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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OKAY, MAYBE I DON’T GET IT

blm

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!

bear

“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.”

“What?”

“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.’”

“What!”

“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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“I Am Not a Crook!”

 

prisoner

I knew it had to be done, but frankly, skulduggery is not my thing! I’ve been pretty much law-abiding since I got booted out of Pacific Union College way back in 1974. (Don’t ask.) And for sure I didn’t want Lisa to find out what me and the others were up to. I generally don’t keep secrets – until now.

There was no way to set an alarm, but I hotwired my phone to do a soft vibrate right at 2:00 a.m. Frankly, I didn’t need the wake-up nudge; the criminality of what we had in mind had me tossing anxiously starting at about 12:45. I eased downstairs in my skivvies, my stomach lurching, and dressed myself out in the garage, congratulating myself for having stashed a pair of jeans and a jacket in the Prius the previous afternoon.

Speaking of Prius, it helped to be able to glide out of the driveway noiselessly, and when I got to the 210 freeway, holy cow, it was dead empty. With the virus all about, it’s a yawning cemetery anyway, but there wasn’t one breath of life. I guess one lonely trucker going the other direction.

“David, this is just so dumb. If you get busted, they’ll yank your tenure.” But I couldn’t help it; we’d been hatching our plot for the whole month of April.

I exited at Mill Street, my pulse thumping now, and had the presence of mind to park half a block away from the outer boundaries of the campus. My footsteps felt like mini-thunderclaps even though I was involuntarily on tiptoes. I approached the college perimeter and spotted my partners. They offered me goofy, guilty smiles as I joined them, like we really were a gang of amateurs going up against the Corleone Family.

“You seen security?” I murmured, and Jose shook his head. “Nah, there’s just one patrol car and he ain’t around. Don’t you worry ‘bout nothing.”

“You got what you need?”

Without speaking, he pulled his jacket open and I saw the suspicious bulge in his inside pocket. “I’m not sure we’ll need that,” I told him. “But who knows? Keep it out of sight for now, you hear me?”

The familiar landscape was in inky darkness, almost hostile, and it brought back memories of more innocent times when we all floated along these academic vistas in carefree ease. But we stayed in the shadows, not speaking, and cautiously made our way over to where two large double doors stood unguarded. Heavily secured, I was sure, but had Security changed all the locks?

I fumbled in my pocket for the keys, and for a panicked moment almost thought I’d left them back home in that little basket by the sink. But no, they were there.

“Hurry,” Stephanie pleaded. “Man, I’m freaking out. What if someone comes by?”

“Don’t say that.” Her cousin jabbed her in the ribs.

“But now I got to pee big-time.”
To my relief, the key worked and the door swung open; its creak sounding like a machine gun. We froze, but moments later the dark stillness held and we eased into the pitch-black hallway.

Just to the left was the familiar sight of PS 107. I knew my keys by heart and tugged the door open. “Okay, guys,” I murmured. “Make sure those drapes are closed, closed, closed. And don’t make noise!”

The kids sat down expectantly, facing the white board. Jose dug in his coat pocket for that TI-30 calculator of his, I got out a dry-erase marker, and we spent the next hour doing sine and cosine graphs.

 

 

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Leaving on a Jet Plane (And I’m the Only Passenger!)

plane-empty

So after my recent visit to Karli’s, I go online to print out my boarding pass and pick my seat. The whole plane is open! I can click on 1A if I want to. There’s an anxious moment, like at the theater when zero seats are claimed and you wonder: “Who picked this stinky movie anyway?” But I claim a window seat, kiss my grandkids Kira and Katrina goodbye, and motor back to Birmingham Airport.

The lady at Alamo sees me coming and springs to her feet, smothering me in an embrace. “Thank you for renting with us!” I swear she’s almost crying. Then she adds: “Want to keep the car another week, mister? Please?”

“Um, I’ve really got to get home,” I stammer.

“But . . . you’re our only customer the last three days.” She glances at the board with all the keys dangling from it. “How about a Lincoln Navigator?”

I shake my head.

“Just four bucks a day. Plus Fred will drive for you.” She whistles to a guy in the back who was doing a crossword. “Fred! You can drive for this guy, right? You got nothing.”

“I honestly do have to get back to my job,” I manage. “Five classes to teach.”

“How about . . . two-fifty? Two bucks fifty a day for a Lincoln, and we pay for all the gas. You sure you can’t stay another week?” she adds in a tremulous voice.

I finally extricate myself from her embrace and flee to the terminal. I go in . . . and holy cow. THE PLACE IS EMPTY. Ghost town. Like they’ve rented it out for an apocalyptic movie shoot and the crew hasn’t arrived yet.

“Yikes,” I murmur to myself. “There really is a Rapture. And looks like I got left behind.”

It’s a scary thing to be in an absolutely abandoned terminal. I peek at my cell phone and have texts from all three of my brothers. So if the Rapture has indeed taken place, the Smith family’s account with God is badly in arrears. I glance up at a TV monitor and see Laura Ingraham interviewing Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Mike Pence on Fox News, so at least they were left behind too.

Now things get dicey. I get to the security queue and twelve TSA agents leap to their feet. “We got one!” the lead guy yells. “Guys! Back to work!” They come at me with evident enthusiasm, pent-up energy to spare.

“No, um, it’s just . . . I’m nobody,” I remonstrate. But this crew is eager for something to do. One gets out a screwdriver and some cotton swabs  and began to disassemble my carry-on; two others are fishing in a medical cabinet and I wince as one of them begins to tug on a pair of latex gloves, the kind doctors wear when a guy over the age of sixty goes in for his physical.

Seven unpleasant minutes later I squish my way over to gate 12A. There are literally zero passengers waiting there, and I cool my heels for about twenty minutes.

The lady finally picks up the microphone. “We’re ready for preboarding our morning flight to Phoenix and then Ontario,” she announces, looking vacantly past me at absolutely nothing. “Anyone with young children, or if you need some extra time getting down the jetway . . .”

Wait wait wait. Three minutes later: “We’re ready now to board our first-class passengers,” she broadcasts to the empty air all around me.

Wait wait wait. At last she fixes me with an impatient gaze. “Okay, Mr. Smith, now you can board.”

I scoot past her and onto the plane, and again, what a surreal feeling to walk onto this absolutely barren bird. The two pilots squint at me, and I can almost read their thoughts. Really? All the way to California just for this lumpy guy?

Still, it’s a nice feeling to scamper down the aisle unimpeded. I grab my window seat, stretch myself out to hog the whole row and get my Kindle ready. A few minutes later the attendant launches into her canned safety script. “Should the cabin experience a sudden drop in pressure, oxygen masks will appear. If you’re traveling with small children . . .” She catches herself, blushes, and chucks the life vest into an overhead bin.

We scoot down the runway at a lively clip, and wow, when there’s only one passenger on board, a 737 really darts into the air. We leave terra firma at a disquieting 70-degree angle and as I fumble for my airsick bag (hey, I’ve got  230 of them to pick from), I make a note to add this anecdote as a quiz for my trig class.

Less than three minutes later, we’re already cruising at 34,000 feet, but perhaps half an hour in, the plane makes a noticeable dip, almost a dive like at a Blue Angels air show. Huh? The attendants are gossiping in the back of the plane, and I half-rise out of my seat. “What’s going on?” I shrill.

The older one shrugs. “The captain’s got a girlfriend in Dallas.”

“What? We’re stopping off to see her? Isn’t that against FAA rules?”

All he does, though, is descend to about three hundred feet, fly right over her condo, and dip his wings. I see a perky blonde about by the backyard swimming pool waving a blue towel with a Cowboys logo and holding aloft a beer mug.

Let me tell you, it’s exhilarating to be going 575 miles an hour when you’re a bare 300’ off the ground! Way up in the stratosphere you don’t really sense the velocity, and this is like a roller coaster ride. I gape at the traffic and near misses as the pilot scoots in between skyscrapers like in a Harrison Ford thriller.

“Don’t the guys in the control tower get mad when you do something like this?” I asked the attendant.

She blows a bubble with her gum. “Nah.” Pop! “There ain’t but one guy on duty at DFW, and I know for a fact he does Sudoko puzzles most of his shift.” She made a gesture out the window. “Look for yourself. We’re the only plane up here.”

Her chance remark gives me an idea. I undo my belt and ease toward the cockpit. The captain’s in an effusive mood by now, buoyed by his girlfriend’s towel wave. “What can I do you for, oh valued customer?”

“Well, look,” I stammer. “I live in Highland, just above Redlands. Can you guys maybe just drop me off there? It’s a forty-minute drive to Ontario.”

All of a sudden, this suburb-buzzing flyboy is all business again. “Can’t do that. Schedule has us going into Phoenix, then Ontario.” He peers at a screen. “I guess we could skip Phoenix now that you mention. Nobody on the passenger list.”

“See?”

“But . . . where would we put down?”

I think hard. “How about just . . . right on Baseline Avenue? It’s three lanes each direction,” I add hopefully.

“Much traffic?”

“You kidding? Nada.”

The guy actually ponders it. Forty minutes later he calls me back to the cockpit and gives me the bad news. “We got no passengers in Ontario, so I’d almost be willing to go for it.” He points to a gauge. “But hey. We really do need to top off our tanks before heading back to Bama.”

I sag, and the copilot gives me a sympathetic look. “I imagine your wife’s already on the way to the airport to pick you up.”

I glance out the window, and sure enough. Nosing westward on the I-10 freeway I can see Lisa’s little blue Chevy Spark. It’s the only car on the entire Interstate.

The pilot gives her a cheery honk and my wife looks up, startled, then waves at the three of us.

 

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Your Brother Dan Is the Greatest Speaker Ever! (And Gimme a Break)

pastor dan            Sibling rivalry is bad enough when you have three competitive brothers and each one wants to win on the tennis court. But jealousy leaps to the head of the line of seven deadly sins when every guy in the family decides to become a preacher!

Which I’m not. But during my years as a writer at the Adventist Media Center, okay, I did occasionally get invited to speak at nearby churches. And It Is Written’s coordinator landed occasional summer gigs for me at “camp meetings” around the country. (I heard later that Royce Williams offered THEM an honorarium to take me.) But when the AMC needed a local speaker for our annual “Week of Prayer” the High Command passed me right by and chose my older brother Dan.

Now that’s fine. He’s a talented speaker, he’s my brother, I’m proud of him, he does great, I really mean all this. And commencing with his Monday morning devotional, yeah, it was really good. He had cute illustrations, lots of humor, and was giving us some slam-bang passionate stuff which he dubbed “The Larger View.”

So all that week I had friends coming up to me and gushing: “Man, David, your brother Dan . . . he’s the greatest speaker we’ve ever heard!!”

I was happy to hear it. His talks were a blessing, and I was getting some inspiration too. But as the week wore on, and the fawning continued – greatest speaker EVER!!, so handsome, so brilliant, make room on Mount Rushmore – it began to wear rather thin. Because my own apparently paltry efforts in the pulpit were being callously shoved aside. Friends who I thought liked me seemed to go out of their way to tell me how awesome my big brother was.

I watched with escalating vexation as my AMC peers with note pads slavishly wrote down every pearl that fell from Dan’s lips. I’m sorry, but a whole line of people asking Dan to autograph their Bibles . . . that’s ridiculous. Ladies on the front row were giving him the same adoring gaze Nancy Reagan used to give her husband during the State of the Union speech. “Oh, Pastor Dan!” Some almost needed smelling salts. In the elevator riding back to my office, I’d hear people exchanging his pithy quotes. “My life is changed,” one would declare. “I know. Mine too.” It was enough to make me want to vomit in a wastebasket.

Frankly, by Friday morning my soul was so invaded by a black cloud of jealousy I couldn’t see straight. Dan could have quoted John 3:16 and I would have found fault with it. He could have channeled Martin Luther and C. S. Lewis and I wouldn’t have been able to process it. Because after hearing about MY BROTHER DAN, oh the wonderful Pastor Dan, Dan the Great, fifty or sixty times, I was vibrating with toxic envy from head to toe.

MAD AT A GUY WHO WAS SHARING THE GOSPEL BETTER THAN I COULD.

I got through the Friday talk without spitting nails, and just my luck, the closing hymn was “How Great Thou Art.” (No, I just made that up.) But all the way back to my office the sickening litany continued. “Oh, Dave, your brother Dan . . .” “Incredible!” “Never in the annals of the Christian era. . .” “Word is he might soon be GC President . . .” Blah blah blah blah pukey blah.

Fortunately I had the elevator to myself, and after hitting two and the door sliding closed I went to the familiar therapy of getting down on my knees and banging my fists against the metal floor seventy or eighty times. Which didn’t help.

I was almost to my office door when my close friend Lance Liebelt spotted me. He brightened and came right over. “Hey, David. I got a compliment for YOU.”

Well, I almost kissed him. “Lay it on me. Quick! I could use a boost right about now.” I was almost trembling.

He put a hand on my shoulder. “Well, I just want to tell you . . . YOUR BROTHER DAN is the best speaker I’ve ever heard! And my dad and grandpa and great-grandpa were all conference evangelists.”

All I could do was stare at him. “And how does that work out to be a compliment for me?” I wanted to scream. But I managed a wan smile, went into my office, opened the window, measured the distance to the ground below, and decided it wasn’t sufficiently high as a jump.

The irony, of course, is this. And I can barely even write this thirty years later. But deep down, Dan and I have always wanted the exact same thing, which is found in Line Two of the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

My three brothers Dan, Richard ,and Donald all do a great job proclaiming the kingdom principles of my Savior Jesus. They really do. And I’ve gotten to the point where I’m happy about that. The more they preach, the more people come into the kingdom of grace. That’s a good thing.

These several calming decades later, I now attend an amazing church where “Pastor Randy” opens up the portals of heaven for thousands of grateful worshipers, including Lisa and me. He’s awfully good. And I praise the Lord there are humble, talented people who have this amazing spiritual gift.

So I’ve clawed my way to a slender island of maturity. Having said that, I’ll whisper one slightly vengeful secret. A few years after the infamous Oh Great Pastor Dan week, he decided to write a book. Well, hey, that’s my territory he’s invading! By then I’d been published a couple times and had even signed my name on the flyleaf of a few souvenir copies. (Mostly purchased by Mom, but I didn’t tell you that.)

So I swallowed hard and told Dan, “Man, that’s great! Proud of you! Good job.” The book came out, he gave me a comp copy, I carefully read through it, and what do you know, I found quite a few typos in it.

And boy, did I enjoy every single one of them.

 

 

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MOVIE REVIEW: “RICHARD JEWELL”

JEWELL

I will sometimes forgive a film’s R rating if the director forgoes all the CGI effects and simply tells a good story. Twice in a row now, Clint Eastwood has done that. (His recent drug-cartel adventure, The Mule, is another quietly effective movie.) Richard Jewell shares the aching story of an earnest doofus accused of the Centennial Olympic bombings during the ’96 Atlanta Games.

Richard is the classic live-with-Mom antihero, chunky fast-food aficionado who turns off concertgoers with his hubris and strident orders. He’s a wannabe cop security guard lurching from one part-time gig to another when, hey, the Summer Games come into town. You know the story: he’s instrumental in spotting the suspicious bag, and then quickly becomes the main suspect. There’s a sordid cinema moment when an FBI investigator leaks Jewell’s name to a news reporter who trades promiscuous favors for whispered police intel.

There’s standout acting by Kathy Bates (Jewell’s mom) and his lawyer, nicely played by Sam Rockwell, who was wonderful in the world’s greatest film, The Green Mile. This is a quiet story where we already know the ending, but it’s sweet satisfaction when Jewell is finally cleared. Also nice when the news lady has her own come-to-Jesus moment, carefully pacing the distance from the bomb site to the nearest pay phone and then muttering to herself in awe: “He didn’t do it!”

In terms of the film’s R rating, yes, there is a sprinkling of harsh language in this saga populated by cops and hard-boiled news people. But the profanity is muted and overcome by the uplifting arc of Eastwood’s storytelling.

Two nice takeaways are these. Very quickly in the story, you sit in your theater seat groaning over the general ineptness of this guy. The main character is needlessly prickly; he mouths off and immediately is cast in an unsympathetic light: the private security mall cop so enthralled and power-hungry by his plastic badge he pulls people over on the freeway and berates them. Living with Mommy and consuming four thousand calories a day, mostly in the form of milkshakes . . . and that’s strikes two and three. And so many of us just carry around this inner pomposity where we disdain those who don’t have it quite as together as we do. But by the end of this story, I find myself chastised because Richard Jewell, despite his flaws, saved a whole bunch of lives. He endured something a lot more harrowing than I ever have, and yeah, he deserves for his noble story to be told. By Clint Eastwood, no less.

The second lesson is this. Even when injustice threatens to win out, with the wrong guy going to jail, God still knows. Heaven doesn’t miss a single clue. And it’s so nice, as the final credits roll, to read that a criminal named Eric Rudolph was the guilty party. Life imprisonment without parole, while Richard Jewell finally got the real Georgia Deputy Sheriff badge he had craved for so long.

You gotta love it.

 

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BOOK REVIEW: JUSTICE ON TRIAL

KAVANAUGH

As a moderate Democrat, I read this book with mixed emotions. I will say up-front that the writing is really quite good, and the reporting impeccable. Other reviewers have noted that the authors’ conservative credentials have given them nearly unlimited access to a ton of sources, and that redounds to the benefit of the reader. It’s a herculean achievement and these two authors deserve a lot of credit for their work. It’s a good thing for all of us to understand and respect the process of nominating a Supreme Court justice, and I appreciate the education.

It’s also clear that these writers are fine people and citizens. They’re both devout Christian believers – as I am – and dedicated professionals and family women. All to the good.

Thirdly, it’s abundantly plain from their detailed reporting that Justice Kavanaugh has many sterling qualities. He’s kind, a hard-working man, a good father and husband, a believer. From the accounts of this book, he rises to the high court with a resolve to be fair, to not prejudge cases according to some Trump doctrine, and he says he respects the ideal of “stare decisis.” So that’s good. He shares a 93% similar voting record with Merrick Garland (don’t get me started), so that’s good too.

However, I will echo what some other reviewers are pointing out. There are definitely moments when the right-wing bias of the writers bleeds through the narrative. Republican senators are “just doing their job,” while Democrats are “hysterical,” “apocalyptic,” “shockingly vicious.” They breathlessly relate how Senator Kamela Harris unleashes a torrent of f-bombs while ignoring the reality that Republican senators are equally prone to use profanity. No one has been more rabid during the recent impeachment proceedings than Lindsey Graham, but in this book he’s portrayed as a model of sobriety and thoughtful reflection. As they report on CBF’s testimony, they allow that it’s likely some encounter actually did happen but that failing memory or other factors fuzzed the account. But by their final chapter, they predictably revert to the Republican talking points and label the same scenario as “scurrilous and unverified stories.”

The other blind spot, in my view, is how the authors decry how Kavanaugh was assailed by a mountain of unfounded rumors . . . and then proceed to fill several pages with exactly the same sort of loose attacks on Ford, based on nothing but hearsay and flamboyant guilt-by-association regarding Holton-Arms, the high school she attended.

Several senators shine through nicely in this story. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who essentially sacrificed his seat over his moral outrage over Donald Trump’s unfitness for office. Amy Klobuchar, who did a good job interviewing Kavanaugh and had to endure his one recorded lapse in judgment when he weirdly accused HER of having a drinking problem. And Susan Collins, who was genuinely conflicted about Kavanaugh and the preserving of Roe v. Wade and did a thorough job of due diligence before giving him her reluctant yes vote.

One more affirmation: the last 8% or so of this book is really, really good. It’s thoughtful, insightful, and analytical about what the Court needs. Just the last chapter alone makes this story an important contribution.

Here’s my third anxious observation, and I’ll point out that I finished reading this the same day I went to see “Bombshell,” the heartbreaking saga of how powerful men at Fox News sexually abused vulnerable women. One of these two writers works in that apparently sordid and corrupt place, so I’m confident she’s already taken this lesson to heart: SOMETIMES POWERFUL MEN ACTUALLY DO ASSAULT WOMEN  . . . and then determine to lie their way clear to the finish line. Deny deny deny come on let’s vote already. Cases in point: Donald Trump and Bill Clinton.

These writers are absolutely convinced that both Thomas and Kavanaugh were falsely accused. Perhaps so. Let’s hope so. But if shellshocked and battered women are telling the truth in 92% of all such cases, it’s more than troubling to wonder if there is perhaps a man sitting right now in that black robe who made a callous decision to prevaricate, while turning justice on its head by calling Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford the liars.

 

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FILM REVIEW: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

tom-hanks-fred-rogers-beautiful-day-696x442                There was no church choir. No baptismal font. No pulpit. But I just heard one of the very best sermons of my life.

For two poignant hours on Black Friday I sat in a Regal theater auditorium next to Lisa and watched Tom Hanks in a sweater talking gently to kids about life’s ups and downs and why things don’t always work like we want them to. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a plot built around a hard-boiled Esquire reporter, Lloyd Vogel. Now there’s a guy who needs a sermon preached at him. During a boozy diatribe, his alcoholic dad (a brilliant cameo by Chris Cooper) pops him in the nose and his face is purple with bruises. Now he’s being coerced into an unwanted puff-piece assignment. He has to do a 400-word quickie story about the legendary PBS milquetoast TV host, Mr. Rogers.

I honestly cannot find the words to describe how it all goes except to warn you that this quiet, no-explosions-no-sex-no-F-bombs movie will change your life if you allow it. Because Fred Rogers sits down with Vogel and is the exact same character as when the director hollers “Action!” Or when he slips his right hand into a puppet named Daniel Striped Tiger and gives his juvenile audience whimsical doses of encouragement. Every script in the Rogers neighborhood is really just two words long: BE KIND. And when he’s off-set, or riding on the subway with a bunch of hardened New Yorkers – who spot their childhood hero and begin singing the theme song – or when he leans closer to Vogel and says in a voice that reveals genuine sympathy, “Oh dear, what happened to your face?” you’re awestruck with this: This guy actually does mean it.

The pivotal moment happens early on. This cynical writer fully expect the Hanks character to walk off the set, drop his syrupy-sweet persona, and – I don’t know – light a cigarette and bark at his stage hands about where the hell’s my makeup lady or bring me a bagel. For sure, when he sits down with a hack writer from a New York magazine, he’s going to drop the façade and just be himself. Grumble about ratings and how sick he is of that effing red sweater.

But no. Mr. Rogers is Mr. Rogers. It’s not an act and not a script and not a carefully contrived image. He peers into every visitor’s face and says with genuine warmth: “How ARE you? What is wrong? I would love to take your picture and then keep it and remember your name and know who your wife is and your little baby boy.”

There are a couple of cinema moments where Lloyd Vogel almost loses it. “Come on! I’m here on assignment! Drop the act, Rogers, and gimme my 400 words so I can get back to Amtrak and my rotten New York life.” But there’s a slowly developing look of wonder and awe when he realizes: “Holy cow, all this is real. This Presbyterian minister-turned-God’s ambassador to the children of the world honestly believes kindness can redeem our busted planet.”

This story is a powerful paean to the necessity of forgiveness. And I was also struck with how Fred Rogers, who is on a relentless pace to produce these PBS shows for 33 years . . . still has time to visit Lloyd and his dad in the hospital and minister to them. To pause and take pictures with every new friend. There’s an amazing scene near the close where Mr. Rogers is kneeling by his bed and simply going through his prayer list. For this particular bedtime it’s just ten words long. “Please bless Lloyd. Please bless Andrea. Please bless Baby Gavin.” As I exited the theater, that moment of generosity took me back to a signature line penned by C.S. Lewis in his essay, “The New Men.” Gracious, stalwart people here and there dot this planet and, with lowered voices and the magnetic power of their love, heal our many wounds. Lewis writes: “They usually seem to have a lot of time. You will wonder where it comes from.”

This inspirational film may not impact your life at all and your reaction might be to roll your eyes. And if that happens, I won’t question your heart or your life experiences. All I can say is this: my eyes were rimmed with tears nearly the entire two hours.

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