American Anthem: More Crosswicks less Crosswise

I was watching a documentary on the life of Charles Krauthammer today and was surprised that he was once a speechwriter for Walter Mondale.  This leader of Neo-con Republicanism once wrote speeches to elect the most traditional Democrat that ever existed, Walter Mondale.  And as I watched, I asked how this nation devolved into an us versus them mentality.

It was not always that way.  We once had civil discourse and the social intermediaries (clubs, little league, community centers, and other institutions) that brought us together.  Listening to Charles’ life, I have to agree with Charles when he said, “Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.”

We have gotten extreme, but it was not always that way. We did not always launch ourselves into the opposing sides of Twitter feeds at the drop of a hat, but rather listened to the opposing sides of people we respected in our community. We sought out the commonalities that brought us together and the spark of humanity that resides in each one of us.   We listened to one another and learned from one another at the PTAs, Little Leagues, Community Centers and institutions of everyday life.  We need to return to these social institutions and turn away from the emptiness of social media.

The best example of a community of sharing and caring is the town that I grew up in Crosswicks.  My town’s main claim to fame was it was the launchpad of the revolution – the Battle of Trenton that won us a country and a nation.  In that town of Crosswicks, we had a mix of liberals and conservatives that all got along and progressed for the betterment of our country and our community.  Thinking about my hometown, I started thinking how did our nation – the collective Crosswicks – become so Crosswise?  What caused the demise of the democracy?  Simply this.  When you cross the wicks (Crosswicks) of a candle, the light burns brighter.  But when you get cross wise, the fire of freedom becomes extinguished.

Picture of Crosswicks

So tonight, I will ruminate on what made our little hamlet of Crosswicks bring people together instead of pulling them apart.  And the answer is quite simple – it was community organizations not affiliated with governments, Facebook, or corporate organizations.  It was organizations by the people, for the people and run by the people.  Let me talk about three of them:

  1. Little League – Back before the day of club Soccer run by professionals, we had Little League. It was run by volunteers who wanted to teach kids a sport and bring communities together.  I am now 55 and can still remember every moment of every Chesterfield Red Sox versus Chesterfield Black Sox game.  The whole community came together to watch the teams compete.  There may have been some arguments on the fields of friendly strife, but what I remember the most was being with my friends, learning from my father and other parents, and sharing fun with the community.  I am not trying to cut down club soccer which is still a unifying organization.  But there is something different learning from the people of your community instead of professionals that are getting paid.
  2. Scouts – I cannot talk to Girl Scouts, but I can talk to Cub and Boy Scouts. These institutions brought together people from all walks of life for fellowship and fun.  Both my mother as a Den Mother and my Father as a Cubmaster were involved.  We got to learn how to compete fairly in the Pinewood Derby and Rocket races.  We also learned how to develop our skills and help one another with our various badges.  As part of a Den, Pack or Troop, you learned how to cooperate and care for those in your group.  You also learned about how through differences and diversity, you create strength.  I will never forget how our Boy Scout troop was able to take the disparate talents and succeed in a weekend campout.
  3. Community Center and Library – The heart of Crosswicks was the community center and library.  In the summer program at both institutions, I first fell in love with books, learned how to draw a cartoon dog and cat, and participated in parties on Halloween and Christmas.  It did not matter the color of your skin, your political institution, or your religion.  All the people in Crosswicks were brought together to share in fellowship and learn new skills.  In the end, it is really what you learn and apply rather than what you earn and deny that makes a mark on the world.

These are just three of the intermediary institutions that brought us together in Crosswicks.  I will never forget the friends that I made. And, even 40 years later, when my friends from Crosswicks express their disparate views, some quite different from my own, I listen and learn.  Never underestimate the power of Crosswicks and intermediary institutions to bring people together.  Let us all as a nation, cross wicks and make the light of our common humanity shine brighter!

A Penny A Minute, A Lifetime of Lessons

One of the greatest influences on my life was from my first employer, Captain Barber and the town I grew up in Crosswicks, NJ.  Both taught me lessons that I follow today both in my career and as I strive to live a healthy life.  These lessons on fairness, honest business dealings, and how to live a healthy life I honor and try to follow each day.

Captain John Ronald Barber was born in 1891 in the town of Fairmont, Minnesota and died in 1980 in the town of Crosswicks, NJ.  He was  a Captain in the Navy where he served as a dental surgeon.  I have included a picture of his name from the Naval records of 1914 below.   I include this tidbit of knowledge both to honor his service, but as an Army guy because I learned so much from a Navy Captain!

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I met him in Crosswicks when I was 11 years old after reading a local advertisement for help maintaining his property and gardens.   I answered the ad because I wanted to buy a Sears 10 Speed Bike.  Little did I know that beyond getting money for the bike, I would get so much more!

I walked up to the door of his house and cranked his door bell (more on that later).  At the time, Captain Barber was approaching his 80’s but still was the epitome of health.  I asked him about the ad and we began to settle on the contractual arrangement.  I can still remember the words of our deal as they were yesterday.  Captain Barber said, “I will pay you a penny a minute, a penny a minute I say.  You should pay me a penny a minute for all the lessons you will learn”.  Little did I know at the time how true those words were!

The next day, I started a 2+ years working relationship with Captain Barber for 60 cents an hour.  Sounds like not a lot for those younger than 50 but that was a good amount of money in the day and I soon earned enough money to get that Sears Bike (I have to admit I am sad to see the fiscal issues with Sears currently).  Here are the lessons that I learned from this great man.

  1. How to stay healthy – Captain Barber was an organic gardener and follower of homeopathic medicine way before both were in vogue.  He lived to be 88 and was still trimming his tress in his eighties! When I started on my weight loss journey where I lost over 170 lbs I remembered some of the lessons from Captain Barber.  Chiefly these three:
    • A varied, vegetarian lifestyle is a key component of health and maintaining your weight.  Captain Barber grew all assortments of vegetables in his garden.  He had the standards in his 1+ acre garden – tomatoes, corn, strawberries; but also some not so ordinary like asparagus, rutabagas, grapes (for wine), and castor beans (more on this later).  He ate many of these items from his garden on a daily basis.  The first time I ate asparagus was at Captain Barber’s table.  When I began my weight loss journey this became one of my key staples!
    • Captain Barber was an organic farmer.  He had a large compost pile that I was required to turn on a weekly basis with a pitchfork.  I had to climb a ladder to get into the compost pile that was staked out by large tree logs he had harnessed together.  In addition, there was no weed and feed in his garden.  On the contrary, I and he got on our knees and pulled out the weeds.  I used to be terrified to do the strawberries because sometimes the weeds and young strawberries.
    • The way to stay healthy is to be active.  I did not work in the garden alone.  Each day. Captain Barber would be out and about tending to his garden.  I still remember in amazement as he got up in a tree and trimmed down branches.
    • Homeopathic Medicine.  I do not recall Captain Barber being sick.  He not only ate well but made his own medicine and essential oils.  I remember tending his Castor bean plants and he took a teaspoon of Castor oil as well as other oils daily.  He was  the first person that I knew who used homeopathic medicine.
  2. Be fair in your business dealings.  Captain Barber set a fair wage (for the time) and settled with you on a daily basis.  He asked you to prepare the invoice before leaving and calculated the work down to the quarter of hour.  You then had to calculate you wages at 60 cents an hour.  He was fair but stuck to his guns.  I remembered one time when my brother who also worked for Captain Barber tried to give himself a raise.  Instead of 60 cents he used 90 cents.  He handed in his invoice and Captain Barber said it did not seem right.  My brother said he deserved a raise.  Here is the rest of the conversation.   Brother – I need a raise.  Captain Barber (feigning hearing loss) – A blaze.  Yes the sun was a blazing out there!  Brother – No Captain Barber, I want a raise!  Captain Barber –  You want praise.  Well you done well my son!  Brother – No Captain Barber – a raise, I want a raise.  Captain Barber – Oh a raise.  No you can’t have one.  We agreed on 60 cents.  It actually went on a bit longer than that but you get the picture.  Captain Barber made a fair deal and you could not pull one over one on him.
  3. Do it the easy way!  Captain Barber was always driving us to improve.  He would look at how you were doing something and offer suggestions on how to do things more efficient.  One time I was raking the leaves.  Captain Barber came by and said let me show you the easy way!  He then showed me a different way to hold the rake that was more efficient for him.  Although I did not adopt it exactly, I swapped up the way I did the rake and co-opted some of the information that Captain Barber gave.  What was great about Captain Barber was he saw how I modified his style and also adopted my technique.  Unlike others more senior, he was willing to learn as well as teach even at Eighty.
  4. When it rains, take care of the Troops!  I was hired to help Captain Barber with his garden but sometimes like life it inevitably rains.  Instead of sending me home without the money I wanted for my bike or missing an opportunity, he would teach me something useful that would also help him.  One thing that he taught me is how to correctly polish silverware.  We polished his silverware when it suddenly rained hard.  How did this come handy?  When I was at West Point, I had to polish my belt buckle and the my parade brass.  I may not have been a great shoe shiner but I never got a demerit on my brass.  In addition, he also taught me how to tie navy knots and paid me for the opportunity.  He could have sent me home when it rained but he taught me something!
  5. Share your life.  One of the greatest honors that I ever received is when Captain Barber invited me to a horse show.  He loved horses and for that day instead of working in the garden, he took me to a horse show in Central Jersey.  It was quite an experience and he treated me to lunch.  In so doing, he rewarded me for my hard work but more importantly, he allowed me into his life and to understand what he loved and held dear.
  6. Have Fun!  Now back to the hand cranked door bell.  I knew Captain Barber as my boss, a mentor and a hero.  My friends who did not work with him knew him as  the popcorn chef on Halloween.  In Crosswicks, we had the greatest Halloweens and holidays in general.  On Halloween, we would go to Mrs. Bumbera’s cauldron to get hot cider, the Caldwell’s  to get scared out of our wits by their haunted house, the Community House for the annual costume contest, and Captain Barber’s house for organic popcorn.  Here is the ritual.  You would knock on the door and he would come out in a big chef hat and say “Crank the bell, crank the bell”  and close the door.  You would then crank the bell, and he would come back out with his chef’s hat and say do you want one scoop or two scoops of popcorn (it was organic!).  Most people would say two scoops that he would then promptly dump directly in your Halloween bag. Then with a twinkle in his eye, he would say do you want butter!  For the uninitiated, they soon get a ladle of butter in their bag!  He had a sense of humor and I do suppose that was a hold out to his Minnesotan roots (married into Minnesotan family, they put butter on everything).

I listed six lessons and a few corollaries that I learned from the amazing Captain Barber – the first organic farmer I knew, an Octogenarian that climbed trees, an honest business partner, and a mentor for life.  These are just a small sample.  It is important for the young to learn from the old and an 11 year old to earn money for his bike and lessons for life.

Last night when I researched a bit more on Captain Barber, I found out that he was born and buried in Minnesota.  It all makes sense now why I connected with him and my father in law Cal Hoehn.  When you are close to the earth, you are close to life and all that makes us human.  In honor of Captain Barber, I left the below virtual flower and remembrance.  Captain Barber I forget you not!  Let us remember those mentors and our hometowns that painted out futures.

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