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Passing the Flame

By: Major Kris Wood, Maplewood Salvation Army

I was recently on vacation in Michigan where I was visiting my eldest son and relaxing by a quiet lake with a sandy beach. It was all quite tranquil and serene. A Great Blue Heron called out his daily arrival to the lake and let me know that it was time to hit the water. A Red Tailed Hawk floated high above my head, riding on the invisible forces of the wind; looking for a quick prey to grab into his steel-clawed talons and sweep back to his nest for a morning snack. A pontoon gurgled by as the owner tried to eek one more summer out of his ancient Johnson 15 h.p. motor. He waved, acknowledging my return to the lake that God has given to me as my retreat from stress and reality. I waved in return, the affirmation of a friendship based solely on the time and place. We’ve never spoken, never gripped hands, never communicated in any way over the years except for the passing wave as we both attempted to coax out of life a few moments of escape.

This was my ninth summer upon the lake. In those years very little had changed. I could predict that the college-aged children of the doctor would soon zoom past me on their jet skis, raising high off of each other’s wake. The family at the far side of the lake that kept a beautiful painted horse on their lakeside property, would not be far behind as the kids shouted with glee as Dad pulled them from the motor boat and they clung with white-knuckled fingers to their tubes as he aimed for the wake of the jet skis to send them airborne and to their crashing joy as they fell into the water. (The purpose of tubing is to get thrown from the tube, take serious air and make a horrible crash into the water. Floatation devices keep the tubers at the surface while the boat circles back to gather it’s victims.)

Our tradition has been to build a bonfire near the water’s edge, poke sticks into the red hot coals, tell stories of our family exploits, dream big dreams and burn marshmallows to a golden brown crisp each night that we spent at the lake. This night, the two boys and I were the only ones still awake as the deep night descended upon us. The sky was filled from horizon to horizon with the glorious expanse of stars that make up the universe. One son was tossing a fishing line into the blackness of the lake at night, hoping to catch the big bass that made his home along the beach. The other son was talking about cars and his pursuit of the perfect used car that he could afford. I was adding my wisdom into the mix, pontificating from my seat upon an18-inch stump of wood. It is the earned right of all fathers to take advantage of such times to pass on the knowledge of the ages to his children. We continued the rite of many generations of the family to pass on the stories of old, wax eloquent on the beauties of life, speak somberly of those we had lost, exaggerate the exploits of our past and bond as the men of the family had always bonded – around the fire.

The clan goes back to the lumberjack days of Northern Ontario where my Grandfather cussed in French Canadian with the best of them, used his mighty arms to heave an axe or pull on a saw. The lumberjacks ended each day sitting around the fire, telling stories that were mostly true, and dreaming of moving to the big city, having a house of their own and raising their families in the wealth of their nearest neighbors, the citizens of the United States of America. Grandpa never told the stories that were shared around those fires in the great north, censoring most of the tales from our virgin ears as little children. However, great truths were past down and the tradition has carried forward in the family around the country. Sitting around a campfire, eating food, sharing life, and distilling the family wisdom is a way of life for all of the family members; whether in Michigan, Utah or along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming. It is the way we continue the oral history of the family – a tradition that has been passed on to many generations.

Now, in the midst of telling the most profound experience of my life with unidentified flying objects and the Northern Lights, a deep rumble moved from the southwest and then cracked loudly above our heads. At first, I considered it the warning of a coming storm. Yet, the sky was still clear and filled with the stars, not a hint of any oncoming storm could be seen as far as the western horizon would allow. One quick look on the smart phone confirmed that no storms were headed our way. One of the boys said, “Is it a storm coming, Dad?” I affirmed that the skies were clear. After a moment of contemplation the other son said, “Must be a military jet.” We agreed in silence. I continued my story.

Twenty minutes or so later, my story having ended and discarded as so much late night gibberish; my son talking of having a house on a lake and fishing every day the rest of his life, the rumble again shook the sky. This time it was more defined, sharper, and obviously not a military jet. It most closely resembled the sounds I had experienced twenty years prior as aftershocks of the Northridge, California earthquake shook Los Angeles and the Hollywood area. The rumbles would begin in the distance and then move closer as the sound became louder, soon to be followed by the waves of rock solid earth moving beneath us as we held on for dear life and prayed that this rumble was not the first sound of “the big one” that would cause California to slide off the continental U.S. and into the Pacific ocean. Yet, this night on the lake in Michigan, no waves of earthquake followed. I put my hands palm down against the ground at beneath me and felt no tremor, no shake, no slight wiggle in the terra firma.

“What is that?” the youngest son asked, fear obvious in his voice. “Not a military jet,” the eldest son replied. He arose to his feet and began to pace along the sand, looking into the darkness of the southwest sky. I pondered what kind of celestial or manmade thing could make such booming occur. It was too loud for fireworks – the resounding lower frequencies moved the organs in my stomach in a way fireworks have never accomplished. Jets breaking the sound barrier never shook the sky with such ferocity. Thunder never moved in waves from the distance to explode over your head and continue on to the opposite horizon. It was a surreal, disturbing experience. Yet, given our desire to find that stated place of bliss and escape, we were quick to fall back into our slowly spoken conversations and to continue on the long family tradition. The stories lasted late into the night with never another interruption by the unknown source of the boom.

Three days removed from the lake and deeply immersed in the rat race of work once again, I found a news story that about fifty miles south of where we had been at the lake an entire region of Michigan was jolted by “unknown” disturbances in the air. One man’s house had structural damage and two trees were literally torn in half at the same elevation. Several other neighbors reported house damage as well. The United States Geological Service reports NO seismic activity in the state of Michigan or the region. The United States Air Force reports no activity over south western Michigan. The F.A.A. reports no low flying airplanes and no crashed or missing airplanes in the entire region.

One can make a lot of these kinds of things if one allows their imagination to go wild. It would be easy to imagine all kinds of sci-fi type options as answers to the dilemma of the booms of southwestern Michigan on those days of vacation. However, it solidified the memory of that time together – the sharing of the past, the enjoying of the present and the guaranteed retelling of this story for generations to come. If my sons hold true to the family tradition they will interject their own personal opinions about the noises that filled that night and make the story that much more incredible by adding their own unique perspectives and memories of that night to make it the “incredible night when we heard the strange booms over Michigan.” For me, it is a great and warming memory when a father shares a special time with his sons, passes wisdom, postulates about things he knows little of, and in that moment solidifies the family bond that had been passed down to him from the not so silent generations of the past.

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