None of my grandparents had happy childhoods, but the happiest was my dad’s dad, David J Shook but known to us as Papa, if only because his family loved each other and were strong Christians. Papa was born after a string of miscarriages and still born children, a miracle child after his parent’s first boy 12 years earlier. However, as he grew his parents (both teachers) were worried because he never spoke and the consensus was that due to all of the issues with his birth he was most likely mentally handicapped. But, they prayed. And loved. And had faith. And by age 4, he wouldn't stop talking and has continued to talk non-stop ever since.
Then he came down with scarlet fever at age 10, with a temperature that was well past 105 for weeks. The doctors told his parents that he would be mentally handicapped and possibly sterile and to not to hold out hope....but they didn't have hope, they had faith. And, though he was sick for months, he came out of it just fine physically but in his mind he no longer was sure of himself. The sickness had taken more away than time in the classroom, it had taken away any confidence that he had in himself. His dad, great-grandpa Shook, thought that maybe the Boy Scouts would help him feel like he could stand up on his own; the family had always loved to camp, and hike, and be outside so it certainly couldn’t hurt.
Great-grandpa Shook became an assistant troop leader and slowly Papa began to make friends in the troop, learning skills like how to make a fire, knots that don’t come undone easily, and how not to cut off a finger while swinging an axe (incorrectly demonstrated by a troop leader on one ill-fated camping trip). He found a sense of duty in the civic nature of the boy scouts and how that people who were different than himself were really the same inside. Over time, Great-grandpa Shook did so much with the Scouts he was eventually awarded the Silver Beaver which is a pretty great honor. They were good and happy times.
At age 12, his mom became sick and the diagnosis was the one everyone fears: cancer. The doctor, who was young, asked his mentor who knew her well whether he should give the news straight or if he should soften the blow. The older doctor told him he'd seen the mother weather some pretty terrible things, so just give it to her straight. The young doctor came back in several minutes later shaking his head, and told the old doctor "I don't understand...I gave it to her straight. I told her she had 6 weeks at most to live. She just looked back at me and said "Well, I think you mean 6 years because I'm going to live to see my boy graduate high school". She's crazy. There's just no way.” According to family lore, the older doctor pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet and said "My money is on the lady; I know her, I know her family, and I know her faith. She'll make it."
Over the next 6 years, there's a lot of pain and suffering, lots of double shifts by Great-Grandpa Shook, working night security at the rail yard and then teaching during the day just to pay for the constant stream of medicine and treatments to keep her together. Money was always tight, but the one escape they always had was camping. Even if it was just down the road to Lake Mohican State Park, it was a cheap, easy getaway to forget about everything going on. Papa’s older brother would come along with his new family, and everyone would just enjoy the company in the great outdoors around a fire; something the current Shook clan has done on many occasions.
But, finally...it had arrived; the week of graduation. She had the party planned, the gifts wrapped, everything ready to go. She was laying on the couch when she looked at Great-Grandpa Shook and said, "Everything is ready...except for one thing. He doesn't need an old, sick woman here to drag down the party.” And that night, she fell asleep, and went to meet her Lord. During this time, Papa was visited by a candy-striper named Sandra Rose, who he'd met in and out of the hospital, to give her condolences. Some time later, when her own dad died, he reached out to her like she had to him and they have been inseparable for the past 50 years, camping, adventuring, and teaching their children and grandchildren that time together in wild places makes memories that last a life time. It is part of what made our family make the fool-hardy jump in running an outdoor store for 7 years; the outdoors was always a part of our family identity.
Recently Papa and I tried to remember all of the trips we’ve been on, all the memories we have of camping. He talked about the “Man-Camp” trips that we Shook men have taken, wild affairs usually involving cold temperatures and spicy food somewhere in the woods. The most memorable, and potentially life threatening, was a winter weekend at Oconee State Park where for dinner we had ribs covered in this delicious dry rub that was quite spicy. That night when we laid down to sleep, Papa plugged in his CPAP machine (for his sleep apnea) but the cold air that the CPAP was sucking in was freezing his face. In a spark of brilliance, he put the machine down at the foot of his sleeping bag and warm air started to cycle through and he began to fall asleep. About 15 minutes later, we heard a muffled “MMMPPPPH!!! MPPPPPPPHHHH!!!! MAAGGHHHMMMPPPH!” and be began convulsing on the cot. Finally he was able to unzip the sleeping bag and ripped his mask off, heaving in deep breaths of air. Obviously we were concerned, and finally we found out what was wrong; while the warm air in the sleeping bag cycled through the CPAP, it also cycled the bad air that was a result of all the spicy food and nearly caused him to suffocate himself.
I thought about our trips to the Smokies, camping when a snow flurry came up out of nowhere and us scrambling to put up tarps so at the very least we can finish cooking breakfast. The trout that we could see from the river bank and throw sticks at, but no matter what we tried could get them to bite. And, more recently, I thought about one of our trips where my brother and I were going to go on a hike and we asked if he wanted to go with us and he said no, just go on ahead. When we got back, he was sitting in a camp chair reading a book that he put down to talk to me. “When I was about your age, my dad was perfectly content to just sit in camp, read a book, and talk to us about what all we did once we got back. It took me 40 years, but I think I finally understand. Just being with the people you love, and sharing in their enjoyment, is enough.”
Many of my articles have hammered the same point over and over, that time spent with family and people you care about is never wasted even if the trip is a complete bust. Life is full of so many distractions, I still can’t find a better place to leave them behind than wilderness so you can sit down with someone and just know them. Being able to talk to someone frankly and from the heart can’t happen if the TV is on in the background and you’re scrolling through Facebook on your phone, but it can happen very easily in a pitch black night with bright stars overhead and a warm fire at your feet. While I remember going to car shows (another passion we share) with Papa and having a good time, I don’t remember a single one of the cars but I can tell you in perfect detail about some of the mountain ranges we’ve looked out across, even the ones that really weren’t all that amazing. Shared experiences, especially with those you love, can be simple and cheap and easy but at the same time be deep and rich and worthwhile. Time together can’t really be measured in hours or days, but instead as a measure of who we are and more importantly who we love.
Papa is getting up in years, and who can say how much more time we really have together. What I do know though, is that we haven’t left any time on the table, no unfinished business and no unsaid words. And I can’t think of a better legacy than that.