Is the Sleeping Bag Dry?

“Here she comes,” Dad said beneath his breath. “She always enters the room like she’s the inspector.”

“Who is the President?” The RN asked him in her little girl voice. “I’m going to take your blood pressure. Do you know where you are?”

He took a breath before he answered, “Yes. I’m in the hos-pi-tal.” He was covering up his irritation pretty well. “You know Bettina, it makes me feel  inadequate when you keep asking me the same questions time and again.”

I jumped to his defense. “Maybe if you tried just talking to a patient—you could ask them about their children or grandchildren or work or something—anything to help them feel more like a person than a patient. You know what I mean?” I was trying to be nice about it.

“It’s our base-line reading. We are instructed to ask these questions. We ask them for a reason.”

“Well, I guess I understand that,” he said.

And I guess I did too. Maybe it helps them from getting too involved emotionally. It must be hard to find that balance—of caring but keeping your feelings out of it. That’s why I’m not a nurse.

“Your pressure is one hundred sixty-two over seventy….that’s a little high. Can you tell me what day it is?”


“Do you know the date?”

“It’s hard to keep the days straight when you’re here, Bettina. They all start blending together. The 14th?

“No, it’s the 13th.” She chirped.

“Well, that’s confusing. I see that the board there says it’s the 11th.”

She glanced over her shoulder to the board on the wall at the foot of Dad’s bed. She asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, you did what you came to do.”

Bettina scooted over and changed the date, then left the room.

Dad had been telling me the story of his first sail with Mom. They had made it to the dock in Port Washington after some rough weather.

“Tell me that part again about the sleeping bag.”

“Everything was wet but our sleeping bag was dry so we spent the night on the boat. That was always special.”

I can imagine, after the level of potential danger Mom and Dad had just sailed through, that the calm of the water and warmth inside their bag may have seemed blissful to them. But, everything was wet, the air muggy and sticky, probably some mosquitoes or a solo fly happy to have found a new landing spot. They were content just being together. That was true love.

“The next morning we had to lay everything out to dry in the sun in Port Washington and eventually took off for Sheboygan. We had a good sail that day and arrived at the Sheboygan harbor around dinner time. We walked up town, got something to eat and went to a movie.

We left Sheboygan the following day and went on to Manitowoc which has a fine harbor and nice ship store. We weren’t there long when a boat tied up next to us on the opposite side of the slip. The guy was a sailor from Chicago who was headed the same direction as us. Dolores was cooking supper on the alcohol stove—I remember fried pork chops and potatoes with a salad. Our boat did have a nice large ice box and Dolores always made wonderful meals. She asked the sailor if he would like to join us for supper. Needless to say, he was very pleased. So he joined us for a gimlet—our evening ritual—as Dolores finished preparing the meal.

The next day we went a little up the lake shore to Two Rivers. The dockage in Two Rivers is in the River. We tied up next to a McDonald’s. In each of the towns we were in, Dolores would pick up whatever groceries we needed and replenish the ice while I tended to the boat. She got our supplies in Two Rivers but that night she got a break—we had dinner at McDonald’s.

In the morning we sailed on to Algoma and tied up again in a river. We had another good supper and got to bed early.

The following morning we took off for the Sturgeon Bay Canal and through the Ship’s Canal into Green Bay. When we were in the canal, a large tug was headed directly for us. He gave me a blast on his horn and I couldn’t recall the Rules of the Road (which means rules of the water), as to what that meant. So I turned around and went on up ahead of him to get out of his way.

That night, I got the Rules of the Road out. As I recall, I figured out what he was telling me— I should have acknowledged him with a blast and then passed port to port.

We went from the canal up to Egg Harbor and found a nice tie. I’ll never forget the next morning we looked out our cabin and coming towards us, across the lake, was a significant number of sailboats. Each one was flying their colorful spinnaker, and all of them were highlighted by the morning sun. It was a beautiful sight.

We left Egg Harbor, sailed up to Ephraim and anchored in the Bay at Horseshoe Island. That too was a beautiful night.

On our seventh day, we arrived at Elison Bay when the weather began to get foggy. We laid over a day, waiting for the weather to change. Dolores got acquainted with the couple on the adjoining slip. When the following day was still foggy, I decided I didn’t want to waste any more time sitting around. So I plotted my course on the map with the headings and time and we planned to motor to Washington Island. Dolores told the neighbors she had met that we were going to leave.

“In this weather?!”

“I guess so,” she responded.

“Well, give us a call on your radio phone when you’re up there so we know that you arrived safely.”

“Radio phone, what’s that?” She asked.

“Don’t’ you have a radio?”

“No. Bill said the only instrumentation we have is a compass and for what we’re proposing to do, that’s all we need.”

So, now with some degree of trepidation on Dolores’ part, we took off in the fog.

This little story sums up the overview of our marriage. If I felt compelled to do something, or that the Lord had guided me, she was with me 100%—from travelling in Europe with three little kids and a tent, to sailing from Elison Bay to Washington Island in a dense fog.”


This Kind Lady

By our fourth day together on the third floor of the southwest wing, I couldn’t help but begin to imagine what it would feel like to be confined. I wasn’t starving, I had a bed, blankets and companionship but the walls were closing in. Dad wasn’t doing much better than I—there was nowhere for either of us to hide.

Night had made its way around once again and I hoped the café was still open. I wasn’t hungry, just claustrophobic.

Relieved to find the doors open, lights on and people bustling around, I reached into the cooler for two bottles of water then wandered around in search of food that would help me make it through the night.

Distracted, I stood in the busy checkout line and dropped one of my bottles. It smashed open on the floor, splattering water on people as they jumped back. Everyone seemed irritated with me. I offered to clean it up but a worker pushed past me with some large orange cones and her mop.

As the line inched forward, the woman behind me said, “You should go get a new bottle.”

“Nah, there’s still water in it,” I said holding it up, feeling like a martyr. I had a growing lump of loneliness in my throat.

“No,” she said. “That’s not right. They should give you a new one.”

That’s when I noticed the popcorn machine. It had just finished popping.

I love popcorn.

Thrilled, I set my duo of bottles down and started filling the largest bag I could find. “I’ve been sleeping on a cot helping my dad with all kinds of things for the last several days and now I can’t even decide what snacks to buy. But look at this—fresh popcorn!”

She smiled at me as I scooped the bag full until there was a mound descending from the top. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her then, heading over to the cooler where the water was. She came back and replaced my broken bottle.

My eyes suddenly stung as I thanked her and told her to go ahead of me in line as gathered up my purchases.

When I got to the register, the cashier said, “You’re all taken care of.”


“You’re all paid for.”

I turned to look for the woman, but she was already gone.

As I walked down the long halls and waited for the elevator, I wondered if the woman had any idea how much her kindness had meant to a lonely, claustrophobic daughter of an 85 year old man in the hospital.

“There she is!” Dad said as I walked into our little room, his love filling my heart even more.

“You’ll never guess what just happened, Dad.” I said as I sat down on my cot and opened up my computer. “This kind lady…….”


Run With the Storm

“Dad… awake?”


The door to the hallway was closed, the room was dark. Dad had been tossing and turning so I figured he was having as much luck as I was falling asleep. I had my computer on top of me—if I angled the screen right, it gave off enough glow and I could see the keys. I had just finished typing what GPS stood for.

“When did you buy your first sailboat?”

Dad loved to sail. He was the one who introduced my husband Todd to sailing. Todd and my brother Ed along with their best friend Ray crewed for Dad’s client, Ensie. Dad had met Ensie when he designed Central Methodist. Ensie was the pastor of the church and had a boat named Holy Smoke.

Captain Bill, we called him. Dad sailed like he designed buildings—with great attention to the details and with boldness.

Captain Bill with the kids from Long Island Dr.

Captain Bill with the kids from Long Island Drive, our church neighborhood

“Well….,” he adjusted his mass of blankets. “The first summer after we had moved to Milwaukee we wanted to take a vacation. We still had the farm so we set up our camper behind the barn. It was fun camping on our own land with a beautiful view to the north and the west, protected by the large barn on the south, with a view of Holy Hill in the distance.

During these days, our lives were beginning to focus more on Lake Michigan, the beauty and uniqueness of the Great Lakes, along with the city of Milwaukee. It was Mom who brought up the idea of getting a sailboat. We decided to take a trip to view some of the marinas along Lake Michigan and look for boats.

We eventually settled on a twenty-seven foot Catalina, which had a cabin to sleep six and a thirty HP gasoline engine. We were told that would be adequate to make headway even in a heavy headwind. It was $17,000, and the price included the rental of the slip on the F dock in the McKinley Marina for the rest of the year. It cost as much as our house on Shepard Avenue. We didn’t have the money, so I did what I always did…went to the bank…..” Dad’s voice trailed off then. He was quiet so I turned over and we both must have dosed off.

We couldn’t have been asleep long when I was awakened by Dad’s startled voice. “Oh!” There were two aides standing in the room. “I’ve been waiting to tell you what a great job your kids did singing at church a couple weeks ago!” He said to the one preparing to take his blood pressure.

“Dad,” I squinted through the light. “That’s not Connie,” but she really did have an uncanny resemblance to the director of the children’s choir at church.

“……Well,” he said to me then, “you try waking up thinking you’ve got Connie Hendricks staring in your face….” The aide giggled. “What’s your name again?” he asked her and then thought a moment. “…Dorothy?”

“No, Darlene,” she answered and giggled some more. They’d had this exchange a couple times before.

“Oh, that’s right—Darlene. I’ve been praying for you, Darlene.” Dad said. “You’ve been on my mind.”

It was true. This is the way Dad spent his time laying in a hospital bed—praying for people. I had heard him ask the RN about Darlene earlier in the evening. He asked if she might be able to stop by because he wanted to talk to her. The RN tried to dissuade him and said, “The aides want to leave quickly when their shifts are over.”

“Darlene….?” Dad was preparing to ask her the question that was on his mind. “Do you know Jesus…?”

“What I’ve read about him in the Bible,” She responded as she finished taking his blood pressure. If this had made her uncomfortable, she didn’t show it but I could hear the two aides talking together outside the door.

“What she’s read about Him…….?” He muttered. “Well that’s not good. I have to keep praying for her. So….” He settled back in. “Now where was I? ……We found out about an A-frame cottage on the southern tip of Washington Island. We stayed there and discovered that it had a vacant lot next to it for sale. We thought this would be a perfect place for us to sail the boat to. We could rent a slip in the nearby marina.

I had already completed the coast guard sailor’s course. We thought it would be great to take a cruise up the shore of Lake Michigan, through the ships canal at Sturgeon Bay, over to Green Bay, and up to Washington Island. The boat we bought was originally named C-X-T-C, we changed it to Revelation.

The instrumentation on the boat consisted only of a compass so everything was dead reckoning, working off a chart, estimating wind speed, boat speed, etc. I had a handheld wind speed indicator. I felt comfortable with all this because it was a lot like flying by VFR (visual flight rules).

So we planned our first trip with Revelation.

As we drove to McKinley Marina, I heard the weather forecast on our car radio. It said there was a storm moving across Wisconsin. I figured we could make it as far as Port Washington so we packed up the boat, set off and headed north.

As we were approaching the harbor in Port Washington we were watching for the storm. I remember looking back to this dark cloud which made a wall of rain and storm. I thought we would make the harbor before the storm caught us but we didn’t quite do it. I pulled the sails down and we were motoring towards the harbor. We were close enough to see people standing on the breakwater at the opening to the harbor when the storm hit us.

The wind and storm was so strong that and I had no visibility. The last thing we wanted to do was sail into the breakwater so I sailed out to run with the storm. As I remember, I chose sixty-five degrees for the heading. I told Dolores to take the tiller and be sure to hold sixty-five degrees on the compass (NE) and then I marked the time. It was amazing how easily Dolores took to the tiller. If I gave her a heading, she would hold it based on the compass. I felt comfortable leaving her at the tiller as I went into the cabin to get our storm suits.

Gotta love a good sail

Gotta love a good sail.

The wind was blowing the rain horizontally right through the cabin. I came out with the suits to put on which was kind of silly because we were all wet. We sailed that course until the weather cleared. I had kept track of the number of minutes we were on that heading until the storm passed. Then we reversed course and went back to the harbor. When we motored in and docked, the people said, “Welcome!” They told us they had been so worried about us that they had waited there on the dock when our boat disappeared in the storm to see if we would make it back.

We tied up at the dock and walked up town to get something to eat. Everything was pretty wet that night but the sleeping bag was dry so we slept on the boat.

“Wow, Dad……” I laid there thinking about Mom on that boat. Mother nature is fierce and Lake Michigan is big. Mom had been raised on a farm, far from any large body of water. She never even learned how to swim and Dad had her out on a sailboat in a storm. This was just one of many sailing adventures they shared together.

Todd and I have a Pearson P28-2 sloop rigged sailboat with wheel steering. The last boat we had, had a tiller which required me to move. My idea of sailing is a nice cushion, a good book and a glass of wine. Can someone please tell me what the fascination is with coming about?

“Dad?” I asked as I returned to the reality of the small, stuffy hospital room we were in.

“Yes, Debbie?”

“We don’t have a lot of visibility right now either. Let’s run with the storm……..”

March 12, 2014

“What does GPS stand for?”

The hospital staff all commented on how good Dad looked and were surprised to discover he was eighty-five. I had decided things were going well enough on our second day’s stay to slip away for a four o’clock meeting at work. This was when an incorrect instrument had been improperly inserted by an incompetent aide, causing excruciating pain along with some internal tearing. After the third attempt of thoughtless jabbing, he had yelled, “Cut it out!”

I later found out that the aide had called for the proper tool but was told they were out and should go ahead and try to use the alternative—which was not suited for older gentlemen. Within hours, his normal complication was not normal.

The problem you are experiencing is due to the trauma of your fall and will probably resolve itself naturally. We know your back is hurting but see if you can get up and move around.

“Well, I’d be happy to if you didn’t have these alarms going off every time I try to get up!”

Now Bill, you are a high risk fall patient. They are there for your safety.

“Is that why you keep asking me where I am, who the president is, and what the date is? I’m getting tired of that.”

That’s our baseline reading, Bill.

“Well, it’s making me angry.”

We did laps around the halls surrounding Dad’s room into the wee hours of the morning, hoping all would be well so he could be released the following day. It didn’t work though and he needed another procedure.

Somebody mentioned to him that his condition could be permanent. As his pain grew and strength lessened, the possibility that he might not be able to return to the life he had known occurred to us both. I didn’t say it but Dad did. His usual ageless glow was beginning to fade.

“Dad, what does GPS stand for?”

“Global Positioning System.”

God’s compass, I thought to myself. GPS…..God’s Peace in Suffering….Trust. It always gets down to trust. Experiencing peace regardless of your situation is the way Mom and Dad had taught us—had shown us—to live.

“You’re being tested Dad. You know…Refiner’s Fire…we’re going to get through this. Jesus won’t let you down now. Eyes on the Prize! This is an opportunity for you to show all these people your faith. How would you rather meet Jesus face to face—beaten down but strong in faith or sliding in with ease but doubting?”

“You’re right,” Dad responded.

By our third night’s stay, the interruptions from hospital staff seemed to increase. It didn’t help that Dad’s bed alarm kept going off. It would beep until someone came to turn it off. The more he set it off the longer we waited for them to show up. It was around 2:30 and he was kicking his feet in the tangled mass of sheets and blankets. There was an eeriness that had descended over the room and an attitude of placation coming from the staff.

We had become a problem at the hospital.

Dad wanted out. “We’ve got a seventeen trillion dollar debt in our country! I don’t want to add to it!”

Surrounded by the shadows of the hallway florescence, I thought how Dad had not wanted to come to ER in the first place—how, in his dehydrated condition, he had tried to row himself out of the room. Now we had more questions than answers—I needed information. And I too, needed to trust.


Come to Me, Jesus said to Peter. Walk on the water. (Matthew 14:29)

March 11, 2014

Run to the Water

So you had a fall and there was unusual behavior. We have to categorize you as a high risk patient or we could be sued. There will be alarms on your bed and on the chairs…..

He’s sleeping now. His flushed cheeks cooled my frustration from the situation we had suddenly found ourselves in. He seemed smaller in the bed— the gown tied loosely around his neck made his lean stature appear even leaner.

We’re wall to wall in beds with just enough room to squeeze between. I’ve decided that the aggravating hum from the machine at the foot of his bed is a snoring dog—a Newfoundland named Zak, guarding us from enemy attacks. We need Zak here because we are surrounded by danger. Caged in.

Red and green lights blink across a sea of green blankets like the running lights on the front of a boat.

We are searching for direction.

The night nurse arrives suddenly, unannounced. He brings relief for a bit with his rugby-like presence, from our overwhelming sense of vulnerability.

“I’d like to keep my hope. I’m gonna keep trying and I’m praying,” Dad says to the nurse. He’s trying not to be discouraged.

Run to the water Dad, where there is life. Renewal.

Thoughts of boats and a Newfoundland named Zak brought me comfort that first night at the hospital.

Ninety-six hours later the slightest tick of a machine made me nuts. The dog I had imagined named Zak must have been off chasing rabbits because I didn’t hear snoring, only the sound of incessant machine motors. I hadn’t been outside for days. My body ached from inactivity and trying to sleep on a cot with an ex-dancer back.

The start of the week had been rolling along just fine—a Monday like any other Monday. Then a text message popped up on my phone—short and direct. Debbie call me. Dad

That was it. No ‘when you can’ or the usual ‘Love you’.  Now and then he gets a little bossy with me. I wrapped up my meeting before dialing his number five or ten minutes later.

“It’s been a little interesting over here this morning,” Dad says, his voice sounding not quite right to me.

He clears his throat. “I was in front of the sink and my feet got caught in the rug. I fell down.”

“Oh Dad….”

“I, um…fell on my back and my head kind of bounced. I couldn’t get up off the floor. I was just too weak. I got my cell phone out of my shirt pocket and called Terry down the hall, he got Eric and they came over to get me up.  I’m sitting here at the table now and they said I should give you a call.”

“I’ll be right there Dad.”  Great, I walked to work. No car. I can run over! No, call Todd.

“I’ll drive you Deb,” my marketing manager says when I inform the ladies at work what’s up.

But I hate feeling dependent—not having control—so I say, “Oh, that’s okay. I can run over.” I clutch my last bit of control over the situation then concede. “Okay……yeah, that would be great. Thanks.”

His doctor could fit him in at 4:00 p.m. “I’m not going to ER,” said the man I learned how to be controlling from.

“I’m not going to the ER!” he said again to his doctor after he explained to her what had happened.

“Dad, you can’t get up out of the chair you’re sitting in. What are we going to do?”

Chills were coming over him. I handed him his water—he reached for it but missed then tried again. He aimed the bottle to his mouth and hit the corner of it. He started to slur his words a little. I looked at the doctor. She called paramedics.

“Dad, I forgot to tell you,” I said as we waited. “I couldn’t believe how you sang the harmony of Holy Holy Holy at church yesterday—and all three verses!” Dad doesn’t normally have enough air in his lungs to sing at all anymore. “That was amazing!”

He immediately bursts into the tenor part—full voice. I think for a moment about shutting the door but change my mind and let it fill the hallway. Four big men in yellow suits enter the room. Their expressions say a thousand words.

“I won’t mess with these guys,” Dad says to me but is looking at them.

The ambulance arrived at the hospital before me and I had to wait in the overcrowded ER lobby while the aides got Dad settled into his room. So many people in need of immediate help and having to wait. So much frustration trapped inside the thick, smelly air of the four contained walls with the steamy glassed windows.

“Hi sweetheart,” Dad said when I slid in past the sliding glass door of his room.

“He needs fluids, he’s dehydrated,” I said to the attending aide with one look at him. Instead, they took him for a CT scan. An hour later, I asked again for fluids. He was foggy headed.

“Dad, are you okay?” He seemed confused.

The doctor said, “Do you know where you are? What is your name…….?”

“Dad…….?” He stared at me with a blank face. “Do you know who I am? Please, get intravenous water. He’s dehydrated. This is what happens to him.”

Then Dad started to get very agitated.

More questions to him—who is the president? Do you know where you are? But no answers came.

“He needs fluids,” I said again. They inserted oxygen tubes in his nose.

“Out!” he yelled at me with terrified eyes. He tried to sit up and started a rowing motion with his arms. He was rowing himself out of the room. They put a breathing treatment mask over his nose and mouth. He grabbed at it, swung his legs over the bar of the bed and sat up. “Out. Out. Out of here,” he said again.

Finally they gave his arm the prick and inserted the needle that would connect him to the tube of renewal—water. He began to relax. He laid his head back on the pillow.

The CT came back clear—there was no bleeding in his brain. They diagnosed him with a lung infection because the x-ray revealed fluid in his lungs. They didn’t know the fluid had been there since his heart valve replacement surgery in 2007. They prescribed two antibiotics and took him off his blood thinner because it interfered with the antibiotics.

I didn’t question it. I trusted that they were making the best decision. I was so grateful they could help me at this moment of absolute helplessness.


Afraid of Balloons

Some people wait for years to replace a beloved pet. Not us.

When we had to put down Pisgah—my fifteen year old Cocker Spaniel—I couldn’t go back  home without her there to greet us. She had been through my first marriage with me. After my divorce, she was with my son Charlie when I couldn’t be.

20131216_211037_resizedShe was my jogging buddy—always beside me, leash-less. When her years began to add up and she started to lag behind, her long silky ears flopped all the more from the extra effort. She began to surrender on her squirrel chases. She became deaf and found her way by scent.

In spite of it all, as she aged, people would still ask if she was a puppy.

20131216_211355_resizedAfter a bath one night, she shivered and was short of breath. I thought it was from the cold but it didn’t stop. We soon discovered that her heart was enlarged. It couldn’t contain all her love.

20131216_211054_resizedTodd stood by my side as I held her in my arms and she looked up at me. The vet gave her the shot that put her into a sweet, deep sleep.

It was too hard to walk back into our house after that so we went for lattes. We came up with the idea to take a drive to the pet store where my brother had found a puppy.

We walked in and I immediately noticed a teddy bear. He sat up with a stick-straight dancer spine and looked me square in the eyes. Hopeful anticipation…..Please love me ma’am (get me out of here!). I asked to hold him and the salesperson took him from his cage and set him down in an observation pen.

20131216_211644_resizedI watched him play, rubbed his belly, let him lick the tears that were still fresh in my eyes, and tried to stop him from gnawing on my fingers with his sharp teeth.

20131216_211454_resizedBy the time Todd found out we couldn’t afford him, it was too late. Without any research, we made an impulse buy and busted our budget. We were so sad and Sam was such fun. We returned home with a big pen and all the dog accouterments—poorer but puppy rich.

20131216_210942_resizedI sobbed through that evening, playing Puccini in Pisgah’s honor while Sam scooted around.

20131216_210735_resizedHe chewed the legs of all our furniture but was particular about the shoes he ate. They had to be new and bone colored. He destroyed our rugs and carpeting and ate anything—including a lighter. He was a butane hose for days and had to spend them all in his pen.


Frozen in snow after playing with his best friend Cookie Dermond

Garbage cans scare him. He is a sniffer not a jogger and can easily spend thirty minutes on one block. He was hard to train and still jumps up on guests. He snarls at some dogs but only after I have assured the owner he is friendly.

He got his certificate from obedience school because the trainer was relieved to be done with him. “This is how you walk a dog,” he would say taking Sam by the leash and proceed across the room. “Heal! Heal!! HEAL SAM!!”  Sam does not heal.

20131216_211813_resizedHe is strong-willed but sweet and confused about being a dog. He sits on the stairs like a person—upright on the step. He has made our furniture his own and when Todd gets up in the morning, Sam immediately jumps up beside me and lays his head on Todd’s pillow.

20131216_211743_resizedWe work all day so we got a kitten to keep him company and named her Rose.

20131216_211621_resizedHer alley cat mom weaned her too early so the former owner’s dog had become her surrogate mother. When Rose met Sam she attached her mouth to a nipple. He stared at us, What the heck? but they became best pals.

20131216_211539_resizedI eventually got Sam to walk to the lakefront and home again without a leash. I would carry Rose along in a papoose. The three of us would do the full two and a half mile circle together…until the day Sam saw a parachute.

He stopped, turned and took off across the beach, running past honking, screeching cars. He was covered with the lake’s algae and tends to look rabid when wet. No one could catch him. He disappeared into the ravines. I called for hours. I was almost home when I noticed him sauntering along a couple blocks ahead of me.

I keep Sam on a leash now most of the time and have never been successful with getting him to walk leisurely on the lakefront. He’s always looking for that parachute.

So, when we brought balloons home from an event last night, Sam escaped up the stairs and hid in the bedroom.

He just has a thing about floating aberrations.

BalloonsI sometimes wonder what would have happened to Sam if we hadn’t been so impulsive that day at the pet store. It doesn’t matter….Sam has Pisgah to thank for that….and I’m sure he will one day.

20131216_210826_resizedHe’s just not ready yet to join her.

2011 Oct 18 Camera Download 001

Disruption to Joy

Students set the gym mats on fire in the school basement and tables and chairs were flung through the windows of the third floor cafeteria. There was obvious tension created by bringing kids of different backgrounds together and it blew up not long after we arrived at Riverside in 1970. I remember the day teachers had to lock the classroom doors from the rowdiness filling the halls.

I sat at my desk and watched the anger on the faces of the mob of kids passing by and looking in the glass window of the door. Our teacher kept teaching. Todd was in French class and some kids smashed his classroom door window and came in. One of the kids danced with Mrs. Lynch, the French teacher. “They ballroom danced,” Todd said as we remembered the day together. “She was really cool about it. They just danced and the kids left.”

I thought to myself, once again, if there was more dancing there would be less fighting.

Dad had heard about the school disruption that day and was coming up the front school steps when he ran into Mr. Kennedy, one of the four assistant principals. The kids causing the disruption were all in the auditorium by this time with a local radio announcer who had shown up because he heard about the school ‘riot’. Dad started to go into the auditorium.

“Don’t go in there, Bill.” Mr. Kennedy said. “You’ll only make it worse. They’re meeting together. Let the kids talk it out.”

“I’m going in Joe. They can’t just take over the school like this.”

“Let it be. You won’t help.”

I’m going in.”

“Bill. I’m asking you. Let them be.”

Dad gave in, “Alright, I won’t go into the auditorium today. But I will never come back to this school and be told where I can and can’t go.”

The days passed and things calmed down. Mom and Dad were at the school a lot, walking the halls. They got to know the administration, teachers and eventually some of the student leaders like Rodney Drew. They went to the SPTA meetings and tried to help the school raise money.

20140301_192200_resizedBrookfield fundraisers had been ice cream socials where everybody baked things and brought them to sell. When Dad suggested something like it, the kids laughed—‘Ice cream? Why not sell barbecue?!’ And so Riverside had its first barbecue fundraiser.

“Usinger’s was a client at the time,” Dad said. “I talked to them about getting a good price on spare ribs. We had no idea how many people would turn up so Usinger’s agreed to stock Sentry on Oakland Avenue which was a couple blocks from Riverside. We would be able to easily pick up more meat if we needed it and avoid having a bunch of ribs leftover.

We needed a big grill and I remembered a client who had had a barbecue grill made out of a horse water trough. So I found one of those and took it to Riverside Park on the top of our Ford station wagon. The idea of having the barbecue was a risk because there was such tension at the time between the white and African American students. But everybody agreed to try it as a way to bring the Riverside kids together and hopefully raise some money.

We lost $275.00—I should have known you can’t make money on meat—but it went well. A newspaper reporter from the Journal came and wrote a story on it. I could not believe his headline:

Races Stay Separate at Barbecue

I just couldn’t believe that. It was such a great opportunity to make a positive story—from disruption at school to a barbecue picnic…..from disturbance to joy. Of all the things he could have said, that’s what he chose. I did call him but it was such a missed opportunity.”

I reflected on what Dad said about the reporter. I’m sure he just wrote about what he saw that day. He was probably right—friends hung out with friends. The point though, was that we were all there together. Compared to what we had all just been through, it was a hopeful step in the right direction.

I was sitting at my desk this past week scheduling my visits to our Ballroom and Tap classrooms throughout Milwaukee. This is no small task—there are eighty-seven of them in fifty schools this year. Each school, like each student, has a personality and history all its own and deserves special attention. I like to ride my bike to the schools, though many are now out of riding distance. Last year, I got lost around Hadley and 1st Street on one of my trips and asked a lady on the street for directions. She said, “Honey, you have to ride your little fanny right back up that hill you just came down, take a right at the top then go about six blocks.”

One of the public schools in our program is Lloyd Barbee Montessori. Lloyd Barbee was one of the most important figures in the Milwaukee Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. He started his own law firm in 1962 and headed up a number of civil rights organizations including the Madison NAACP. He was a longtime advocate of total school integration and led the struggle to desegregate Milwaukee Public Schools. His daughter Daphne Barbee was in our class at Riverside—she was a cheerleader and in Todd’s AP (Advanced Placement) English class.

In the 1970s, Riverside High School was one of the first MPS schools to bring kids from different neighborhoods together and try to make it work. For the most part, it did, though some may feel differently. Today, Milwaukee teachers and administrators are working hard under difficult circumstances. When I think of Danceworks faculty traveling throughout the city to bring ballroom and tap into the classrooms, I think of Lloyd Barbee’s work in the 60s to bring students together. I wonder what he’d have to say about seeing our students working together today and our schools coming together through a dance program. I think of the Riverside Barbecue.

Maybe it took a little longer than you would have thought Dad, but maybe, just maybe we are moving in the direction from disruption to joy. It takes time to get to know and understand and love and trust each other. You have to give it time.

“Human progress never rolls on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” Martin Luther King Jr.