The Waving Man

 I met him eight years ago during a family vacation in Camden, Maine. He was sitting in a motorized wheelchair alongside a highway in front of nursing facility, waving at all who passed.

My curiosity compelled me to stop, turn around and learn more about the man. Kert Ingraham, 82, told me of his youth, adventures and creating several successful businesses. He said he had a son, but his wife had passed. Most of all, he shared how he had found unexpected joy and purpose in filling his days by waving to passing motorists, walkers and joggers. He said he had been waving at folks for nearly a year, and had found it gave him something to look forward to and a way to bring joy to others.

This waving began rather accidentally. Because of a smoking prohibition on the grounds of the nursing facility, Kert drove his motorized wheelchair out near the highway to smoke. Meanwhile, he waved at passing motorists. Soon, what began as a simple kind gesture became a faithful daily ritual he practiced the next five years until his death in December 2016.

Before long, “The Waving Man,” as locals called him, became a friendly fixture—a local, even national celebrity. Singer-songwriter Don McClean wrote a song about Kert titled “The Waving Man,” which he included on his 2018 album, “Botanical Gardens.”

During these anxious and even unkind times of late, I began to think about The Waving Man, and how a simple gesture of kindness and connection meant so much to so many.

“No matter your mood, his simple act of kindness always made your day better,” The Camden Herald wrote upon Kert’s death.

I believe most of us want to do something big—something good—to make the world better. But life teaches us if we slow down and observe, it is often better to contribute a thousand small things than one big one. The way I figure it, The Waving Man raised his hand in kindness at least 75,000 times, which probably equates to nearly as many smiles.

Saying Goodbye to Gus

In his youth, he loved to chase squirrels, cats, UPS and FedEX trucks, and bite water from a hose or moving creek rapids, swelling like a balloon. He attacked garage doors when opening or closing and ran in wild circles barking at thunder during storms.

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A member of the family, and the little dog was a grandmother’s present for my son Tucker’s 5th birthday, Gus – who traveled with us on road trips and moves across country – became as much my youngest son Henry’s dog as Tucker’s.  Nobody loves creatures – especially dogs – more than Henry.  His very first sentence was, “I am a dog.”

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Young Gus loved water
Always ready for an adventure

We almost lost Gus before he was 5. A neighbor’s Great Dane chomped the Jack Russel in the midsection and shook him almost to death.  Gus rebounded and wasn’t afraid of any dog, regardless of size.

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Gus loved bath time

But as time does to all living things, the years took their toll. Watching our 15-year-old Jack Russel, lose his personality, his motor skills and control of his bowels was heartbreaking.  Gus was the first dog I have witnessed the cycle of life from puppyhood to old age. 

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Henry says goodbye to Gus before leaving for Oregon

The last months were the hardest.  Suffering from a form of doggie dementia, blind and deaf, he shuffled in circles or stood for long periods of time starring in corners.  He didn’t sleep well.  Neither did my wife nor I. Through the night he paced in circles, his toenails tap-dancing on the kitchen floor.

Finally, the hard day came, when we knew it was time to say goodbye. My wife, Erin, bought a soft blanket to wrap and cuddle Gus on her lap while carrying him into a new, strange environment. When the vet gave him the shot  to put him to sleep forever and Gus gently dropped his head and his little body relaxed in my wife’s comforting arms, we both cried. I thought how no person or dog should die alone.

Erin says goodbye to Gus, our 15-year-old Jack Russell

I awoke at 5 a.m. two days later, sure I heard Gus in the kitchen shaking himself, as he did when he awoke. I was sure I heard the familiar sound of incessant tapdancing of his toenails on the kitchen floor, letting me know he had to go out and soon. I got up silently to avoid waking my wife. Heart pounding, I expected to see Gus. He was gone. I leaned against the sink and wept.

I cried again after calling Henry, who had moved to Oregon, and hearing his whimpers as I told him we put Gus to sleep.

For Tucker and Henry, it was like losing a little brother.

Coming home to a quiet house a few days after Gus was gone, I noticed Erin’s eyes filling.  “I miss Gus,” she confessed.  “He has been my greeter for the past 15 years.”

“I do too,” I confessed. “He was family.”

Gus angered me at times with his untimely incessant barking, but I loved that feisty little Jack Russell Terrier.  He brought much joy to our family for many years.

I kept thinking how I could have and should have been kinder and more patient with him at the end of his life.  I thought about how Henry tenderly held Gus, kissed him and rubbed his tummy, even though his hair was coming out in patches and his odor was gagging.  He even carried the frail dog in his car and drove him places so he could see the outside world.

The ashes of a loyal friend in our living room

A time to fly

by Dave LaBelle

My son Henry and his girlfriend Caroline share a heart for creatures large and small.

This spring Henry rescued a baby rabbit from two evil-looking cats and did his best to clean the little guy’s wounds before the frightened creature disappeared into the bushes near our home.

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A day later, he brought home a bird that had fallen or had been pushed from a nest.  He and Caroline searched online for how best to care for what they later learned was a baby Blue Jay.  They fed and cared for the chick and kept him overnight before nailing a small box on the tall tree near where they had found fledgling and placing the chick in it.  Thankfully, a blue jay parent began feeding the youngster and all seemed good, that is until a strong wind and rain storm attacked.  Realizing the torrential storm would likely drown the growing chick, Henry rushed out into the storm late at night and returned with a soaked and shivering bird.  The box was barely hanging from the tree.  They dried the wet bird then fed him, and he spent a second night in Caroline’s room before nailing a dry box to the tree and re-depositing the baby jay.

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A few days later, Henry and Caroline arrived with yet another fuzzy chick bird, a baby robin they found on the street in downtown Athens.   But this time there was no sign of nest or parent birds.  I tried to warn them that a baby robin needs a lot of worms, and feeding the little fellow until he could fly would be a full-time job.  Not to be put off, they became surrogate parents, spending time with and taking shifts to feed the hungry youngster.  The chirping chick cried to be fed every couple of hours, beginning before dawn.  Since I am an early bird and I could see both Henry and Caroline were growing weary, I offered to take the first feeding shift.  I enjoyed digging worms and filling his little tummy until he closed his eyes with satisfaction and fell asleep.

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I loved that little bird.  I felt like a grandparent to him/her.   Though Henry refused to let him be named – assuring me it was wrong to name a wild creature that would be returned to nature – I still called him Bob.

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Henry looking

_DSC4877.JPGBefore long, the robin’s feathers came in and the fledgling began sleeping outdoors in trees in our backyard.  I was a nervous wreck and didn’t sleep well, worried one of the many neighborhood cats or an owl would get him.  But each morning before daybreak, Bob would be at the back door chirping to be fed.   Each of us took turns teaching him to find his own worms and not depend on us doing all the work.  He caught on quickly.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

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2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

Then came the day when our little friend was ready to leave home.  Henry and Caroline took my adopted “grandbird” to a location away from town they thought would provide cover, interactions with other birds, and plenty of worms.  I followed with my camera and a heavy heart. I knew it was time for Bob to take flight and be on his own, but I hated seeing him go.

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I didn’t like it, the place they chose.  There was a trail around the pond and I felt Bob was too trusting and vulnerable here.   But they encouraged him to find a few worms, and even fed him a big, thick, juicy one and said goodbye.  Bob closed his eyes and decided to nap on a branch about 6 feet above the ground.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

But no sooner had we started back down the trail when a big cat came slinking out of the brush, towards where we had left Bob.

“Oh no,” cried Caroline.

“That’s what I feared,” I gently rebuked.

Then a man with a big dog off-leash, sniffing in the brush, appeared.

No more signs needed.

Henry went back up the trail, picked up Bob and we started for a new location.

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If there is such a place as a paradise for birds, we found it in our local community garden. Quiet, earthy people lovingly cared for gardens while baby birds – sparrows, wrens, woodpeckers, and mockingbirds – jumped and played, darting and flying clumsily on garden posts.  Without unleashed dogs or hungry cats roaming around, and with plenty of bugs and worms and water, this was bird heaven.  A misty spray from a watering hose caught catching the colors of the morning.

Henry and Caroline said their goodbyes and we watched like proud parents as Bob hopped through the grass and pulled several worms.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

DSC_5214.JPGHenry and Caroline said their goodbyes and we watched like proud parents as Bob hopped through the grass and pulled several worms.

 

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2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

Though it was still hard leaving Bob there as the evening approached, I breathed a sigh of relief like leaving a child with a trusted family member.

_DSC5399.JPGHe would be all right.

The next morning, while the grass was still wet with dew, we drove to the garden to check on our baby.

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He saw us and chirped and flew to Henry but was eager to go back to his business. It was clear he was a teenager now, acknowledging us but anxious to be on his own.

We went a couple of days later, just to check on him.  And though Henry and Caroline adamantly insisted I stay away and leave him alone, I still snuck back about a week later.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

My heart sank when I looked over the entire garden and couldn’t find him.  Maybe some critter got him or a hawk?  I whistled but without response.  I admit I got a bit misty.  Then, while leaving, heavy-hearted,  I heard a chirp and saw him in a fenced garden plot.  He saw me and wiggled through the fence mesh and hurried over and sat on my shoe.  I wiped away tears.  Though I wanted to, I didn’t feed him or even pick him up. But I did say hello and tell him how proud of him I was.

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I have raised four children and it was hard watching each of them leave the nest and fly into a big, unpredictable world. I know it’s the way it should be, but it is still tough.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

Finally, the day came when Bob or “Speckles,” the name some of the local gardeners gave him, left the garden for good.  Where he went and what happened to him, we may never know.   Maybe next Spring he will come back to our backyard and raise a family?  I hope so.  He certainly enriched our lives, our household for several weeks during uncertain times.

A Man for all Ages

Last November my lifelong friend, Rob Stapleton, introduced me to a truly interesting veteran named Ski Kowalewski, who was nearing his 100th birthday.  Following is the story we published in Ruralite Magazine recently.

He laughs easily and often. Quick-witted, intelligent, financially savvy—and with great eyesight, thick hair and his original teeth—Zygmund “Ski” Kowalewski looks decades younger than his 100 years.

 

Ski

Beneath the boyish smile and twinkling eyes reminiscent of Roy Rogers is a war hero and author.

When he was 96, the spirited and decorated World War II veteran wrote and published his first book, “A Sailor’s Life in World War II.”

“When I retired out of the Navy, I wanted to write a book about my Navy career, and that’s what this is,” he says with a smile, pointing to a paperback book.

On the cover is a photograph of a plane crashed in the sea, with Ski swimming away from the sinking bomber.

A Sailor's Life

“I was on four aircraft carriers and served in the Pacific, and we delivered airplanes to Alaska,” Ski says. “I also served on an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic and we sank a submarine.”

Pageboy murderHe picks up a second book, “The Pageboy Murder,” published two years later.

“I’m in a writing class and this is just a whodunit book,” Ski says.

Ski paid to publish both books and donates all proceeds to nonprofits in Alaska, contributing to the Good Samaritan fund at the Chugiak senior center and the Chugiak food pantry.

Ski—who moved to Alaska in 1967—left his longtime home in Anchorage after his wife died in 2014. He now lives at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center.

Born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1920, Ski enlisted in the U.S. Navy in October 1941, about two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He became a shipboard radio operator, learning to copy Morse code. He was a member of the famous torpedo squadron (VT-8) devastated at the Battle of Midway.

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Ski started naval flight training in 1945 and served 10 of his 20 years in the Navy as a pilot. He retired in 1960 at age 40, then joined the Federal Aviation Administration as an airways system inspection pilot, flying to all parts of Alaska for 10 years.

During his military career, Ski survived a number of close calls.

“When flying in the dive bombers, we gunners would ride in the rear seat,” Ski wrote. “Our job was to call out altitudes during the dive. It was exciting, to say the least. I have one memory that stands out. We were attacking a Japanese cruiser. I was firing my 0.50-caliber at them and they were firing at me with 20 millimeters, and one of them hit the airplane and killed the guy on the lower turret. I said I wasn’t scared, but I am going to go down fighting.”

Ski believes he dodged many bullets during the war—mostly by missing assignments on planes where others were killed—but claims he was never really afraid.

“It’s just what you did,” he says. “I am just damn lucky I got through it. We had plane crashes. They were routine. That was standard procedure. I was just damn lucky it wasn’t me. I thought, ‘Today, boy, I dodged a bullet once more,’ after another close call.”

 

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Bob Mrazek, author of “A Dawn Like Thunder: The Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight,” described Ski as “a true American hero, one of a small group of Americans from every part of the country who joined Torpedo Squadron Eight in the early days of the Second World War.”

Ski was recruited to support the Marines fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal at Bloody Ridge. He participated in the burial ceremony at sea of a German submarine captain who had been captured by U.S. naval forces in the North Atlantic.

He says Adm. William Halsey, a fleet admiral in the U.S. Navy during World War ll, was probably the most famous person he met.

“I got a citation from him,” Ski says, noting they were flying out of Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands. “It was just an air medal.”

He is more excited about the time he flew actor William Boyd—better known as Hopalong Cassidy, the cowboy TV and movie star from the 1930s and ’40s—to a Christmas party.

“I had him in the right side of the DC3 and I let him fly it,” Ski says. “He flew it all the way from Palm Springs to San Diego, but then we made the landing because you can’t make a landing without sitting in the cockpit. I made a lot of points with Hopalong Cassidy.”

A positive, pragmatic man, Ski chooses to look to the future rather than wallow in emotions from the past. There is no whining about aches and pains, no worry or dread of aging or dying, just a lot of laughing and planning to live to at least 105—a goal he has set. He reads and writes a lot, and is interested in online global payment systems such as bitcoin.

He says the internet is the greatest change he has seen in 100 years.

 

The walk

“I think it’s a great thing because it puts the world all together,” Ski says, “but they’ve kinda overdid it, you know, by advertising and stuff now. But I can get on that thing and ask it anything I want.”

“I have some hearing loss from being around all those airplanes,” he admits, noting he logged 13,000 flying hours in 25 different airplanes, a jet and ultralights. “I flew airplanes for 50 years. I loved instrument flying. I like being in there in the weather. There’s nothing like it. It’s exciting.”

He owns two ultralights and drives a Honda Odyssey van.

“I’m a rare bird,” Ski says, followed by his distinctive machine-gun laugh. “You don’t live to be 100 very often.”

Time for reflection

 

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Don

We made eye contact and both smiled as he walked slowly to a pair of headstones in the cemetery. On the way back to his car I engaged him and asked who he came to visit. He shared the graves were those of his wife and one of his sons, who died of cancer. Don, a Korean War Veteran, decided to visit the cemetery after realizing the Memorial Day Parade had been canceled. He smiled and told me he had had a wonderful life and had lived “The American Dream.” 5-25-2020. Memorial Day Athens, Ohio  © Dave LaBelle

Whew!

Whew!

Photographing in a limited space each day might not seem like something which generates any pressure (it’s not like trying to keep a hitting streak alive), but I must admit I do feel a load lifted today.

I had planned on making my day 50 post a compilation of my favorite pictures shot during this challenge, but felt doing so would be cheating, cutting a corner.  So, feeling a little guilty, I marched out (after the day-long rain subsided) to see what I could see.   I encountered a man walking his dogs, and he commented to me how cold it was.  Then he stopped, pulled out his cell phone camera, and shot a few pictures of the deer on the hillside just a couple of hundred feet away.

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DSC_1944T.jpgA small red placard in a window caught my attention, reminding me there is an election coming up in November unless it, like other events, gets canceled.  That said, the sign might be supporting local football star Joe Burrow, this year’s Heisman Trophy winner?

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At the close of this day, I feel a twinge of sadness that this project is over and, as I said, a sense of relief.   Above all, I feel sincere gratitude that my God gave me eyes to see, a heart to interpret and the time and place to record and share.  I am also thankful for those of you who have followed the posts. I hope the words and pictures brought you some joy and maybe even stirred you to count your many blessings.

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Alas, I think it is fitting that I share another bird and deer picture, my most photogenic subjects.

Buona sera!

P.S.

I plan to post the 50-day retrospective tomorrow afternoon.

Let There Be Light

Everything is interesting when touched by natural light.

On this second to last day of this journal, I want to celebrate light.  So I am sharing two pictures made inside my house this morning, common scenes where the light makes the picture.  One was shot as the morning light reached my dining room table, the other is of soft light passing through a bathroom window and shower curtain.  The remaining two are from my morning walk.

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One more day of this 50-day Gratitude Journal. I am thankful for the opportunity to explore and share within my small world here in Athens, but I am ready to move on. I hope it has been time well spent and helpful to others.

Today I enjoyed an hour-long conversation about my latest book Bridges and Angels: The Story of Ruth with some charming women from the Brown Bag/Tea Time Book Club, Taylor County (KY) Public Library.  I appreciated the good questions and insightful observations.  I hope to do more of these across the country.

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Activity A-Plenty

Nothing especially profound today other than learning more about deer behavior.  I witnessed a pregnant mother tenderly communicating with her daughter, then watched another showdown with some unwelcome trespassers.

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Now that most of the college students and their parents have left town after the chore of moving out of apartments, the streets are relatively empty again.  I did notice a few stragglers hanging out of windows to watch life passing below.

visit.jpgSince our front yard (what there is of it) slopes down to a partially public, partially private road, I often sit with my camera and watch and wave at the parade of people who pass by each day.  Our road is a popular spot for runners, parents pushing strollers and walkers of all ages, and the nearby wooden stairs leading to downtown attracts a lot of younger runners trying to stay in shape.

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I decided this afternoon to slow the shutter down and do a panning shot of two runners that pass by every afternoon.

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My Day in Pictures

Three days to go.

It is hard to believe I have been posting words and pictures for 47 days, and after today, only three more posts for this journal.

_DSC0853.JPGThe daily walks, seeing my deer and bird and critter friends has become a new normal. But I am also excited to get back to work on magazine stories, books and organizing 50 years of photo files.

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Today, I began early.

I watched a colorful, rain-threatened sunrise, saw a nervous deer bolt across the road, a robin carrying a wiggling worm to a chubby, hungry chick, a man on a television screen through a new friend’s window (the same window I saw Lawrence Welk last week)  talking about the battle over reopening get America, and a forlorn-looking pooch watching me through a fogged glass window.  Oh yes, and I did photograph more birds in flight, but I will keep those to myself for now.

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Suffice to say, there is no theme to today’s post, other than it is a snapshot of my day in pictures.