Stories Told

It’s a wonderful Christmas tradition

I first told this story in 2013. I tell many more stories like this one in my book, A Place to Start. It’s not too late to make it your Christmas present to yourself — you can buy and download the e-book right now. Click here to see all the places you can get my book.

What’s your favorite personal Christmas tradition?

itsawonderfullife-email

Mine is to watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life. It is my favorite movie – and has been for so long that I’ve watched it pass from obscurity to being discovered and well loved. Now I’m seeing it start to be considered cliché and passé. But that won’t deter me from watching it.

I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life when I was 11 or 12. I was spending Christmas with my grandparents at their home in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa’s big antenna picked up stations all over Michigan, and I liked to watch the late shows after everyone else had gone to bed. I came upon this film while flipping channels. I was quickly drawn into the story of George Bailey, a well-known and -loved little guy of modest means who plays the hero against a wealthy and patently evil man named Potter. It’s simplistic and sentimental, but I’m a sentimental man. I fell in love with the film.

TV made It’s a Wonderful Life popular. Even though the film was nominated for several Academy Awards after its 1946 release, it did poorly at the box office and lost money. But after a 1974 copyright snafu put the film in the public domain, television stations everywhere began airing it each Christmas and the film caught on. By the late 1980s it had become an enduring classic.

Through the 1980s I searched for it on TV every Christmas season. Some years I came upon it, and some years I didn’t. Then I received a VHS copy as a gift, and later I bought a DVD copy, and now I never miss it. Meanwhile, a court decision placed the film back under copyright, and now the only place you can see it on TV is NBC every Christmas Eve.

My most bittersweet memory of watching this film was at Christmas in 1987. A beautiful old theater in my hometown was showing the film one night. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see the film in such a wonderful environment on a big screen and share it with an audience. But then my grandmother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I had been very close to her, and her death tore me up something fierce. I wanted to be alone, but I went to see the film anyway. I found a seat near the back and tried to put away my grief for a little while. It worked right up until the end, when George Bailey is rescued by all of this friends. I always tear up a little, but that night I sobbed openly.

I love how watching the film puts me in touch with my memories of my grandparents, who have been gone for more than 30 years now. They were of the same era as fictional George Bailey; when this film was released, they has been married ten years and their third child, a daughter, my mother, was still in diapers.

If you have a Christmas tradition that holds special meaning for you or that is something you do just for yourself, please tell about it in the comments.

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Stories Told

Photographic holiday memories: A story from my book, A Place to Start

I hope you’ll indulge me one more story from my book, A Place to Start.

The holidays are almost upon us, and in A Place to Start I tell this one holiday story. You probably won’t be surprised it’s about a camera! A Polaroid camera, to be precise. I wish I still had this camera.

If you order today, it’s probably not too late to have a paperback copy of my book in your hands in time for Christmas. Of course, if you order an electronic copy, you’ll have it instantly! Here’s where you can get it:

This story first appeared here on December 22, 2008.


My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.

courtesy Paul Giambarba

When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.

I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.

My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot a photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played that guitar for 20 years! He looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!

20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.

May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.

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Road Trips, Stories Told

Bursting the nostalgia bubble: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

My new book has been out for a week and a half now and I’m surprised and thrilled with the response so far. If you’ve picked up a copy, thank you!

If you’d like a copy of my book, get one here:

I want to share one more story from my book. In the first several years after I was newly single it was a great distraction from my troubles to spend a fair-weather Saturday seeing where an old road would take me. I still love the old roads today, and it’s led to a broader interest in transportation history.

I had this vision of days gone by, people driving these old highways at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view.

One day I got to meet Paul Ford, a legend in Terre Haute radio. In his retirement, he and his wife operated a set of Christian radio stations along US 40 between Terre Haute and Casey, Illinois. We talked about radio a little bit, but we also talked about US 40 itself. His tales of how dangerous this road had been opened my eyes!

This story first appeared here on January 25, 2008.


My old friend Michael is an occasional companion when I take to the road. We took our first road trip together a few years ago along the National Road (US 40) in Illinois. The state built modern US 40 alongside an older brick and concrete road – and abandoned the old road.

Abandoned National Road
Paul Ford’s house and radio studio, in sight of the abandoned highway

As we explored the abandoned road, Michael asked me what drew me to the old roads. I replied that it lets me enjoy imagining a time when drivers took it slow and enjoyed the scenery and people they encountered, something I wished for but found elusive. I said I wished I could hear stories about driving the old roads. Michael said, “I’ll bet Paul Ford knows about this old road. He lives nearby. Want to meet him?”

Of course I wanted to meet him! Anybody who’s ever worked in Terre Haute radio, as I have, knows Paul’s name. He built Terre Haute’s first FM radio station, WPFR, in 1962 and operated it through the early 1980s. Later, Paul started building a small network of Christian radio stations that he and his wife operate from their home on US 40 a few miles west of the Indiana state line and within sight of a strip of the old brick road. Michael volunteers at Paul’s stations.

Paul dropped everything and sat down with us in his radio studio, which filled his house’s front room. He was tickled to hear that I had worked for WBOW in Terre Haute because he had too, many years before. He told a ton of great radio stories, including getting his first radio job in high school, how hard it was to get advertisers on FM in the 1960s, and how he got to interview former President Truman in Indianapolis just after he left office by going to his hotel and asking. It was great talking with him.

I asked him about the brick road. “Oh yes,” he said, “I used to drive on that when it was US 40 about the time my wife and I got married, which was in 1949. It was a dangerous road. People would get behind a truck, and they’d get impatient as it’d go slowly up the hills. They’d look for a chance to pass, but there were so many curves, and the road was so narrow. Eventually, they’d lose their patience and pass even if it wasn’t safe. There were a lot of bad wrecks on that road.”

I was a jarred by what he said. I thought I’d hear him talk glowingly of Sunday afternoon drives in the sunshine with his family, waving and smiling at people in oncoming cars, stopping at a farm stand for an apple. Instead, I felt the bubble of my idealizations burst. Pop.

As we drove away, I felt unsettled and wondered what made me enjoy following the old road so much if my nostalgic visions were false. But I started thinking of reasons pretty quickly. I enjoyed feeling connected to the National Road’s history, following a path that had been in use for 170 years by generations of people making their way from eastern states into the Illinois prairies. I also enjoyed seeing the road’s 1920s brick and concrete construction. I enjoyed knowing enough general road history to predict that the road probably wasn’t even striped at first – because there were so few cars, people often drove up the middle and moved right when another car approached!

Abandoned National Road
Michael on a rough patch of the old road

But times changed in the postwar prosperity years during which Paul drove this road. Roads everywhere became more crowded as more people bought cars – for a time, demand for cars outpaced Detroit’s ability to build them. Also, through the 1950s cars became faster and more powerful every year. The old roads’ hills and curves just weren’t engineered to handle so many cars going so fast. Paul’s memory of the road made perfect sense. US 40 was soon rebuilt straight and wide, and later I-70 was built nearby with four lanes and limited access. Drivers could travel much faster and safer. They undoubtedly welcomed the new roads without looking back.

Reality certainly cast my nostalgia in the proper light. I realized that it represented something I very much want from life – a peaceful pace that lets me enjoy the journey. Even if the old roads never offered that to travelers in their day, they offer it to me now. On this trip, I got to spend most of the day with a longtime friend. We took it slow, averaging barely 20 miles an hour because of all our stops to explore. And I met someone interesting who taught me something new. Most of my old-road trips turn out this way. The very thing I imagined I missed, I can have today when I go out on the old roads.

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Personal, Stories Told

Monopoly money: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

This story is in my book, A Place to Start

I don’t naturally see the bright side. I have to work at it.

Blogging has given me a way to work at it. As I push through challenging things in life, I write about it looking for the silver lining, the lesson learned, the happy ending.

What you tell me in the comments is that you find my stories to be encouraging. I find that to be encouraging!

Today I’m launching my book, A Place to Start. It collects the best stories and essays from this blog’s first two years. I was recovering from a divorce, trying to build a new life, working to be a good dad to my sons. I worked very hard to find the good in everything — it helped me keep my head together.

If you’d like a copy of my book, here’s how you can get it:

This story is in the book. It first appeared here on August 30, 2008.


I was feeling good about my financial situation as I headed into the summer. I was rapidly paying down debt and had built up some savings. But then August was unexpectedly expensive. I replaced my car’s transmission (and rented a car for two weeks while it was in the shop), replaced my refrigerator when it conked out, and had some medical and veterinary bills. Bam! Within a few weeks, my savings was gone and I had even gone a little more into debt.

I know that everything that cost me was just a matter of chance. Cars break down, 20-year-old fridges die, dogs and people get sick. It was better to spend savings on these things than to have borrowed to pay for it all. You might even say that God took care of me, providing for me through these misfortunes. But I’ve been angry about it just the same. It really hurt to get a little bit ahead only to lose it almost all at once.

On Wednesday, the boys and I broke out the Monopoly board. My youngest is starting to understand trading and can now stick with a long game, and so our play is starting to become vigorous. We’d made some trades and we all had monopolies — my older son had the violets, my youngest son had the neighboring oranges, and I was just around the corner with the reds. When we started improving our properties, it became hard to move along that side of the board without somebody collecting.

My youngest son landed on my Kentucky Avenue. With two houses, the rent wasn’t terrible, but having spent all his cash on houses he hocked most of his property to pay me. He weathered that with good humor, but he next landed on Go To Jail and so would make another trip down Death Row. His next roll put him on Community Chest, but then he landed on Indiana Avenue, which by then had four houses and was much more expensive to visit. Cash-strapped and hocked to the hilt, he had no choice but to sell most of houses. He was ticked. And then a few tears ran down his face. And then he buried his face in my shoulder.

The irony did not escape me as I hugged him and told him it’s bound to hurt when you build things up and get a little ahead only to have bad luck take it all away.

When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t feel so bad anymore.

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Stories Told

Memories from before my family came apart

My first wife made the photos I shared earlier today of my sons when they were small. She had been a professional photographer, and she was very good at drawing out her subjects’ personality and then, at the perfect moment, pressing the shutter button. If only I could be half as good at portraits and candid people photos!

I have precious few photos from my sons’ early years. My ex wouldn’t allow me to have copies of our family photos when we divorced, and my attorney and I couldn’t convince the judge to order it. The handful of photos I do have, my ex mailed to my mom when they were new. Mom let me scan them. Garrett was 1 and 2, and Damion was 3 and 4, in these photos.

My first marriage was always challenging, but in these early years with our boys we both tried our best. At least the photos I have show our boys happy, having good times.

Around the time Damion entered Kindergarten, our marriage took a solid turn for the worse and never recovered. My mom has few photos from those years; my ex must have stopped sending them. I have mixed feelings about not having those photos. On the one hand, I have no idea anymore what my sons looked like then, and little memory of family events from those years. Without getting into details I’ll say that the last couple years of our marriage were genuinely traumatic for me, leading to spotty memory. I call those “the lost years.” Seeing photos from those years might put me in contact with bad memories I don’t want to revisit.

Garrett entered Kindergarten in 2004. The photo above is the boys on Garrett’s first day of school. About six weeks later my wife would ask me to move out.

The next few years were the hardest of my life. It took almost two years for the divorce to be final, and it was a fistfight the whole way. I moved three times in three years. I grieved the very serious loss of not seeing my sons every day.

But eventually life settled down. The boys and I began to make new memories, which I photographed like crazy. They were our best years, and there’s no way I can forget them.

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Faith, Stories Told

Holding up my hand: A story from my next book, A Place to Start

In this blog’s early days I wrote a lot about my faith. I’m a Christian, but I wasn’t raised as one. I wasn’t raised with any faith, actually. I went looking for faith in my 20s and I found Jesus Christ.

This story is in my book A Place to Start, available soon.

I thought faith would be a way to make my life more certain. Trust and obey, and all will be well. But it wasn’t true. I experienced at least as much disappointment and difficulty with faith as without. It almost drove me away from the faith.

But I’m stubborn. I meant to hold God accountable to what I thought he had promised me. I laugh at myself for it now. I spent a lot of time in the Bible looking for scripture that I could wave in God’s face. Instead, I learned that God aches when we experience loss and suffering — but he means for these things to cause us to grow, and to draw us closer to Him. This is the nature of faith.

This story is about the beginning of that transformation in my faith, about how I moved from legalism to grace, from God as cold judge to God as someone who loves me and wants me to figure it out.

Even though I wrote this in 2007 during my blog’s first year, it remains my favorite post I’ve ever written on this blog.

This story and many others are in my book, A Place to Start. I’m working hard to make it available later this month.


On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I felt anxious about the long walk, but also reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came, I held my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me to stay on the sidewalk because the hippies liked to hang out in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that I was not to join the other kids if they shortcut through their property. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. When we reached the corner across from the school, Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.

James Monroe School
The elementary school I attended

On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted a path to follow that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. The pastor sprinkled water on my head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up.

I also struggled to understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and church weren’t making sense. In time, I had some serious brushes with church politics. It turned me off and I fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.

One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with my wife and me soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He flipped rapidly through his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. In counterpoint, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak.

My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society’s theology and doctrine didn’t always add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then we would naturally do whatever the Watchtower Society asked of us. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we had turned away from their faith, they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.

Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. Dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, they looked only to Scripture for their authority and not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism by sprinkling didn’t count. The preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away, and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: my wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening

On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.

On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did.

Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. We practiced only what the New Testament specifically authorized. It led us to have some distinctive practices that included singing a cappella, and not celebrating Christmas. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. (Look it up in 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:7.) My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said. “If you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.

But I loved those people. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that the end of my wife’s previous marriage ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that God didn’t recognize our marriage and we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.

Through my own study I came to disagree with the elders’ interpretation of the relevant scriptures. We couldn’t come to a mutual understanding, and so we left the Church of Christ. We soon settled in a Christian Church down the road. Soon one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders telling us that by joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ,” we had left the faith. Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were no longer Christians.

God disagrees.

Shortly after we started attending that new church, I had this strong sense that my family belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. They celebrated Christmas. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. Perhaps my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines. Perhaps he will make good use of a church even if it uses musical instruments and celebrates Christmas. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.

My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through a brutal divorce. Not only were church members a great encouragement to me, but both pastors met with me regularly mostly to listen and empathize, but also sometimes to offer a good word of advice, and always to pray with me. The senior pastor, who grew up in an ultraconservative church similar to the Church of Christ, taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage rent free while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians helped me stand firmly through everything that happened while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.

Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.

The house I grew up in as it appeared in 2010

You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important. But the crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I held my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.

I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I hold up my hand, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.

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