RAMBLINGS • To Thine Own Self Be True In 2022

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Happy New Year from an older person who could become a grump in 2022 if left to my own devices.

I don't think that's going to happen, though; I suspect rather than becoming the "Get off my yard or I'll call the cops" person of infamy, I'll turn into a "Come in the house so we can chat in comfort" type. I think I'm between the two extremes now, and a danger exists that I may transform into either end of the spectrum; however, I don't expect that to happen.

Every year I learn more about myself as I recall past experiences; in 2021 I became comfortable within my own hide for the first time since Judy died in late 1991. We were married for 25 years before cancer took her from this earth. In the 360 months since she passed, I kept my sanity by involving myself in a flurry of activity. I needed something to worry about (pleasing others is always a worry) besides the unanswerable questions of "Why did this happen?" and "Why couldn't I keep her alive?"

After 30 years of reading, thinking, and talking with friends, I made a conscious decision to worry about myself, to follow Shakespeare's advice in Hamlet, "...to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

I realized I'd passed the stage of hiding from myself by always being on the go, so I took stock of what I no longer wanted to do. The isolation period because of COVID gave me time to make decisions. If I wanted to like myself, I couldn't go to church on Sunday morning. I still believe in a Supreme Being, but that Being is particular to me and thus I have a straight line of communication to what church-goers call God. I'm closer to my personal vision of God while puttering in my yard, perhaps listening to gospel music on WSMI, than I ever found sitting in a pew. Denominations keep fighting with each other (and even worse, among themselves). Theology, I believe, is for most humans very individualistic, not meant for large group settings. I went to church as a youngster first because my mom demanded it, so I pleased her. Judy and her family expected it, so I pleased them. Judy demanded it after we were married. Her hopes were that I'd attend seminary to become a minister, but I quietly backed out of those plans because I'd be a hypocrite (it should take much more than verbal acuity and charisma–a Blackburn professor said I had that) to become a man of the cloth.

I like the social proclamations that all denominations voice–to care for one another, to take care of those who can't care for themselves–but that happens seldom, and few congregations have them as a priority. I've been happier since I withdrew my membership because I don't have to contend with contentiousness.

I enjoyed the fellowship of Sertoma Club meetings, and I belonged to the Moose because that's where Sertoma meets (and because Tobin Ott asked me to join when he worked for WSMI), but as secretary I was spending too much time on notes. Also, a few politically conservative members were trying to convert me, assuming I couldn't possibly be a Democrat and not as liberal as Bernie. When it was a joke, I could tolerate it and respond in kind; when they began to panic as Trump's reign was about to end, I decided that mind-set wasn't conducive to my mental health, so I walked away. I had been an associate member of Farm Bureau, partly because it helped with insurance rates and partly because part of me will always wish that I were a farmer (I now realize I watch Dr. Pol more than Sports Center because I identify with the animal owners and enjoy the peeks at Michigan pastorial scenery that serves as background. Too, the Farm Bureau began to lean farther to the right than I feel is healthy for them, and my older granddaughter took a job with another insurance agency, so I switched policies.

Not just because I no longer have as many social/religious obligations as I had recently, but because I've had some really "up" moments late in 2021, I think I am now on the right track for me.

On Nov. 5, I covered the unveiling of a plaque honoring John L. Lewis for the time he spent in the Panama Mine. Lewis was still drawing headlines for running the United Mine Workers as I was growing up in coal country in Western Pennsylvania. Clymer, Ernest, and Barr Slope were mining towns near our farm, but I didn't have much contact with kids my age from those towns until I went to high school where Ernest kids also attended; many of them had attended parochial school through sixth grade. My parents were conservative by nature (that wasn't all bad for my sister and me) and Republicans politically, so they opposed any connection with unions, though even I noticed the kids of union coal miners in the late 50s dressed better than I could.

I didn't really know how much Lewis and unionization had helped laborers in general because I didn't know how terrible some working conditions were. The Cherry Mine fire in Illinois happened in 1909, ten years before my father was born. We rode past the Sample Run boney dump (a mountain of slag removed from the coal during processing; sulfuric, the odor could be overwhelming) as we drove to Clymer for groceries or to see our family doctor. Streams of water near the mine ran a yellowish orange. We were lucky to have a mountain spring on our property that the mines didn't pollute, but my uncle had to drive five miles to fill jugs from an artesian spring. Had I been environmentally aware then, I would have cared more. As it was, I assumed the mines couldn't help the pollution. The young are often blind to that which affects them indirectly.

I did know what company towns were like. The houses looked alike, built with little care as cheaply as possible so the coal company could rent them at a profit to their workers. Company-owned stores sold food to the same residents. Listen to Tennessee Ernie Ford's lament in 16 Ton - "I owe my soul to the company store." In my youthful ignorance, I heard the words but didn’t understand the implications until I had a family and not enough paycheck to pay all bills.

Watch the movie October Sky for a glimpse of company town life; families wouldn’t have lived in one if they had a choice.

Anyway, I was invited to a small reception at the Mike Burdell residence after the ceremony. Mike’s wife, Dolly Monte Knebel, called with the invitation. Dolly was a freshman in my class at HHS the first year I taught. Because it was my first year, I probably wasn’t very good and I apologized to her for that. She reassured me, which was nice. The reception sounded like something I would enjoy, but there was a complication.

Mike Plunkett was hauling me to Panama; he was the photographer, and I was to cover the event. He couldn’t stay for the mini-reception, so I wouldn’t have a ride home. Dolly said her husband, Mike, would take me home. I’d known him as a co-worker at  both Hillsboro High and Lincoln Land. (His ride wasn’t necessary; Terry, who was also a guest at the light lunch, lives in Springfield and offered me a ride to Hillsboro.) I appreciated both offers.

Dolly had worked her way up the ladder to a major role in the state as a mine inspector officed in Springfield before her retirement. I had seen her maybe twice since her ‘72 HHS graduation; I hadn’t been to Panama much more than that. Every time I went to Panama to coach Pony Leaguers, those boys would hit the ball over and often out of the diamond; they were baseball players.

At the reception was one of the speakers, Joe Angleton, who had been Mines and Minerals Director for Illinois before his retirement.Dolly and Mike, Terry and three others whose names I’ve forgotten were present. All were strangers to me, but the stories flowed so freely that no one touched the food until 4 p.m. or so. They were all good people, all cognizant of how much unionization had helped break the extreme poverty cycle of so many Americans, even non-union members who rode organized coat-tails so that even my mom could collect Social Security to help her survive after dad died. Labor and FDR met that need, but many who benefitted have forgotten who made it possible.

As we left at 4:30 p.m. or so, Dolly gave each of us a sack of sandwiches and chips that we hadn’t eaten. It took me three days to consume the largesse. That act of kindness and the conversations there nurtured me far longer than that.

I had another “Life is Good” moment arrive in the pre-Christmas greetings. In a card I found enclosed an old sixth-grade Coffeen School report card. The sender, whose identity I won’t reveal for his own protection, wrote that he’d found it while going through things his mom had saved for years; the report card was signed by my late wife, and the card was addressed to Coach D. It covers a period of my life that I remember fondly–those happy days when we hadn’t lost two children. I’ll keep it with other meaningful souvenirs in a file–minimalists be darned. (My brother and sister-in-law have suggested often after clearing boxes and boxes of papers from Aunt Helen’s apartment that I need to de-clutter, not add to, my collections.)

To summarize my state of mind as I enter into 2022, I don’t worry about tomorrow because by now I have little control over the future. Grandma Jenni McCunn lived to be 107. She was toughened by life and poverty far more than I, but genetically I’ve developed more like a McCunn than a Deabenderfer, so I feel I have a shot at the century mark. (That thought will make the Teacher’s Retirement System and the company that pays me a small annuity at the end of each month irate, but I don’t fear any attempts from either of them to end the run early.

As I’ve written often, The Journal-News is like family so I’ll crank out this column and sports coverage as long as they want/need them. Other obligations will fall by the wayside, though, because I’ve done all I can tolerate.

I must be true to myself.

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