Letters To Ashley
GRADE SCHOOL DAYS
There's a special magic about Mark Little.
He's my son and that makes him special. And he's your Daddy and that certainly makes him special. But there's a special magic about him that you won't find in all sons or all Daddies, and if I tell you something about him, maybe we can figure out just what his magic is all about.
He was a quiet and thoughtful little boy. Not the type that would organize a softball game, but the type that would learn his school lessons with ease.
He was thrilled when he brought home from the first grade a small book his teacher, Mrs. Shaffer, had made for him and his classmates. It was made of two small sheets of paper stapled together to make eight pages, and she had DITTO'D (that was an old-fashioned way of making copies) some drawings of a rabbit and a simple little story and the name of the booklet was "The Rabbit Ran." There were only about a dozen different words in the story.
But the important thing was: Mark could read it all by himself. And he's been reading ever since.
He was born in Dearborn, Michigan, on July 21, 1961, and we moved to Mansfield, Ohio when he was five. We lived in a three-bedroom house on Yorkwood Road, but later finished the basement and that's where Mark had his bedroom.
Mark and his brothers, your Uncle Steve and Uncle Dave, all liked music. For years we bought season tickets to the Mansfield Symphony concerts at Malabar High School, three blocks from our home.
Mark and Steve took piano lessons. Later, Mark took violin lessons and played in the orchestra at Appleseed Junior high school and then at Malabar High school, and when he was in college he taught himself to play the classical guitar.
Steve quit taking piano lessons because he got bored with the simple little pieces, but later he taught himself to play the piano, and taught himself very well. In high school he played slide trombone in the marching band,
Dave took only a few lessons, but taught himself to play the acoustic guitar and electric guitar. Then he got a good buy on a used keyboard and brought friends out to the house to jam with soft rock music.
All three boys went to Mansfield's Ranchwood Elementary School. It was a nice neighborhood and a number of the boys' friends were sons of doctors.
Mark always liked poetry. In about the second grade he learned about pollution; that was in the 'sixties when Americans were just beginning to talk a lot about the environment. His class was assigned to write about pollution, so Mark wrote his very first poem:
"Polution is bad. Pollution we have had.
Now we have too much, and soon we can't do such
a thing as living."
They built a new shopping mall, Richland Mall, west of Mansfield, and it had a sunken lounge with benches for resting. Next to the lounge was a pet store, and the boys always insisted on stopping there to look at the pets. One day as we rested in the lounge Mark and Steve (Dave was too young) borrowed some pencils and used the blank side of some adverising papers and began drawing pictures of rabbits. They told us there was a prize for the best drawing.
Then we looked at Doktor's Pet Store. It was nearly Easter, and in the window was a sign "DRAWING FOR A FREE RABBIT."
In about the second grade Mark learned about the Americn Indians. He really got interested, and began making Indian drums and peace pipes. I told him about flint arrowheads, and that people are still finding them today. Later that day I found him digging a hole in the back yard. He was confident he was going to find some arrowheads.
All three of the boys went through the Cub Scouts (you had to be eight to join) and Boy Scouts (you had to be eleven). The Cubs were organized as Pack 107 and met at Ranchwood School. For seven years, from the time Marked jopined the cubs until Dave went up to Scouts, I was the Cubmaster, and for much of that time their mother was a Den Mother.
Cub Scouts age eight and nine were considered too young to go camping in the wilds. But the rules permitted them to have sleepouts in someone's back yard, if there were parents and telephones available. I think those eight-year-olds were too young, for when the pack had a sleepout in a Den Mother's yard some of them brought their teddy bears as sleeping partners.
But ten-year-old Cubs were eligible to join a Webelos den to help them get ready for Boy Scouts. They could go camping in the wilds if they had plenty of adults along. Once our Webelos Den camped out at the Boy Scout camp - seven boys, all with their fathers. Scott Young's dad was a doctor with a family practice. Brad Banko's dad was a pediatrician. Greg Auchard's dad was a bone specialist. Alan Lindquist's dad was a pathologist. Keith Kline's dad was a dentist. Jeff Jolley's dad, and Mark's dad, were the only two that were not in the medical field. We joked about having plenty of medical help in case of an accident.
When Mark joined Boy Scouts he was small for his age. That alway bothered him a lot, and having the last name of "Little" didn't help matters, either.
Some of the older scouts were making plans to go backpacking at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Bruce Drushel, who had hiked Philmont the year before, was giving a talk to the troop, and told them "If you're in good shape it will be easy, but if you're not in good shape it will be pretty tought. And if you're like Markey Little, well, I don't think you should go to Philmont at all." There was laughter. For years Mark resented that cut-down. He made up his mind that, when he'd hike Philmont, he'd be out in front of the whole troop.
I mentioned that all three boys were musical and at one time or another they all sang in the YMCA Boy's choir. One of their songs was an old English sea chantey, beginning
''My father was the keeper of the Eddystone light,
and he married a mermaid one fine night.
Then out of this union there came three,
a porgy and a porpoise and the other was me.
Yo ho ho! the wind blows free.
Oh, for a life on the rolling sea!''
Mark loved the song and used to sing it for his cousins of the Blekking and Ellis families. As I will explain, a lighthouse was to become the symbol of Mark's life and it was somrthing of a coincidence that his favorite boyhood song was about a lightkeeper.
Our family enjoyed tent camping. One of our favorite camping areas, and the one all three biys remember the best, was the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It's a row of long skinny islands a few miles out from the mainline. On the west lie the peaceful waters of Pamliko Sound while on the east rolls the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
In the days of sailing ships Pamlico Sound privided quiet harbors, but the ocean side was treacherous and they built lighthouses to help guide the ships. The tallest is at Cape Hatteras, whose light could be seen twenty miles at sea, and there's another one at Ocracoke Island where we camped. We could go up in the lighthouses and see how the oil-burning lights used to work and see how the lightkeeper would wind a large weight up to the top so that as it came down again it would keep the light turning from dusk till dawn. It was much the way yould wind a weight-driven grandfather clock.
But even with the lighthouse, those waters were treacherous. We had an old National Geographic magazine that showed the location of all the shipwrecks there since the first European ship, a Spanish brigantine, had gone down there more than four hundred fifty years before. Since then the people of the Banks have seen more than six hundres fifty shipwrecks!
The Banks were the scene of many heroic rescues. In the former houses of the lightkeepers we saw the equipment that had been used to rescue seafarers from wrecked ships being torn apart by the sea. It had beenused by the U.S. Lifesaving Service (today it's called the U.S. Coast Guard).
Sometimes, even today, ancient wrecked ships wash up onto shore. The Coast Guard told us where some of them could be found, and Mark, Steve, and Dave played on the wreckage pretending to be sailers or pirates. I took a picture of them sitting on an ancient spar lying on the sand.
In recent years your Uncle Dave took that picture and had full color printsmade of it for his brothers, his mother, and me. Your own mother probably still has Mark's copy.
At a store on Ocracoke Mark bought a large color photograph of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. I made a rustic frame for it from a from a piece of old barn siding and he hung it on the wall of his downstairs room at Yorkwood Road; in later years he replaced the frame with something more modern. That picture hung on Mark's wall the rest of his life.
He loved that picture. He told me he liked to think of how that lighthouse had guided
sailors through their journeys.
There was one thing Mark had that he wished he didn't have. From the time he was a very small boy he talked about having ''terrible feelings.'' He never knew how or why, but those feelings would creep over him and sometimes he'd cry, they'd make him feel so bad. When he was older he learned how tohandle those feelings but they continued the rest of his life.
I've read that Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest Presidents, complained of ''the horrors.'' They'd creep over him, he never knew how or why. I think Mark's ''terrible feelings'' were the the same. And when I think back over Mark's life, I think those ''terrible feelings'' made him sensitive to other people's feelings, and had something to do with his special magic.
I've been thinking about some of the things that made your daddy laugh.
The first joke I remember him making up was when he was about five. We were walking together on a cold winter's day when he picked up a small piece of ice, shaped like a pill. He said ''I'll save this, in case somebody needs a cold pill.'' He was proud of his joke and enjoyed telling people about that cold pill.
In grade school he started wearing glasses. He told people ''I was visitting some friends in the country and told them I don't really need glasses; I can leave them off any time I want to. Then I took them off and started walking across the field, and I tripped over a cow.
He had another joke about cows, but it took two people to tell it. We'd be on a picnic, or hiking through the the country, and he'd say ''Hey, look at that flock of cows!''
I'd correct him, saying ''Herd."
''Heard of what?''
''Herd of cows.''
''Sure I've heard of cows.''
''I mean a cow herd.''
''I don't care if a cow heard. I didn't say anything against cows."
Mark's favorite TV program was a comedy called ''Hogan's Heroes."
Colonel Hogan was a ranking American prisoner in a German prisoner-of-war camp, in World war ll. The Americans had escape routes, and they could escape just long enough to do things to foul up the German Army, and then return secretly to camp.
One evening as I sat reading the paper Mark walked past carrying
a hammer from the workshop. I didn't think much about it when I heard him hammering in his room. Then he walked past again, carrying a drill. When he walkd past again carrying a saw I decided to investigate. I followed him to his closet and found him cutting a hole in the floor.
He told me ''I need an escape route into the basement, like in ''Hogan's Heroes.''
When Mark was little he liked ''The Wizard of Oz,'' but by the time he got to high school he told his brothers how much he hated it. Their conversations were half humorous, half serious. The movie has two sentences that appalled Mark.
The wizard tells the Tin Man ''Remember, my sentimental friend, it isn't how much you love that matters, but how much you are loved by others.''
''That doesn't make sense,'' Mark would argue. ''It's exactly the opposite of what it should say.''
Dorothy finds out the only way she can return to Kansas is to learn ''The next time I go out looking for my heart's desires I'll look no farther than my own back yard.
"What kind of thing is that to be teaching children?'' he'd ask. ''We should be telling them they have the whole world in front of them."
At the time of his brain surgery there was a TV commercial that was so bad people laughed at it. It was by a company that sold tiny radio transmitters to be carried by people who might need to call for help at any moment. I showed an elderly woman lying on the floor and saying into her transmitter ''I've fallen and I can't get up!''
Now, that certainly doesn't sound very funny. But there was something so goofy about the way she said it that it seemed funny, and her sentence became a national joke.
After Mark's surgery the therapist was in Marks room; she was teaching him to use his legs again. He asked me if I'd help him get on his feet for the first time since surgery. He wanted to go into the bathroom because he hated using the bedpan. I got him there and left, closing the door behind me, when we heard
a crash. Mark was lying on the floor, saying ''I've fallen and I can't get up.'' It takes a special person to keep a sence of humor at a time like that!
About the time Mark was in college we made up a joke together; really it wasn't so much a joke as a little story that asked a question nobody can answer. A man died and woke up to the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. As far as the eye could see there were nothing but blue skies and white-robed figures drifting by on silvery clouds.
He gazed on this scene for many hours, and finally called out to the nearest figure ''Hey! When do we go to bed around here?''
The figure replied ''We go to bed whenever we want to.''
''Then wnen do we get up?''
''We get up any time we want to.''
''Then how do we know when to go to work?''
''Work? There's no work here."
''But there's gotta be something. Don't we have to polish the stars or wash down the clouds or something?''
''No. There's nothing like that here.''
''You know," said the newcomer, I'm not sure heaven is going to be that great, after all."
''Heaven? Who told you you were in heaven?"
That's the story. Mark and I agreed that heaven without work wouldn't be heaven at all, but we wondered what kind of work we'll be doing in the next world.
Years later your Uncle Dave came up with a possible answer. He said ''Mark, maybe you'll be a guardian angel to Ashley.''
But more about that in another letter.
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