I admit it. I bounced through life like the ball in a pinball machine. You know what I mean? No specific goals. No eye on the future. No great plans. Just bouncing left and right, rolling downhill, bumping against this and that, taking each moment as it comes, and letting each choice make itself.
Some people would say I chose the easy road, and I’d agree with them except for one thing. It was beyond easy — way beyond. I would call it effortless. Most of the time I not only didn’t have to think hard to make a choice, I didn’t have to think at all. I would come to a split in life’s highway, take a casual glance, and find myself striding along one fork with not a second thought.
Oh sure, there were times when I made choices. Everyone does, I guess. I chose to reenlist after being out of the Air Force for two years, for example. The amazing thing is not that I made that choice, but that it took me so long to realize that one existed. Every working day for two years I put eight hours into a job that kept telling me I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. I must have been deaf, dumb and blind to ignore the truth so long, but once I realized that I had traded happiness, fulfillment and belonging of a uniform for boredom, emptiness and alienation of civilian life, it took me just 10 minutes to correct it. I walked down to the recruiting office, smiled and said, “I-I-I-I’m back!”
I’ll tell you what, Johnny. I believe there is a theme that runs through our lives — if we’re lucky — a theme that makes it easy and simple to make choices. Why? Because they feel so right!
Take something I mentioned last week, a violent storm that hit Texas while I was in my chemistry lab teaching the last period of the day. A notice came over the PA system telling the students that a powerful storm was coming and to be ready to take shelter under their desks if it struck. The kids were laughing and joking about “kindergarten stuff” until three-quarter inch hail slammed into the windows of my classroom like a truckload of gravel. But 10 seconds later there was not a head showing.
It isn’t the school incident that I want to tell you about today, though; it’s what happened afterward, something you may vaguely remember if you were reading this column back when it started in 2006. You might say this is the “rest of the story,” the part I left out because I didn’t have space for it, and because it wasn’t what we were talking about.
As Lolly and I drove home that day in damp, cold weather and still cloudy skies, we listened to the local station warning people about fallen trees and downed power lines, and cautioning everyone to avoid the main road because some hundred-foot-tall power transmission towers had gone down.
As we drove up to our house, Lolly pointed and said, “Look!”
Through the space between our house and a neighbor’s, I saw our back yard heaped head high with tree limbs. Added to that, I could just see a pile of limbs lying in the valley between the two roofs of the house. After we parked out front and went inside, I stuck my nose out the back door to make up my mind whether to try cleaning up the mess or let it go until the weekend, when I would have more time — and no doubt better weather.
The blast of damp, cold, 50-degree air whistling through a yard heaped head high with rain soaked branches should have been enough to convince me that letting things go till Saturday or Sunday was a good idea, but all my life I’ve been the same: I see a job that needs doing, and I just go do it. So I headed inside to change into warmer clothes and grab some tools.
Ten minutes later I stepped out the back door into the open but covered area under the valley between the two roofs, warmly dressed, but facing a cold, wet, miserable job cutting sodden branches with an axe and chain saw. In the meantime, Mother Nature had arranged to rid me of the task of getting the branches off our roof. The stack of branches on the roof had blown off and piled up in front of the covered area, making it necessary to cut them up before I could even get out in the yard.
Again, I probably should have just called it a day and gone out there on Saturday or Sunday (both of which turned out sunny and warm, by the way), but instead I went to work with the chain saw and spent 30 minutes cutting my way through a sodden mess of branches and hauling them out front before I could even get out in the back yard to begin work.
Once out there, I saw that all five trees in back had lost limbs, but the largest challenge was the left-hand trunk of a double-trunk chinaberry tree. It had snapped off eight feet off the ground and landed partly on my roof and partly on the power and telephone lines. It obviously had to be taken care of first, so I went at it with the chain saw, first cutting off easy-to-reach branches to lessen the weight on the power and telephone lines. At last, I had lightened it enough so that I could push it off the lines using a nice, dry two-by-four. Then I started cutting it up and hauling it out front.
Having cut and hauled away most of the chinaberry tree, I stopped for a minute to catch my breath, eying the pile of wet leaves and small branches left behind. Something caught my eye. I looked closer and saw the most pitiful sight you can imagine, a small nest with a soaking wet, completely featherless chick of two or three days lying in it, its head flopped to one side, its eyes closed, and obviously dead.
I should have ignored it, but I didn’t want to leave the poor thing there among the sodden leaves and branches. It would have meant treating it like just than another piece of trash to be hauled off and tossed away. So I bent over and picked up nest and chick, and discovered — to my amazement! — that it was still alive.
Taking it inside, I searched around for something to dry it off with, found some soft tissue paper, blotted it dry, and wrapped it and the nest in dry warm tissue paper and cotton. Then I carefully put both nest and chick in a small white cardboard box that had once held a pair of baby shoes, knowing full well I was wasting my time and that the chick would be dead before I finished my work outside.
Well, so much for my great brain. Tik-Tik — as Lolly and I later named the female red cardinal we hand-raised — not only lived, but she taught us some things we’ve never forgotten.
Things I’ll tell you about next week.