Useless but Fun

Most days, breakfast comes early. I switch on Mr. Coffee, drop two slices in the toaster, flop three pre-cooked sausage in the micro and tune in National Public Radio. This morning, NPR gave me a Krista Tippet repeat, one of her early On Being shows. Krista was interviewing Joe Carter, celebrated musician and historian of Negro spirituals. How soon the deplorable deeds of history are forgotten.

The interview brought to mind Wintley Phipps’ history of Amazing Grace (catch it on YouTube). Though Phipps took liberties with song’s history, he demonstrated how Amazing Grace, like all authentic Negro spirituals, use only the black piano keys—the pentatonic scale. I had never noticed that! Nor did I realize that a diatonic harmonica to play pentatonic tune in four keys and not miss a note.

The keys are determined by the circle of fifths loved by music buffs. I dabbled and came up with a show-off piece. I can play Amazing Grace in C, G, F and F minor, all on a C harmonica. What is that skill good for? Nothing I know of, but it’s fun.

When you get old, you grab all the fun you can get.

Old Grandpa Lloyd



A Letter to Alice: The Dumbest Prize

Hi, Alice.  Great-grandpa Lloyd here.

One spring day when I was in third grade, our teacher marched us to Lester Park Library to teach us how to check out books. We got acquainted with the kids’ section then went to a room to meet the Story Lady. She told a magic garden story and handed out seed packets, inviting us to sign up for a contest. The best flower garden would win a prize.  I signed up for fun, never expecting to win.

I asked Mother to help. We chose a small backyard space that once was a garden. We spaded and smoothed the spoil and raked in the flower seeds. Through the summer I watched tiny shoots poke out of the ground, grow, and bloom.

One August day, the flower lady showed up. She had spent the day inspecting gardens and said mine was best! She handed me a pretty paper bag. I eagerly opened it and found a clear lavender bowl, the kind you put on the dining room table. I thanked the Story Lady and gave the bowl to Mother, secretly thinking that was the dumbest prize ever given to a boy.

Next time I’ll tell you about the blueberry camping trip, Alice.  Love you.

Great-grandpa Lloyd

Thanks, Mr. Elephant

Hi Alice.

My reading and writing life began one day with a circus elephant.

I was in third grade and couldn’t read. I knew how to read from big-letter flash cards teachers used, but book pages were a blur. I had never known anything different so I never wondered why.

One spring morning Mother took me and sister Hazel me to the circus. I loved the big tent and three rings. How did all those clowns fit in that little car?  A flurry arose across the big ring and Mother said, Look!  An elephant! Try as I might, I could not see the elephant. Mother took me to the eye doctor. He fitted me with glasses and my world changed. I could read!

I walked often to the library down 54th avenue from our school. Bob’s Hill Boys stories grabbed me. I read them all. The boys became so real to me, I found myself lying on the couch in our living room writing a Bob’s Hill story in my head. I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t dare tell anyone fearing they would laugh at me.

I kept writing stories in my head then on paper and by and by some of my stories began to show up in Sunday school papers and magazines. I published my first book in 1962 and many more followed. You can find some of them on Amazon. I’m sure grateful to that elephant!

Maybe someday you will write a book, dear Alice.

Great-grandpa Lloyd

A Letter to Alice: Marbles and Tattoos

In grade four I fell in love with marbles. Each spring my dad would buy me a small coffee can full—60 0r 70. I kept them in a green canvas bag, counting them over and over. I was really careful in school because if I dropped a marble on the floor, the teacher would keep it.

Each spring we started playing soon as bare ground showed. We played for keeps; the winner kept all the marbles. I didn’t play well so my marble supply got skinnier and skinnier and I felt bad. One day I got lucky. A downtown newsstand caught fire and the firemen put it out quickly, but water damaged the merchandise, including many books of tattoos.

Tattoos were small squares of paper with colorful pictures: cowboys, Indian chiefs, flags, even dancing girls. You licked your arm, slapped the tattoo on the wet spot, and the picture transferred to your arm.

Kids loved tattoos, even though they cost a penny each. I became the richest kid in class. I sold tattoos for a penny or a marble. I got more marbles than pennies–bags full. Thinking to count them, I dumped them all in my coaster wagon. Something strange happened. I no longer loved marbles! What do you do with hundreds of marbles? I even shot some in my slingshot. The law of supply and demand caught up with me.

Someday you will learn about that Alice. Just think how precious a single dandelion would be if dandelions were a rare flower.

Next story: Recess.

Love you, Alice.

Great-grandpa Lloyd

An Alice story: Poison Ivy!

Here’s a great-grandpa story from my early Boy Scout days, Alice.

One summer morning, Dad packed our family in his old 1928 Chevy and took us to visit an aunt who had just moved to a little farm. Soon as we got out of the car, Auntie warned: “Don’t go near that vine growing on the fence. It’s poison ivy.”

Well, our Scout troop had just been studying poison ivy, and one look told me the vine was something else, though it looked had three leaves like poison ivy. With everyone watching, I marched over, grabbed an armload, and ripped the vine from the fence.

Aunty got really excited. “Go wash! Get out of that shirt!” Nothing I could say changed Aunties’ mind, so I washed. How come she believed the vine was poison ivy? That’s what the man who sold her the farm told her. The vine kept growing back, even when they cut it off.

We need to check things out, Alice. Even people we trust can be wrong. I think of that when I hear grownups arguing. Always check things out.

I’ll be back with another story soon.

Love, great-grandpa Lloyd

A letter to Alice: Never Swim Alone

Hi Alice, here’s another Great Grandpa story.

I was 12, maybe 13, old enough to go swimming without my parents looking on. There was one rule: never swim alone.

It was a sunny midsummer day; perfect for a swim. I put my trunks under my jeans, grabbed a towel, and biked to Big Rock at Brighton Beach on Lake Superior where friends often hung out. But when I arrived, not a soul was in sight. I leaned my bike against a tree, kicked off my jeans, and waded to Big Rock to wait, hoping friends would show.

Big Rock is huge and flat, sticking up three or four feet out of the lake. On days when the water turns you blue, the sun keeps the rock toasty warm. Sometimes we would toss out a golf ball, surface dive ten or more feet, retrieve the ball then stretch out on to the rock to warm up.

The lake side of Big Rock was good for diving, but you had to be careful. A sloping ledge jutted out three or four feet under water. You didn’t want to hit that.

After a lengthy wait and no one came, I gave up. One dive wouldn’t hurt. But I got careless. I dived from the wrong spot, slamming into the ledge, almost knocking me out. Blood streamed down. I struggled to shore and wrapped the towel over my head. I was nearly two uphill miles from home.

Just then a car approached. Spotting the bloody towel, the diver stopped.  “Forget the bicycle; get in.” I guided him to my home and he walked me to the door and turned me over to Mother.

I could have broken my neck and drowned that day, or become paralyzed for life. I’ll tell you one thing: I never again went swimming alone.




Dead Men Tell Tales

Are you ready to learn what the life is all about? I recommend Jeffry Zaslow and Randy Pausch’s small book The Last Lecture. After reading the book, watch the lecture on YouTube. The order is important—a one-two punch to the soul’s solar plexus.

Randy, a young university professor and father, was living with fatal liver cancer. He delivered the lecture on September 18, 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University and died on July 25, 2008.

It is not a sob story, but a more poignant reading encounter you are not likely to find. The 2012 edition features a foreword by Randy’s widow, Jai, reflecting on life after Randy’s death

Given my age, I read only books that cause me occasionally to pause and think. Even mysteries and fun fiction can have depth. I’ll live with The Last Lecture a long time.

Old Grandpa Lloyd

A Light in the Night, Conclusion

The Allagash runs north toward Canada. For five days we had enjoyed a following breeze. Buy by late afternoon the final day the sky darkened and a brisk north wind hit us in the face. Rain was certain. Willie wore cutoffs and a T; I wore jeans, a T, and a baseball cap. Our sweatshirts and rain gear were in a canoe far ahead. Thunder rumbled as the front swept in, dropping the temperature 40 degrees in minutes. I dug with my paddle, fighting the headwind. Then the rain became a downpour. Lightning crackled. Willie put down his paddle to hug himself for warmth. I was as cold as I care to be. At one point, we paused to dump water from our canoe. Willie shivered violently but there was nothing I could do for him. The river ran though deep woods in the gathering dark. The front passed, the rain stopped, and the wind calmed; but it got colder by the minute.

It became increasingly difficult to pick a course in the boulder-strewn waters and I couldn’t risk a dump-over in the dark. I had no idea how far we had to go. I called to Willie “If we don’t reach the guys soon, we’ll have to pull out until daylight. It’s OK. I’ll keep you warm.” I had no idea how I could do that. We drifted in silence, straining to see our way. I faced a hard decision. One more bend and we would have to pull out.

The bend came, and far down a straight stretch I thought I saw a glimmer of light. I paddled with renewed energy and the glimmer became a Coleman lantern hung on a branch over the river! Up the steep bank, a campfire reflected off the firs. Hello camp! I called.

Eager hands steadied our canoe and helped us up the bank where hot chocolate and warm sleeping bags waited. I prayed with a great fervor that night.

I never saw Willie again, but I’d like to find him and thank him for what he taught me that dark night on the Allagash.

Old Grandpa Lloyd


A Light in the Night



Note: Reader interest is high, so I decided to print the whole Allagash story as it appears in the Story Tree. Sonny’s real name was Willie. Here’s Part One:

It was our last day on the river and we were the last canoe. The Allagash was low, the temperature uncommonly high for Northern Maine—90 plus. My bow paddler was distressingly slow. I’d yell hard right and we’d be on the rock before he decided which side was right. None of the campers wanted to paddle with Willie.

We’d been drifting, swimming, and goofing off for five days; a dozen boys and two men. I chose Willie for my partner out of compassion. I generally bring up the rear on the trail or water to make sure no one gets left behind, and Willie assured me that position.

He was 12, maybe 13, from a foster home. Short sandy hair, brown eyes, scrawny; he read poorly but could he talk! He chattered away, seamlessly moving from one topic to another, delighted to have a listener. “See that duck?” he said, pointing to the sky. “No, in the clouds.” I saw no duck, but I noted the clouds were thickening. “Wish I had my camera,” said Willie. “Why?” I asked, looking skyward. “No, down the river.” There in the shallows stood a buck with a huge rack in velvet. He watched us approach then ambled into the woods. Willie paddled quietly a while.

Willie spoke again: “Cap, were you ever scared?” “Sure, lots of times.” “I mean really, really scared.” “I guess so,” I replied, wondering where this was going. “I was really scared today,” said Willie. I had paddled with him since morning and nothing scary had happened. “Tell me about it,” I said. “Remember when we stopped to eat and you asked us to tell about Jesus?”

We had rendezvoused on a sandbar for lunch and devotions. I asked the kids to tell what they had learned on the trip and how they met the Lord. Last-day excitement ran high so responses were meager, and we pushed off for our last stretch of river with some distance to go. Nothing scary had happened.

“I wanted to tell how I met Jesus,” said Willie. “I have a Bible but I don’t read good. I wanted to say something, but the kids always laugh at me. I got really, really scared.”

That tore at my soul: a boy pouring his heart out to a friend. Guilt for my impatience swept over me. I wanted to hug Willie and tell him I cared. We paddled silently for a long time.

We’ll pick up the story next time.

Old Grandpa Lloyd

Life Changers 1 Sonny, My Bow Paddle on the Allagash


I have a rare privilege: I’m older than dirt yet I remain reasonably healthy and my memory reaches back to early childhood. My wits function fairly well. Some would consider me poor but I have everything I need and a little extra. Best of all, I have many friends, including the girl from 313, who changed my life. An unlikely story you can read at Hunt out Epilog.

It occurred to me that many major changes in my life came about through unlikely encounters, like the day on the Allagash in Northern Maine I spent in a canoe with a thin, challenged kid we’ll call Sonny.

We had paddled five days through unseasonably hot weather, appreciating a following breeze. Now we had reached on our last day with miles to cover before nightfall. Sonny was my bow paddler—no one else wanted his company. He was an inept paddler and talked incessantly about trivia. Sonny was the youngest in the group, a foster boy.

To ease our load, I had tossed our personal packs in another canoe but we still lagged far behind, bouncing off too many hidden boulders. For the whole story, hunt out A Light in the Night, June 22, 2014, on the Story Tree website (see above). By midafternoon, clouds darkened the sky and a cold wind hi us in the face, further slowing our pace. The temperature dropped 30 degrees in minutes and we paddled in shorts and tee-shirts. Sonny put down his paddle and hugged himself to keep warm.

Suddenly, a lightening crack followed by a downpour. Good sense dictated we look for shelter in the heavy woods but we had miles to go. Then rainwater sloshing in our canoe forced us ashore. We sought shelter under our overturned canoe, but every mosquito in Maine joined us. We returned to the river as evening darkness crept over us.

We’ll pick up the story tomorrow.

Old Grandpa Lloyd