An Old Picture Is Worth More Than A Thousand Words

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for September 19, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Several years ago, a half dozen of my paternal cousins and I met at my home to discuss family genealogy, share family stories, and exchange old family photographs. The meeting was also a precursor for a Spitzenberger family reunion, something we have never had before.

            Ever since that meeting, I have been going through old photo albums, various collections of photographs, and stored boxes from my parents’ home, sorting pictures into family groupings. The oldest pictures were absolutely fascinating and I couldn’t resist posting some of them on Facebook and my Facebook Page, both those from Mama’s side and those from Daddy’s side of the family. Also, I have been reading many snippets of family history written by different relatives from different eras. The snippets of history were interesting, but the morsels of photos were more captivating.

            This discovery reminded me of the old aphorism, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” If “any” picture is worth a thousand words, then an “old” picture is worth more than a thousand words. The much-quoted saying, according to a quick google, was originated by Fred R. Barnard in 1921, and he said it as advice for advertising a product. Not everybody agrees with the idea, but it certainly held true for me. At least when it came to trying to understand my forebears and selling my book, It Must Be the Noodles.

            During that “Council of Cousins,” the cousins gave me copies of photos of my father as a boy that I had never seen before, and these photos gave me a new understanding of the man this boy became. In all the pictures of him, he was smiling, and the smile looked real, not posed for the photo-shoot. It also struck me that many of my other forebears were not smiling in pictures of them, — such as Great Grandmother Karoline Zschech, who looked so fierce and grim in the original, large, framed photo of her hanging on the wall of my maternal grandparents’ bedroom where grandkids slept, that she kept my cousin and me awake. And probably my brother, too, though he wouldn’t admit it.

            It also became apparent to me that in all the childhood photos of my father, he was wearing knickerbockers with long stockings, a dressy jacket, and a “flat cap” (“paddy” cap). For those of you not familiar with it, the flat cap looks like a beret with a narrow brim. In contrast, all of the pictures of my mother’s only brother showed him in overalls and sometimes wearing a straw hat. I couldn’t help but wonder why this contrast in the boys’ attire. Did it represent a difference in family finances, or lack of, or was it a Wendish/German cultural difference? Both families lived on farms in Dime Box, Texas.

            Daddy’s father spent his boyhood in the Black Forest of Germany, where boys wore knickerbockers, long stockings, and what most people call “Greek fisherman’s caps,” also known as “mariner’s caps.” The “flat cap,” so popular in America in the early 1900’s, bore a great deal of similarity to the Greek fisherman’s cap. Thus I concluded, whether right or wrong, that Grandpa Spitzenberger wanted my father and his other sons to dress like he did as a boy in Germany. My mother’s brother dressed like farmer’s kid from Dime Box, Texas, with no reflection of Wendish customs.

            One of the most delightful photos I came across was a shot of my mother’s sister, Malinda Zschech, as a teenager, standing under the hot Texas sun, holding a parasol, and wearing a sun dress and long black stockings. In those days, a lady used an “umbrella” to protect you from rain, and a “parasol” to ward off the rays of the sun, though I was never able to discern any difference between the two. Malinda’s grandfather (my great grandfather, Johann Gottlieb Zschech), narrating his emigration story, described the Wendish women and girls coming on deck on a sunny day on the German Steamer, the Frankfurt, holding their parasols above their heads while promenading. No doubt Malinda reflected a tradition of her culture.

            It’s been a few years now since the “Council of Cousins” met, but the Spitzenberger cousins are planning that first ever family reunion, to be held in March or April of 2020, in the Fellowship Hall of the church in Wallis, where I used to preach. Photographs will be taken!

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Hurricanes Plague September

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for September 5, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Dorian! Much talk on radio and television about this destructive monster that came slamming in with September. To the few folks who are older than I, it brings back memories of what is known in hurricane history as the “1935 Labor Day Hurricane,” hitting the Florida Keys with 185 mph winds on September 2, 1935. Like Dorian roaring through the Bahamas, when the 1935 storm slammed into Florida, it was a Category 5. There have been very few Category 5’s in recorded history, though most of us can remember Hurricane Allen in 1980, with 190 mph winds.

            Hurricane Patricia in the Eastern Pacific Ocean has, I believe, the record for highest sustained hurricane winds, at 215 mph, not exactly a record anyone wants to boast about. However, most folks who study these things believe that the worst hurricane was the 1900 Galveston storm which caused 8,000 to 12,000 deaths. Our local area histories contain references to the 1900 Monster, — St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis postponing the construction of a church building when they organized in 1900 because of the impending tropical cyclone, and the Big Storm moving the German Methodist church building in East Bernard off its blocks. In these outlying areas, the destruction was minor compared to the horrific devastation on Galveston Island. This Category 4 storm hit Galveston on September 8, 1900.

            When you look at the recorded history of hurricanes for the United States, it seems that September is the month most plague with hurricanes. My hasty scan of historical data showed about a dozen hurricanes hitting the U.S. in September.

            It’s uncanny that Christopher Columbus, who didn’t even know the Americas existed, and had no records of their hurricane season, arrived in the West Indies in late October of 1492, having left Portugal in August, 1492, and having had very few difficulties regarding stormy weather. As he continued his exploration in 1493, he encountered very few tropical systems. Luckily, he missed the hurricane season. But during his second voyage in 1494, he experienced what is probably the first tropical cyclone (hurricane) in recorded history, having to secure his ships in a protected cove where they still took a battering.

            Having lived in or near Lee County, Texas, until 1961, and thus having lived a sheltered existence, I did not actually know what a hurricane was until that year. Accepting a new teaching job on the Gulf Coast, I moved into an apartment about fifteen miles from Surfside Beach, when Hurricane Carla slammed into Port O’Connor at 174 mph on September 11. Prior to Carla’s landfall decision, I was told to evacuate immediately, and, believe me I was in my car heading toward Lee County as fast as that old Pontiac would fly! One problem. Carla followed me. It roared right through Giddings, still at 90 miles per hour. Not feeling totally secure inside my parents’ home, I looked out the window and saw the trees in the yard bending in the wind, almost at 90 degree angles. Since it had made landfall, Carla had spawned 26 tornados.

            I may have felt insecure and uneasy in Giddings during Carla, but no trees fell down, no limbs broke off, and no damage occurred to our home. Had I not evacuated, the scenario would have been devastatingly worse, as I found out when I returned to the Coast. Pundits were pointing out that there were only 34 deaths during Carla, a low number which they said was due to pre-storm evacuation.

            As I am writing this column, Dorian is stalled over the Bahamas, down from a Category 5 to a Category 4 Hurricane, but still devastating the islands with 150 mph winds and intense rainfall (residents have had to endure this constantly for about 24 hours now). The reports coming from there are heart-breaking. At this point, no one is sure where Dorian will continue to go, most likely up the East Coast, clobbering Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Folks still remember how Hurricane Florence battered the Carolinas in 2018. We continue to pray for God’s protection and deliverance.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

And The Cat Came Back

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for August 29, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

About nine months ago, a grey tabby kitten appeared, rustling through the leaves in our backyard. Now this is rather unusual since our large, resident, King-of-the-Manor cat, Gatsby, usually perched on the porch-swing cushions, will leap into action, ferociously chasing away any stray cat or kitten (though if it’s a dog he will hide). How she made it all the way to the patio without being savagely attacked by Gatsby, I don’t know.

            In any case, here’s this skinny, stray kitten, itching because of fleas, sneezing, wheezing, and flinging out cat snot, and hungry enough to eat anything. Needless to say, we took her in, kept Gatsby outside, fed her, and were captivated by her impishness. Prior to her coming, my wife and I had decided that if we ever got another cat, we would get a grey tabby, because I had researched cats and discovered that the grey tabby made the best pets and each one had a very different, likable personality. And now one shows up. And with a playful, impish personality, — so much so that we immediately named her “Pixie,” a name she has certainly lived up, too. But that gets ahead of the story.

            We fell in love with our new kitten. Our granddaughters fell in love with our new kitten. We and they fed it, played with it, pampered it, and took it to the Vet. Gatsby was the only one who hated her, and he made it known with his growls and snarls, so we had to keep them apart, at least for a while. Believing that tensions had eased between the two felines, we let her out in the backyard to romp and play in the winter leaves and withered grass. That was a big mistake! Suddenly, there were no cats in the backyard. Pixie disappeared, and Gatsby was nowhere in sight. My wife called the neighbors to ask if they’d seen Pixie, and one neighbor had noticed her running across the street. We couldn’t find her anywhere.

            What alarmed me about this development was not Gatsby, as he had seemed to grow somewhat indifferent to the kitten, but the predators I had been noticing in our neighborhood. There was a giant, nightly owl who was bent on reducing our squirrel population, and a huge daytime hawk who sat on top the same light pole every day in our neighbor’s yard, periodically swooping down on some creature in the leaves below. After several days and no Pixie returning home, we were all convinced one of those giant predators had snatched her up. I don’t know who was sadder, the grandparents or the granddaughters!

            Fast forward nine months. A skinny, grey tabby, teenage-girl cat appears in the alleyway. I think it’s a neighbor’s cat which Gatsby will keep away, but the granddaughters rush out to the alley, pick her up, and bring her in the house. Incredible! The tabby markings and the nose coloration are the same, — and the wheezing, sneezing and flinging out cat snot made it very clear that after nine months, Pixie had come back.

            I couldn’t help but think of that old, old children’s song written in the 1890’s by Harry Miller, “The Cat Came Back.” The lyrics of the song are really too bizarre to be a kids’ song, but I guess attitudes were different back in the 19th Century when it was popular. And those lyrics certainly don’t fit Pixie’s situation. In one version of the old song, the cat kept coming back again and again, and the last time it came home, the lyrics say, “The cat was a possessor of a family of its own, with seven little kittens, and then came a cyclone.” Well, Pixie left as a kitten and came back old enough to have a family of her own, but thankfully she didn’t. And in one of the most bizarre of all the versions of the song, the cat dies, and comes back as a ghost of itself. I like what happened in our real life version much better than that.

            Obviously, neither the owl nor the hawk had been able to snag our precious little Pixie. So, no doubt what happened must have involved Gatsby. He must have chased her out of our yard into the neighborhood, and I’m sure, because of the loving care she had received from us, Pixie tried to come back again and again, and the jealous Gatsby chased her away again and again. Until that one providential day recently, when she, now a cat, came back and was retrieved by her happy family!

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and a retired pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Tektites? Rocks Or Glass?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in  IMAGES for August 22, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Today’s column was triggered by someone asking me if I had ever found any tektites during my many years of living in Lee County, Texas.  Well, as I thought about the question, I remembered I used to collect rocks as a kid growing up in Dime Box, but I wasn’t sure what a tektite was, though I suspected it was a rock of some kind.  Before I get to the tektite saga which will follow, let me say a few things about rocks.

            All of us, I’m sure, grew up thinking of rocks as symbols of strength, that’s why “hard as a rock” is such a common expression.  We Christians think of God as a rock, we sing “Rock of Ages” with great fervor, and we remember Jesus saying to Peter, “On this rock I will. build my church.”  What could be harder and stronger than a rock?  Hmmm.  But what is a rock anyway?

            In common parlance, diamonds, which are enormously hard, are referred to as “rocks,” but they are actually “minerals” rather than rocks.  Talc is very soft, and it, too, is considered a mineral rather than a rock.  Understanding what a “rock” is may be more difficult than we think, a challenge that those of us whose careers have been “words” readily take on.  While a mineral is not a rock, rocks are often made up of different kinds of minerals.  Even scientists seem to be confused about what is and what isn’t a rock.

            As far as I can discern, “stones” and “rocks” and “boulders” and “pebbles” are all pretty much the same thing.  “Rock” is a generic term, “stones” are usually found in large amounts, such as granite, and “boulders” are huge pieces of rock.  A major difference, though, is that while “rocks” can be hard or soft, “stones” can only be hard.

            Metamorphic rocks are the hardest of the three kinds of rocks and form the roots of most mountain chains.  Sedimentary rocks are the weakest or softest, and igneous rocks are somewhere in between.

            Sorry for the pedantic talk, but I had to explain all of that to get to the tektites I never found in Dime Box or anywhere else in Lee County, Texas.  In fact, it never occurred to me to look for them as a child since I had never heard of them.     

            To get to the point, “tektites” are not rocks, even though when you find them they may look like rocks.  Actually they are glass, scientists tell us.

            Isn’t that really a technicality since glass is formed from sand or rocks (usually high in silica) by heating them to a very high temperature, followed by a rapid cooling.  OK, so rocks and sand CAN become glass, but glass is NOT a rock. 

            THE MYSTERY:  If tektites, strewn about Lee County, and other places in Texas and elsewhere, are indeed glass, who made the glass and randomly tossed it here and there (in Texas) in Walker, Brazos, Burleson, Lee, Fayette, Lavaca, Gonzales, and DeWitt Counties?

            It wasn’t the Bedias Indians of Texas, even though in Texas, “tektites” are known as “bediasites,” having been named after that tribe.  Apparently, over the years, the greatest number of tektites in Texas were found in the area where the Bedias Indians lived.  If tektites were strewn about by them, how did we acquire such unusual glass?

            THE ANSWER TO THE MYSTERY:  Tektites were formed during meteorite impacts with the earth!  Since glass needs heat for its formation, that meant an incredible amount of heat!  Some commentators even go so far as to say it happened when a giant meteorite or asteroid hit the earth and killed off the dinosaurs.  It is believed to have hit Chicxulub, Yucatan, Mexico, and the results were widespread, including the formation of tektites.

            Next time you’re in Dime Box, go on a little geological search.  Who knows, you might find a tektite!  I never did.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

It’s Backpack Time Again

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for August 15, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

It’s that time again, — when summertime-dormant public school students heave on their heavy backpacks and head back to their institutions of learning. Some, this past Sunday, prepared themselves by attending a “blessing of the backpacks” service at their church. These blessing services are very popular today just about everywhere.

            Ah, yes, backpacks! Today’s backpacks come in sizes reflecting today’s technology, — sizes to fit 11” laptops, 13” laptops, 15.6” laptops, and even 17” laptops. One advertisement just announced 21 different types of backpacks, saying that “not all backpacks are created equal.” Teen Vogue printed an article entitled, “19 Trendy Backpacks for the 2019 School Year,” most of the illustrations showing very bright colors and bold designs.

            You know what I’m going to say now, don’t you? Back in the good old days when I attended Dime Box Rural School in the 1940’s, we just carried our books under our arms, though a few girls had “school satchels” (“Oh My Gosh!” gasps today’s generation). A “book satchel” is a briefcase made out of canvas rather than leather. Before my time, when my parents were in school, boys anyway, carried their books strapped together with a leather strap.

            Can you believe it!? It wasn’t until the 1980’s that kids started using backpacks for school. Prior to that time, backpacks were used for hiking, camping, skiing, and war, and were called “rucksacks.” Today, the distinction is made between the two, opining that the rucksack is larger than the backpack, and while there are other names for this bag on your back, “backpack” is the trendy name.

            Historians of trivia say that Dick Kelty invented the backpack in 1952 (but not for carrying books and laptops to school), and, at that time, it was also called a packsack, a sack, a knapsack, as well as a rucksack.

            Having just read an article somewhere, saying that this year, even bullet-proof backpacks are available for parents worried about school safety in light of the many campus shootings, I searched online to see if I could verify that. I did find one retailer offering for sale a backpack called, “Military Tactical Assault Backpack for men,” but the item description did not actually say it was “bullet-proof.” It is a sad commentary on today’s world that even the idea of a bullet-proof backpack for children would be thought necessary precaution. For me, the thought brings a great feeling of sadness on the day school opens, always having been a very happy day for me as a child who loved school and learning.

            The church service I listened to Sunday on KULP had a beautiful backpack blessing service, wherein the kids brought their backpacks, either new or old, came to the front of the chancel area, and received the blessing. As a retired teacher and a retired pastor, I found it a very touching ceremony. My freshman-in-high-school granddaughter was excited about her newly purchased backpack; and I must admit, it is very attractive. However, I just hope it’s large enough to carry all of the school necessities high school students need to take. One good thing about it, our children will develop strong backs, lol!

  So, how do teachers carry all their stuff (textbooks, timers, Kleenex, grading pens, cell phone, laptop, DVD’s, gradebook, lesson plan book, TEA rule book, Tylenol, band aids, bottles of water, energy snacks, and Advil (if the Tylenol doesn’t work) to school nowadays? No doubt they take a wheelbarrow! Just kidding. Having been there and done that in my lifetime, I know the mixed feelings of joy and anxiety teachers feel on the first day of school. Teaching school is the most splendid job that God calls very special people to do. My blessings on the backpacks and the wheelbarrows!

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Old Kodak Pictures And Theories About Time

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for August 8, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

While researching my family history in preparation for writing my first book, It Must Be the Noodles, I spent a huge amount of time gathering together a collection of family photographs, some of which I used in the book, and some that were the basis of the whimsical sketches I drew for each chapter. The inconsistency of the quality of the old pictures made it difficult to illustrate with photos only.

            My iPad and other electronic devices allowed me to enhance the quality of some of the pics, but they still didn’t come close to looking like the high-resolution photographs my granddaughter takes with her state-of-the-art Canon digital camera. Photography has come a long way since it was first discovered!

            George Eastman created and sold the first Kodak camera in 1888. In 1900, Eastman produced the first Kodak Brownie, which was essentially a cardboard box and sold for one dollar. Then Brownie Two was introduced in 1902 and sold for $2. Most of the pictures taken by my mother and her sisters in the 1920’s were snapped on a 2Brownie no doubt.

            Even though Eastman added a 6-20 flash in 1940 and a built-in flash in 1957 (the year I graduated from college), I never owned a Kodak with a flash of any kind. When my brother and I took pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s, we made sure we were outside with the sun behind us. Yet even those photographs were not so great! Thanks to Eastman, however, those of us who were poor could afford a cardboard box camera! Without the invention of the “snapshot,” only professional photographers would have been able to record history-in-the-making with cameras! But this butter-mold size cardboard box made it possible for any and all of us to just point and shoot instantly. Thank you, Eastman Kodak!

            Posting old family photos on my Facebook Page, “Ray Spitzenberger, Author and Artist @WendWriterWhittler,” has generated an enormous number of responses from Page Visitors. Folks seem eager to see old-timey photos showing the way it was in the good old days. The unexpected response made me wonder why so many of us are eager to return to the past the only ways we can, via old photographs, old phonograph records, and everything else antique.

            Especially old photographs! There seems to be an almost magical element here. We bring Great Grandma back to life by devouring those images of her, and meeting and seeing her though she died before we were born, or before we were old enough to remember what she looked like. Or we revisit those we knew and loved so much!

            Perhaps that’s a little of what the producers of the movie, “Back to the Future,” had in mind regarding the rather startling scene in the movie involving a photograph. In the movie, Marty kept a photo of the three children of George McFly and Lorraine Barnes McFly in his wallet, and referred to it when he was stuck in 1955. First, the top of Dave’s head disappeared from the picture. Then Marty’s own image began to fade, and soon after that, Marty’s hand. When a movie-goer watches this scene, he cannot but help to think of Einstein’s Theory of the Relativity of Time. Certainly that was my thought watching it, and it really spooked me.

            Einstein theorized that space and time are essentially the same thing, which can be called “spacetime.” Einstein also believed that gravity can bend time, so time can speed up or slow down depending on how fast you are traveling in relation to something else. Time dilation seems to be an accepted fact by those who work with space travel; and what even spooks me more, is the belief of some physicists that time is not real, — I suppose they are saying it’s an illusion. Unfortunately, when I look at old photographs, I cannot help but think about “Back to the Future” and these extraordinary theories of time.

            Well, our fascination with old photographs has nothing to do with the Relativity of Time, I would hope, but it does bring us the kind of joy that only great memories can bring!

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Whether An Ending Or A Beginning, In All Things God Works For The Good Of Those Who Love Him

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for August 1, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to begin and there is a time to end something. Recognizing that fact is necessary, because you have to develop a feel for knowing when a good thing needs to end, and when another good thing needs to begin. And in God’s logarithm, often those in-between times can be difficult, discouraging, and even painful.

            All of us have experienced the ending of our childhood and the beginning of adulthood (well, maybe not all of us, as I have known a few men in my lifetime who were fifty years old and still childish boys), the end of bachelorhood and the beginning of marriage, the end of college and the start of a career, etc. We’ve all experienced the difficulty and the joy of those transformations. And, of course, we can experience such shifting gears as a group, too. A much loved teacher retires and the faculty and the student body feel the personality of the school has suddenly changed. For better or worse, the definition of “life” is “change.”

            In the early days of my residence in East Bernard, we seemed to lose a town essence or personality when several of our wonderful mom-and-pop stores closed down, especially our uniquely wonderful mom-and-pop grocery store, when the whole town gathered there for drawings and fried gizzards each Saturday. Suddenly, our little feed store was no longer open, and you couldn’t buy your garden seeds by the scoops full any more. And two splendid mom-and-pop dry goods stores closed. These changes didn’t all happen at once, but since they were part of the unique “personality” of our town, with each change we lost something unique.

            New beginnings of new businesses came about, and each became part of our town’s unique identity. Through it all, our town continues and thrives in the ebb and flow of life.

            This last Sunday in July 2019 marked the second anniversary of my retirement from the pastoral ministry in 2017. But it also coincided with the acceptance of a new pastor’s call to St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis. The officers of our church announced Sunday that Rev. Rod Houppert of New Orleans, Louisiana, just accepted St. Paul’s call for him to serve them as their pastor. I’m guessing that the overall reaction was relief and joy. Two years is a long time for a church to operate without a shepherd; even though they always have the Good Shepherd, they also need the under-shepherd to carry on the work of the parish. It was a relief and joy to me, too, as my heart was still in the church, still caring about the members, and wishing I could serve. The ending that made us all sad and worried in 2017 will now be transformed into a new beginning filled with hope and joyful anticipation for all of us. My wife and I are still members of the church, and she is still the church organist. This is a time of celebration for all.

            The lesson we learn from such experiences as this is: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purposes” (Romans 8:28). Naturally when a small, traditional, rural church loses its pastor, and it knows it can’t compete financially with the larger, more affluent, churches, to call a new shepherd, there is great anxiety about the future of the congregation, established in 1900 with a splendid history. To its great credit, and the Good Shepherd at the helm, the congregation held together, worked together solidly for two years, and maintained a strong faith in a gracious God. And He provided.

            For me, as for anyone who retires after a long, blessed relationship with a parish, the first year away was difficult, even painful at times, but gradually my 85 year old body began to appreciate resting in my recliner on the sun porch, spending more time with my precious granddaughters, not to mention my wife, reading all those books I never had time to read, and, joyfully writing all those poems and essays, and even a book, I had always wanted time to write. By the time the second year of retirement began, my sadness had turned to joy, — except for one thing, — the great difficulty of the church getting another pastor. Now, there will be a new beginning with a new pastor, a new hope, and new plans.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger invites the reader to view and “like” his Facebook Page, “@WendWriterWhittler, Ray Spitzenberger, Author and Artist.”

Halycon Moments Amid World War II

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 25, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Last week as I was going through some old family photographs, I came across several taken at the Pacific Front during World War II. My attention was especially drawn to a shot of a group of American soldiers in battle helmets, taking a break in an area which looked totally shelled out by enemy artillery, stripped of all vegetation, bare tree trunks, some standing, some lying on the ground. The GI taking a drink of water from his canteen was my Uncle Joe (well, he became my Uncle Joe, after the War, when he came home and married my aunt). The photo, which I posted on my Facebook Page, “Ray Spitzenberger, Author and Artist @WendWriterWhittler,” brought back childhood memories of that War. I invite my readers to “like” my Page if you want to see the photo and other pictures and ponderings.

            World War II was traumatic for everybody, especially for a child; I was 5 years old when it began in 1939, and 11 when it ended in 1945. The thoughts and feelings about this terrible conflict in my memory-bank continue to motivate me to write about the War. Perhaps experiencing that difficult era as a child and seeing it through a child’s mind make it impossible to capture what’s inside you and to share with readers. Other people my age have expressed somewhat the same feelings about this second major world war, which began not too long after World War I (ironically called “the War to End All Wars”) ended.

            Of course, we weren’t bombed, we didn’t have to run to air raid shelters as folks in England had to, and our beautiful land was not shelled into deforestation as the Pacific islands were. Our trauma was more subtle, — we missed our fathers and uncles at the Christmas dinner table, cherishing their letters which brought tears; we listened to the radio every day with great anxiety, hoping the War news would be better than the day before; we grieved with those who received “killed-in-action” telegraphs or letters; and, willingly sacrificing, we bought food, gas, tires, and shoes with limited war ration stamps and raised “Victory Gardens.” We were proud of our soldiers fighting for us, and our greatest solace was God and our church.

            It’s almost impossible to express the importance of our church to those of us living in our rather isolated little rural town of Dime Box. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were active members of this “Center” of our lives, my mother serving as church organist and playing an old pump organ, pumping air with her feet to activate the sounds. My poem about the War and our little rural church, “This Easeful Hour Made Halcyon,” was published recently in the Bellville Poets Society’s Chapbook. I want to include it here, because it comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible:

THIS EASEFUL HOUR MADE HALCYON

the time, childhood

the church, rural

the moon, large,

lighting up the outside

the gasoline lanterns, pumped,

lighting up the inside

the wheezing sounds

of the old pump organ

commence vespers with plainsong

mama, the organist,

pumping and playing,

her fingers and feet

temporarily

freed of rheumatism

by the music

sifting through her mind and heart

the kindly old pastor,

in cassock and surplice,

slow-moving and serene,

lights the candles himself

this easeful hour

made halcyon

by homily, hymns and prayers

in the midst of bellicose news

from the blood-stained trenches

of a world at war

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of It Must Be the Noodles.

The Benefits And Joys Of Doing Puzzles

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 18, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

There’s something about a human being that likes to solve a mystery or a puzzle. Mystery novels and spy thrillers are probably the most widely read books in the country. As kids, my brother and I used to love to read the Hardy Boys series, as these teenage detectives solved mystery after mystery, so even as children we were turned on to mysteries. Coupled with that is the insatiable human demand for puzzles, — puzzles of all kinds, from crosswords to Sudoku, jig saw puzzles to electronic iPhone puzzles.

            Most historians of trivia agree that the most popular of all the many different puzzles, worldwide, is the jig saw puzzle, which was invented in 1760, — I don’t know which was the most popular before the 18th Century. The largest jig saw puzzle available today was made by Ravenburger, with 40,320 pieces. The smallest jig saw puzzle, according to trivia experts, was created at Laser Zentrum Hannover, and is the size of a grain of sand (now I’d have to see that to believe it). My wife and I, being avid jig saw puzzle doers, prefer puzzles made by Ravenburger, though there are three or four other companies which make well-fitting puzzle pieces. Nothing is more annoying than trying to build a thousand-piece puzzle with the pieces constantly coming apart!

            The good brands of jig saw puzzles, like Ravenburger, are quite expensive, but puzzle addicts solve that problem by buying used puzzles or exchanging them with friends who share the same passion for doing puzzles.

            Nobody seems to know which puzzle is the second most popular puzzle in the world, and there are many, many different ones, including these: Rubik’s Cube and Soma Cube, Sudoku, Slitherlink, Kakuro, Number Link, Masyu, Shikaku, Scrabble, connect-the-dots, cryptic crosswords, get-through-the-maze, and many more. Educators tell us that they favor using puzzles with kids, because there are great benefits, — they help improve cognitive skills, promote problem-solving, foster fine motor development, and improve hand and eye coordination. Some people even believe that doing puzzles helps to prevent the onslaught of dementia.

            Of those puzzles mentioned, the one I have always enjoyed as much as jig saw’s is the crossword puzzle. No doubt as a former English teacher, wordsmith, and dictionary nut, I would be attracted to a puzzle which calls for synonyms, though I may have caught the crossword bug from one of my aunts, who worked through an entire book of crossword puzzles each day. She had stacks and stacks of crossword puzzle books by her living room couch, and since she did them in pencil, would allow me to erase them and do them myself (this was subject to cheating because the answers were not always thoroughly erased).

            Most of my life I was too busy working at some job or other to finish a whole book of puzzles a day, so my habit was to do the daily crossword in The Houston Post or (later) The Houston Chronicle after supper. As a school teacher, I never had time to do it before breakfast. My puzzle-doer aunt was a stay-at-home homemaker, who, I’m afraid did more crosswords than homemaking. Back in those days, people believed “a woman’s place was in the home,” – apparently, I guess, whether you baked, sewed, canned, cleaned house, or worked crossword puzzles, it mattered not as long as you stayed home. She did have a sharp mind and wrote a column for the local newspaper.

            My mother, on the other hand, had no use for crossword puzzles, but enjoyed putting jig saw pieces together, thus kindling my interest in jig saw puzzle building.

            Mama loved maps, globes, and geography, which is a bit odd since she was terrified of traveling anywhere outside of Lee County, Texas. No doubt her love of geography was her motivation for buying “geography puzzles” for my brother and me. My favorite puzzle as a child was a map of the United States, so, even before I went to school, I knew the names and locations of all the states (at that time) in the Union. We also had a World Map puzzle which was more difficult for us. When you haven’t gone anywhere outside of Lee County, it is difficult to envision the world and match the pieces.

            My wife loves Sudoku and iPhone puzzles, but some of the most enjoyable days in the winter of our life are those days when we do a huge jig saw puzzle together.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor and is the author of It Must Be the Noodles.

For The Love Of Cedar, The Godly Wood

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 11, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

   A few days ago, I received a belated birthday present, — a T-shirt depicting a couple of wood-carving knives with the caption: “THE BEST WAY TO CARVE WOOD IS WHITTLE BY WHITTLE.” It’s a perfect gift for me, as I have argued many times, “I am not a wood sculptor, I am a whittler.” When folks ask me about my wood art, I tell them, “I don’t sculpt, I whittle.” In fact, when I began doing wood art some years ago, because of my love of the beauty of wood, I bought an expensive set of blades, chisels, scoops, etc., but after a few months, tossed them aside and started using my 19th Century pocket knife (from my father-in-law’s father). They don’t make knives like that anymore!

            Just as many women I know love fine China, dainty porcelain, and arty ceramics, a lot of men I’m acquainted with have a passion for working with wood, making everything from chicken roosts to step ladders out of planks of white pine or whatever their favorite wood happens to be. And the old-timers like my father and grandfather just loved to whittle with their pocket knife, making useful items like wooden spoons and paddles. Some even liked to do arty things, but each one had his favorite wood. My daddy’s favorite wood was cedar.

            Maybe that’s why my favorite wood to work with is also cedar. When you slice off a piece of cedar and sand it, the grain is splendid-looking, almost an object of art in itself. But then I grew up with cedar, there being many cedar brakes in the woods around Dime Box. My grandfather used cedar trunks as fence posts, convinced they didn’t rot as easily as other woods and sure of their insect repellent properties. In those days, every young woman had a cedar chest made by their father or an uncle, an excellent moth-free “hope chest.” At our church in Dime Box, a parishioner hand-made the baptismal font out of some beautiful cedar wood. Someone (probably my father) made a jewelry box for my mother, with hand-cut metal decorations on it. In Lee County in the good old days, cedar wood was highly regarded even though it was plentiful.

            There is a centuries-old Sumerian myth that speaks of the “wood of the gods,” which, of course, was cedar, the legend telling about how the demigods fought a great battle with humans over the cedar groves in Mesopotamia. I’m not sure who won, but I’m guessing it was the demigods.

            What was/is so great about cedar? In much of ancient history it was the most valued of all woods, — the Cedars of Lebanon are famous and are mentioned in the Bible. Egyptians used cedar for ship-building, and the Ottoman Empire did major construction projects with it, desiring it above all others. Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon to build his Temple, the only wood suitable for God’s House. If it were the only wood good enough for the Temple, then it was surely a Godly wood. Maybe the parishioner who built our baptismal font with cedar in Dime Box had that in mind.

            As far as whittling is concerned, I don’t find cedar difficult to whittle on, and can shape it easily. I actually prefer it to driftwood, though driftwood rivals its beauty, because most driftwood is very hard to carve, and requires a really sharp knife. I tend to use cedar for flat art and driftwood for 3-dimensional designs. The two woods don’t look good together. But driftwood created by the ocean and the sun from different kinds of wood has many different colorations and textures, often quite spectacular when sanded and shellacked. These different colored and textured woods look good together.

            You can buy slices from a cedar log, with beautiful grain variations showing, and these slices can be used very effectively in creating one-dimensional art, — it’s kind of like painting a picture with cedar wood, and is by far my favorite method of creating wood art. Some cedar slices have much more beautiful wood grains than others, and part of the artist’s job is to find the most exquisitely beautiful ones, which are certainly fitting for religious art. As September and our church auction grow closer, I hope to create some wood art out of this “Godly wood.”

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of It Must Be the Noodles.