Teetering On The Edge Of Life

If you peel off of Route 91 at Cannon Road coming out of Solon, Ohio, you find yourself in a flat out descent to the bottom of a significant hill.  As the base bottoms out, you hang a hard left and you are suddenly leaving Bentleyville behind you and entering the service center for the park lands that have been so designated for decades now.

Just before the driveway to the center you encounter a long winding road lined with towering evergreens.  Those once-seedlings were planted by a man named “Red,” father of another man named George who one day would father another named Nelson. All three of which would at one time or another, be the man in charge of that very park reservation.  Yes, there were three generations that ran that special jewel of green forest and all that know the lineage find it more than ironic that the last manager there, Nelson, did indeed wind up tending and manicuring the towering evergreens that his grandfather had one day held in his hands as seedlings and placed in the soil.

Legend has it that Red carried with him a stick that was painted red and anytime the men were cutting wood in the forest from a fallen tree or tree that had come to obstruct a trail or something, Red would show up and measure each log to see if it was the same size as his red stick.

The reason was that all the maintenance centers were run on wood-burning furnaces and only a certain sized piece would fit in the front of the furnace oven door. Red wanted to be sure no log had to be cut twice so he drove the men crazy with his measuring stick. The story goes that once, during a particularly bad snowstorm, the men were clearing a fallen tree which had laid itself across a road, obstructing traffic. In the blinding snow, the crew came out and began to cut furiously to open the road back up.

A young worker named Ernie, who would later retire from the park district after 30 plus dedicated years of service, saw Red get out of his truck and approach the crew. As the wind whipped around their heads, Red produced the red stick and placed it on the log Ernie was sawing. Without a word Ernie finished his cut, picked the saw up and brought it down on the red stick, cutting it in half. The two pieces fell on either side of the log and into the snow. Red silently got back in the truck and returned to the field office waiting for the crew’s return to the barn.

He put on a fresh pot of hot coffee, had it ready when they walked in the door and never discussed the issue. He never made a replacement stick and the men were sure to never produce a log too big for the furnace because they knew Red was just waiting to say, “See?  If you hadn’t cut my stick.” And they never wanted to give him the opportunity to say that.  Red retired after 30 years of service, so did his boy and so did his grandson; the last of them leaving more than 10 years ago.

That grove then is at least 100 years old and is still intact today. The wind whistles through it all winter and the birds enjoy it’s deep, cool, hidden branches all summer.

And although the branches are still lush and the smell of pine is still one of the most intoxicating aromas a person can take in, all of those things are deeply enriched by the story you just read. Think about how many people in your life tell the compelling story and how much more interesting it makes things.

I have heard more people tell stories of their personal challenges that include quotes like, “The doctor said …. one more inch to the left and I’d have been dead, if I’d have waited one more day I’d be a goner by now, had they not gotten it in time they probably would have lost me right there.” Or, “The doctor said he’d never seen one that big, that deep, that stubborn, that infected, that far gone – - he said it’s a wonder I’m still here.” Or, “I got to the bank 30 seconds before they were closing. I could have lost the whole house.”

Really? All these near misses happen to everyone that enters a challenge? I think maybe a story is a little better with the threat of catastrophe casting its shadow over these situations. A little embellishment never got in the way of a nice juicy story, right? But things don’t usually happen that way. And when they do, in that isolated moment in time, I find it fascinating. How one moment can define the next 50 years, or the future of a marriage, an agreement, a job, anything.

I mean there are only a few moments in life that really give you the honest-to-God jolt that we are all trying to portray. When my wife and I had Sam we were both in our mid-thirties and a lot of people were telling us that a lot could go wrong with our baby due to our advanced age. As he was about to be delivered I remember the panic raging inside of me.  We had been warned about everything that could go wrong by well-meaning friends and associates but we were so fixated on possible problems we really could not believe it when the doctor looked him over a few weeks later and said “he’s just fine.” No disease? No health disasters? We were almost sure he was wrong we were so afraid to be relieved.  There was a little too much reality in those moments.

A few summers back a very close friend developed a tumor in his midsection that eventually grew to the size of a football before he was healthy enough to have it removed. I remember sitting there with him before he went into the operating room and him looking me deeply in the eye and saying, “I might not be coming out, huh?” Despite my confident smiles he was literally shaking when they wheeled him in there. He made it out and made a 100% recovery but there was no exaggerating that story; no way. It was real; truly real.

I’ve watched men get sent to jail (during my legal studies internships in college). I’ve seen a bride walk out of a wedding ceremony during the vows.  I saw a co-worker stealing money out of a cash register get caught in the act and arrested; all of these, devastating moments of truth that take some real staying power and fortitude to endure. One day my wife and I were getting ready for work and the kids were downstairs ruining the kitchen with their breakfast routine and the baby was crying and I picked him up and put him on the changing table and all this pandemonium was in full volume and I suddenly got a pain in my heart; a rocking, wretched pain that made my head numb. My wife guided me to the chair and knelt in front of me. The kids sensed something was wrong and all gathered around mom’s back staring at me. What was wrong with dad? I mean I was Mr. Invincible to them so vulnerabilities were not something they were used to seeing. A silent, staring moment passed. My vision cleared as my wife went for the phone. “No,” I whispered. “I’m alright,” I said exhaling. Everyone just sort of looked at me and a few more seconds went by–kind of like, “Are you sure, Pop?” I stood up and my youngest daughter said, “I need three dollars for art fees today.” I dug in my wallet, gave her the bills and the crowd broke apart and started back to their morning business.

It was just a moment that could have gone one way, but didn’t. It went the other way and so we carried on. And that’s life, eh? Nothing but a series of moments. But I find that “watershed,” “go/no go” moment simply fascinating as it is the true driver of life.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a BS in Business from Bowling Green State University and an MBA from Baldwin Wallace University and has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990.