her grandpa wished he lived out in a desert someplace where there weren’t any unselfish busybodies just across the street with a garage overflowing with camping gear.

To her grandpa’s credit, though, he actually got into the car the following afternoon and pasted a nervous smile on his face as they headed toward the camping site. Kira was in glorious heaven, thinking of the cozy sleeping bag and the joy of hearing the cool water lapping against the shore of the lake. It was going to be a full moon outside, and she was sure once her grandpa caught the vision of how heavenly camping could be, why, he might take her and Katrina again next summer!

Just as they pulled off the freeway, thought, they edged passed a Doubletree Hotel, and she could see Grandpa’s hands trembling on the steering wheel. His lips were moving with some kind of silent mantra, and she supposed he was murmuring to himself: chocolate chip cookie. Chocolate chip cookie. Big-screen TV with football games …

“Grandma brought cookies too,” she burst out, reading his mind. “So we don’t have to stay at some boring old hotel where you can’t make any noise or anything.”

“Oh, great,” he sighed. “Just what I long for at Christmastime: noise from four hooting grandkids.” A moment later, he added anxiously: “Plus the growling of bears, the slithering of man-eating snakes, the rumble of thunder just before a forty-day monsoon hits …”

They got to the campground, and all four grandkids could see Grandpa’s facial muscles twitching again as he handed the camp ranger his credit card for the overnight fee. Kira imagined he was mentally envisioning the Doubletree Hotel’s chocolate chip cookies and wondering why a man would pay good money just to sleep in the same woods as poisonous snakes.

They got to the campsite and, as things turned out, it was lucky for everyone Grandma was along. Kira already knew her grandpa’s skills were mostly limited to hard math problems and trombone playing. But when it comes to pitching a tent that sleeps six, especially a borrowed one belonging to the neighbors, Grandma was the unsurpassed queen of camping joy. In less than an hour, she and the kids had a lovely and palatial canvas mansion set up for the night with six sleeping bags and cozy pillows in place. Grandpa, on the other hand, sat on a nearby rock, eyes alertly darting this way and that for lions or grizzly bears.

“Isn’t that a pretty sunset, Grandpa?” Kira came over and put a reassuring arm around him. “We’re having loads of fun, huh?”

“Um … sure.” Just then a hoot owl screeched and he almost pole-vaulted out of his own skin. “What was that!”

“Just a bird.” She planted a slurpy kiss on his cheek. “Just admit that this is way, way, way pretty. And cool.”

“It’s way, way cold,” he retorted, zipping up his coat a bit tighter. “I may as well go live at the North Pole with Santa.”

“Supper!” Grandma called out, and the grandkids all scampered over to the campfire, exclaiming ecstatically over the huge pot filled with cheesy macaroni and swimming with pieces of sliced-up hotdogs.

Everyone picked Audrey to say grace, and Kira whispered something in her ear just before she started. “Dear God,” she said, “Thank you that we get to go camping. And thank you for lots of hot dogs in our macaroni. And … and … and help Grandpa not to be scared of snakes all night long.”

At this all four grandchildren began snickering right smack in the middle of the prayer, and Audrey was hardly able to get to the ending and the part going: “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Just then Grandpa added: “And please send some rain so we can jump back in the car and drive over to the Doubletree, where they serve chocolate chip cookies to anybody smart enough to check in there.”

Grandma cleared her throat and gave her husband a look that could only be interpreted as a rebuke. “It’s bad enough when the children put silly things right in their prayers,” she said. “Don’t set a bad example, Grandpa.”

“Going to the Doubletree isn’t silly,” he asserted. “Right now it’s the core principle of my very being.”

“No way,” Kira asserted. “We have mac and hotdogs that your very own wife made, Grandpa. How could a dumb old hotel have something as good as that?”

He grudgingly admitted that, sure, the food was as amazing as the beautiful cook was too.

As the evening wore on, everything seemed to spill in Kira’s direction. The air was wintry cool but not freezing. The sunset was spectacular, and even Grandpa had to admit God had painted a splendiferous picture over the silvery lake water. The moon wasn’t quite full, but as it spilled light through the trees and lit up the campground, it was an amazing show.

“See, Grandpa?” she murmured. “And no bears.”

“Not yet,” he admitted.

All four grandkids wanted to stay up late and have Grandpa tell them a bazillion ghost stories, but since he was already fretting about ghosts and dinosaurs attacking their tent, they decided maybe it was best to go to sleep right after the Ralphie movie about getting a Red Ryder BB gun. Audrey and Miles and Kira and Katrina all said their bedtime prayers and then gave him ten kisses each, so that was forty more reasons for him to not completely hate camping.

It was hours later when Kira heard a quiet shuffling sound. What was that? For a moment, even she began to have her brain lurch around the possibility of leopards skulking about the tent. Or perhaps a rhinoceros charging their direction and looking for its own kind of Christmas breakfast. Then she realized it was her handsome grandpa fumbling around in the dark for his shoes. “Grandpa, where are you going?” she whispered.

In the murkiness of the tent, she could barely make out the grumbly look on his face. “It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m an old geezer grandpa. Where do you think I’m going? Disneyland?”

“Oh.” She grinned, then sat up in her sleeping bag. “I’ll go with you.”

“Don’t be silly. I can go by myself.”

“Aren’t you scared of bears? I’d better come along to protect you with my karate chops.”

He reached over and squeezed her foot through the sleeping bag. “You’re a sweetheart. Sure, that’d be great.”

It turned out to be just about a two-minute walk over to the camp restrooms, and Kira decided that since she was awake too, she might as well take care of the same business as her grandpa. Moments later, they both emerged, and she snuggled close to him. “See? Isn’t this awesome? Admit it, you have a really cozy sleeping bag.”

“It’s all right,” he allowed.

They walked back to the camp site, her grandpa’s arm draped around her shoulders, and Kira was sure she’d never been happier in her life. The woods were quiet, with the trees almost sleeping too, along with the birds and the grasshoppers. There was a park bench right next to the tent, and without even thinking about it, the two of them sat down together and Kira rested her head against Grandpa’s shoulder.

For a long moment neither of them said anything, and it was really nice just feeling the quiet December blanket fold itself up around them. “Grandpa?”

“Yeah, baby.”

“How come you came camping with us? When you said you hated it with all your heart?”

He managed a smile. “Well, honey, I admit I’ve had some yucky camping trips. When I was a kid.”

“But this was nice,” she pressed.

“Uh huh.” It was impossible for her grandpa to deny the glory of the moonlight splashing little ripples along the edge of the lake, or how amazing Grandma’s macaroni was with those bits of hotdog.

“Are you having fun?”

He gave her a little squeeze. “Yes. ‘Cause I’m with the grandchildren I love so much.”

That made Kira feel very special, but a moment later he said something she never forgot. “I think there’s lots of times when we’d rather not do something. Maybe it’s hard, or the last time we did it, things went way bad.”

She waited, feeling the soft up-and-down of her grandpa’s breathing through his wool jacket.

“But this is what I figured out. There’s something little and silly that maybe you don’t want to do. But then there turns out to be a bigger reason, maybe a more important factor, that rises up and is just … you know, more important. So then you go ahead and do it.”

“Like … what?”

“Well, like here. Okay, that Doubletree Hotel is pretty nice. Grandpas like stuff like that. Cookies and a big TV for a football game, and then a swimming pool. But then a man has four grandchildren, and he wants them to have a happy life and a lot of good memories. Adventures like that are what makes life special. And so God whispers in our ear: ‘When you’re picking between the easy thing and the harder one, almost always, the harder one will have the biggest rewards in the end.’”

Kira thought about that, tugging her scarf up to protect her cheeks and nose from the wind. “Like I don’t want to study for my spelling test because I just got a new video game. But if I study, and get good grades, then I can be a veterinarian someday. Which is way big and tons of fun.” She felt a cozy warmth spreading around them as she realized they both had had the same important thought together.

Her grandpa leaned over and kissed the unprotected corner of her cold little cheek. “Kira, my princess, camping with you is really kind of sort of actually basically not disastrously terrible.” Then he added: “But that’s our forever secret. Don’t tell anybody I said so.”




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