Our Dad would take a bathroom scale
in both his calloused hands and squeeze
200 pounds. He said his boys
should also press their weight. To fail
meant hearing yet again how he
when in the Navy chinned himself
a hundred times a day. His laugh
at photos when he was skinny
before he read the Charles Atlas
booklet reminded each of us
of Dynamic Tension. We’d take
a towel and pull and tug to make
each tiny bicep that we had
grow big to be as strong as Dad.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Feb. 27, 2015

On the Ship and on the Train

I was 18 months old when my father shipped out for Saipan in the Mariana Islands of the South Pacific in WW II.

My father, the Chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

My father, the Chaplain, leading worship on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

I don’t remember the ship. But I remember the emotional wake its departure left behind: the memory of my mother crying on a train. The sounds of the clicketty-clack of the wheels rolling down the track and the whistle blowing like a lost child in the night still plunge me into existential loneliness.

Late in her life, I shared with my mother the memory or her crying on the train.

Because I was so young when it happened, she was surprised that I remembered it, She confirmed it in great detail.

Dad felt “a call” to stand with the brave men who were risking their lives in the war against fascism and imperialism. With my mother’s blessing, he resigned his pastorate in Mechanicsburg, PA to enlist as an Army Air Force Chaplain. After six-months in the States, he left my mother and me behind.

While he was preaching on board ship, my mother and I were on a train from Los Angeles, his point of departure, to Boston, the home of my paternal grandparents.

I never saw the photo or thought of him aboard ship until a phone call and subsequent picture arrived by email from a researcher of my father’s unit on Saipan last month.  Dad was tending his “flock” on board ship. I never knew. Some things, like wine, take time.

Not everything is as it seems or feels. We do the best we can and pray it’s good enough.


they may not take you in
if you’re drunk again

even mom says get a rental
when you’re mental

dad thinks it’s funny
when you ask for money

The cleaners have a key to the lock
but you need to knock

your room has nice sheets
but you’re on the streets

You want to be cleaner
but have no shower

jobs ask for an address
but you’re homeless

– Verse by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Oct. 2, 2014

Editor’s Note: Steve was prolific early this morning. “Home” is one of FOUR composed on his iPhone in the wee hours of the morning. He appears to have been sleepless in Urbana, without a job – he’s retired – but not homeless, showered, lying awake with his back to Nadja on clean sheets at the address they joyfully share with those in need.

Dad was bad today

Barclay (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) and bad Dad (homo sapiens)

Barclay (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) and bad Dad (homo sapiens)

The new puppy (3 pounds 8 ounces) was leaping from my arms, flying to the sidewalk before I knew what was happening. It happened so quickly. Barclay was still excited from meeting the children around the corner; he was not his customary docile self.

The plunge from my arms was terrifying. The yelping was blood-curdling. I thought for sure he had hit his head or broken a leg or suffered some internal injury. He crawled forward under the Blue Spruce for protection, still crying loudly. I fetched him from under the tree, held him close, apologized profusely – “I’m so sorry, little guy. I’m so sorry” – and carried him into the house, still traumatized and whimpering. He settled down in my arms while I checked his body for signs of damage. Finding none, I put him down to see how he would walk. His walk was slow but straight. He spent the rest of the day more quietly but was fine as the day wore on, returning to his playful self during late afternoon play time.

Barclay greeted Kay’s return from work with a wagging tail and kisses to her face, as if to say, “Dad was bad today, but I forgave him. I’m glad you’re home!”

How I didn’t become a Boy Scout

a cub scout recalls

was just six years old
my mom led the pack
(and taught sunday school)
i earned a wolf badge
wore a uniform
of bright blue and gold

would soon be 12 years old
could become a boy scout
first father-son camp-out
dad took navy blanket
folded: my sleeping bag
dad was an eagle scout
but also a baptist
no more scouting for me
when dads drank at campfire

– Steve Shoemaker, traveling in Portugal with Port, June 20, 2013

My Father’s Portrait

We’re all cut from our parents’ cloth. It falls to each of us to finish their unfinished business.

Following my mother’s death, it fell to the three sons and our spouses to clean out the apartment and arrange for distribution or disposal of the belongings.

My father had died two years earlier.

Don, Bob and I spent an afternoon alone in the apartment using a rotation method to divide the belongings.  By order of birth, we would each choose what we wanted. Round one: Gordon, Don, Bob; round two: Gordon, Don, Bob – I-2-3; 1-2-3 – until everything  any of us wanted was chosen.  The rest would go to auction or to Goodwill.

Among my parents’ personal art was an oil painting of my father. In my early years, I loved that painting.  Handsome man. Robed in his clergy robe, dignified, smiling, tender eyes, a man of stature, our Dad. The painting had been in the family for as long as I can remember and, as best I can recall, had hung in Dad’s pastor’s office at Marple Church when I was a teenager. Now it hung in the narrow hallway just inside the entrance to my parents’ apartment. It was the first thing a visitor saw – a reminder to all who entered that Dad had once been someone special, a man of the cloth.

One-two-three, we chose our favorite pieces.  We agreed that monetary value made no difference to our selection process. All that mattered the value each of us placed on an item.  The grandfather clock was clearly worth the most in dollars, but the clock had been purchased late in our parents’ marriage; it bore only the most recent memories, not the memories of home.  It could not compare with the knicknacks – one of our mother’s Hummel figurines, a Baltimore Oriole paper weight, my father’s dog tags from World War II, a dish, a lamp, a photo, or the original painting given by a parishioner that reminded me of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” – artifacts of precious times now gone except for memory.

But there was another painting, a portrait of Dad in his ministerial robe.

As we went around the room, the painting didn’t move. Nobody picked it. Finally, Don asked with a smile, “Who wants Dad’s painting?” Deferring to me, Bob chimed in. “You’re the oldest! You should have it. It’s okay with me. I don’t want it!” “Sure,” said Don, “I don’t want it. Go ahead, Gord, you should have it. You’re the oldest!”

We all looked at each other and began to laugh about the elephant that had been sitting for years in the living room.

I looked at the picture. There was Dad, clear as day, a keepsake that had meant so much to  our father and mother, and we didn’t want his picture?  “I don’t want it,” I said, and  started to say more but couldn’t get the words out. Grief had overcome me. I couldn’t speak. I shuddered with sobbing. My brothers watched and waited in silence. When finally I composed myself enough to complete the thought through the tears, the words came out slowly . . . in staggered gulps. “I hate that thing! I always wanted to rip that robe off him! He never took it off!  He was always the minister. I just wanted him to be his own naked self. I just wanted him to be Dad.”

Reflecting on it years later, that moment was one of many breakthrough moments of taking off my own robe. I hadn’t worn mine for five years and hadn’t missed it. I began to find my own naked self bereft of the robe while working for a poverty criminal defense law firm founded by African American civil rights activists and founders of the American Indian Movement. Unconditional love was not a creedal statement; it was a daily fact of life, the treasure of grace held by many kinds of vessels. “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels….”

I took the painting of Dad and took him with me on the long flight home to the Legal Rights Center.  When I got there, I put the painting in storage, as a reminder that the work isn’t finished for me or my offspring. Who knows, someday one of the great-grandchildren may bring Dad’s painting out of the closet.