A Resolution Worth Keeping

When I answered the phone, an unfamiliar voice said, “Hello, Chip? It’s Peter.”

“Peter who?” I asked.

“Your cousin Peter,” the voice replied.

I was about to answer, "I don’t have a cousin named Peter" when I realized, wait a minute, I do. This must be the long-lost cousin—my mother’s brother’s oldest son—I hadn’t seen or spoken to in more than 50 years.

The reason for that lengthy gap, and how it was bridged, is a story that could change your life, too. Bear with me while I tell you about a family rift that was finally healed.

My cousin Peter and I were both 14 years old when our families vacationed together for the last time in 1955. We spent two wonderful weeks in the summer on Barnegat Island, N.J., sunning, surfing and diving through the waves.

The next year my father suffered a fatal heart attack. After the funeral, my mother accepted an invitation from her brother in Florida to spend a few weeks with him while she recovered from her shock and sorrow and started to put her life back together. I stayed at school near Detroit, but my two younger brothers went with her. One of the treats my Uncle Harry arranged was a quick trip to Cuba. He had no idea of the Pandora’s Box he would be opening.

My mother fell head over heels in love with Cuba, the Cuban people and the exciting, exotic city of Havana. Property was incredibly cheap. So were labor and most essentials. She could hire a maid for a few dollars a month. There was no question that her "widow’s mite" would stretch a lot further in Cuba than it would in the U.S. After checking things out for a month, Mom returned home, sold what she could, packed what she needed, and flew back to Havana with my brothers to begin a new life.

I’ll save for another time the stories of her sojourn in Cuba—the triumphs she enjoyed, the tragedies she endured. They were the most exciting, most challenging, and most rewarding three years of her life—until Fidel Castro brought it all to a screeching halt.

My Uncle Harry, who had introduced Mom to Havana, was bitterly opposed to her decision to move there. When he failed to talk her out of going, he then declared that he would go to court to take her children from her. It was a threat she would not forgive. For as long as she lived she never spoke to him again.

Thirty-some years later, in an addendum to her last will and testament, Mom wrote: “Please tell Molly [her sister] I am truly sorry for any hurt I may have given her or she me—and I have long ago forgiven her. I am just sad that we never made up.”

Then she added: “My brother Harry is different. Don’t even tell him I am gone.”

Yes, Mom could keep a mad going for a long, long time.

Several years ago I decided it was long past time to bury these old animosities. So I resolved that I would reconnect with family members I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years.

One of the happy consequences of that resolution was a Wood family reunion I hosted for all of the brothers and cousins I could persuade to attend. Nearly two dozen people gathered on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and met relatives they had never known. I learned the difference between a first cousin once removed and a second cousin, and found out I had several of both: not to mention firsts who were twice removed, numerous third cousins and even more distant and confusing relationships.

Cousin Barbara brought me something more precious than memories: Photographs of my father as a child and young man. And even some of my father’s father, who had died before I was born. There he was, a young, mustachioed man, standing in front of the house he had built with his own hands.

Even more amazing, Barbara also had postcards an aunt had sent my father for several years when he was a young boy. There were cards commemorating Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, July 4th and Thanksgiving. These wonderful examples of the printer’s craft are nearly 100 years old. Several of the most beautiful are now mounted and displayed in our home.

Unfortunately, one guest who wasn’t invited—because I had no idea how to reach him (or even if he was still alive)—was my cousin Peter. It would take another three years before I learned where he lived and got a telephone number for him. I immediately called and left a message on his answering machine. I waited a week or so and called again. When another week went by with no reply, I thought I would never hear from him.

But two weeks after that, Peter returned my call. He explained that he and his wife had been vacationing in Europe and had just returned home when they got my message. We’ve chatted many times since then. We had a reunion in person when business brought him to Atlanta. And, more recently, my wife and I stayed with Peter and his wife during a visit to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. I think all of us would agree we had a wonderful time, with nary a cross word spoken. But, oh, what stories of family feuds and dysfunction we were able to share!

I learned that one of cousin Peter’s hobbies (actually, it’s more like an obsession) is to collect and repair antique watches. He is a self-taught master craftsman who knows more than I thought possible about old watches. Among the 3,000 or so timepieces in his collection Peter found absolutely perfect wedding gifts for two very dear friends. (When Jeremy reads this, he’ll know the source of that gorgeous 127-year-old silver pocket watch. Thanks again, Peter.)

So what does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? I’m glad you asked.

At the beginning of a new year, many of us make various resolutions. We vow all sorts of things: To stop smoking, to lose weight, to exercise more, to paint the back porch. And in almost every case (be honest now), most resolutions are discarded before we remember to write the new year in our checkbooks.

This time, let me urge you to do something different. Make a truly meaningful resolution—one that has the power to change your life and the life of someone else.

Resolve to heal an old wound with a former friend or family member. Ask forgiveness where appropriate; grant forgiveness where you should. Reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in years. The results can be amazing.

And who knows? One of them may have an ancient family memento that will become one of your most cherished possessions. You’ll never know until you try.

Until next time, keep some powder dry.

—Chip Wood

Lying Scientists, No Allies, Unfriendly Skies and a Name Change

*Surprise! Those scientists were lying to us. Leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit confirm what many of us have suspected for years—the chief proponents of global warming manipulated the statistics, ostracized anyone who didn’t agree with them and used “tricks” to get the results they wanted. Told that the revealing messages had been “taken out of context,” columnist Ann Coulter replied: “I have placed the words in context and it turns out what they mean is: gigantic academic fraud.”

*All of our allies have abandoned us. During the past few years about 40 other countries sent troops to fight alongside U.S. forces in Iraq. Now we’re down to one country with combatants there—the United States. As a result, what was once called “Multi-National Force-Iraq” will henceforth be known as “United States Forces-Iraq.”

*Flying the not-so-friendly skies. If you or a loved one flew somewhere over the holidays, you have my sympathy. Air travel, which used to be a grand adventure, has become an unpleasant drudgery. There’s nothing like shuffling along in your socks, or seeing your possessions—or yourself!—pawed over by some mean-spirited flunky to take the joy out of travel.

*Are you hiding a Starbucks there? Here’s a strange one. Starbucks has removed its name from a coffee shop in its hometown of Seattle. Instead, the place is now called 15th Avenue Coffee. Why the switcheroo? Starbucks is conducting a test, to see if more people will patronize the store if they don’t know it’s a Starbucks. Mmmm, maybe K-Mart should have tried a similar strategy… such as calling its stores “Target.”

–Chip Wood

Drafting Mickey Mouse

We celebrate both the ridiculous and sublime this week—as well as the start of a brand-new year.

First, the ridiculous. Twenty-six years ago this week the Selective Service sent a notice to Mr. Mickey Mouse, care of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., ordering him to register for the draft. I kid you not. It really happened.

Someone at Disney with a sense of humor (gee, that’s almost everyone, isn’t it?) sent the Federales proof that Mickey, then 52 years old, was a proud veteran of World War II. Case dismissed.

And now the sublime. On Dec. 30, 1974, the ownership of gold once again became legal for Americans after a 41-year prohibition. Here’s a tip of the Straight Talk hat to all those who campaigned tirelessly to restore a right that is precious indeed. It is wonderfully ironic that one of the few activities of the Federal Government that’s actually profitable is the U.S. Mint, which every year sells hundreds of thousands of gold coins to an eager public.

By the way, Happy New Year!

—Chip Wood

One Solitary Life

I have heard this powerful piece of poetry many times over the years—from a simple, solemn reading in a country church to the majestic pronouncement at the conclusion of the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas show—and I have never failed to be deeply moved by it.

I hope you will enjoy being reminded of it today, as we celebrate the birth of the Son of Man who was also the Son of God. Although only a few shepherds were aware of His arrival, the event was so momentous that it divided time itself.

Here is One Solitary Life.

He was born in an obscure village,
The child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until He was thirty.

He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never went to college.
He never visited a big city.

He never traveled more than two hundred miles
From the place where He was born.
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness.
He had no credentials but Himself.

He was only thirty-three
When He died.
His friends ran away.
One of them denied Him.

He was turned over to His enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While dying, His executioners gambled for His clothing,
The only property He had on earth.

When He was dead,
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress.

All the armies that have ever marched,
All the navies that have ever sailed,
All the parliaments that have ever sat,
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that One Solitary Life.

I didn’t know the origin of One Solitary Life until I researched it for this column. It was written by Dr. James Allan Francis in 1925 and later appeared in a book he compiled, The Real Jesus and Other Sermons, published by Judson Press in 1926.

Today, there are many versions extant of One Solitary Life, but this is my favorite. I hope you enjoyed seeing it again.

Merry Christmas. And until next time, keep some powder dry.

–Chip Wood

Thank You Sen. Bob Dole

*Honoring a man who honors our vets. Normally I use this space to send some slings and arrows toward targets that, in my humble opinion, roundly deserve them. But on this joyous holiday, I want to do something different. I want to honor a well-known American for something he does outside the spotlight.

Every month an organization called the Honor Flight Network arranges a visit to Washington, D.C., by a group of veterans of World War II. Among the activities planned for them is a visit to the granite structure on the National Mall called the National World War II Memorial.

When they arrive, there to greet them is World War II vet, former Senate Majority Leader, and one-time Republican candidate for president, Bob Dole. Here’s how Gerald Seib described a recent Saturday gathering of 108 such men in his Capital Journal column:

“To these veterans, 29 of them in wheelchairs and several toting oxygen tanks, Mr. Dole was like a rock star. They gathered around to shake hands, to have their pictures taken with him, to crack a joke about their ages.”

The journalist continued, “World War II was, after all, Bob Dole’s war too, the violence of which left him permanently without use of his right arm, and these were his comrades in arms. And the spectacular structure behind them on the National Mall is, in many ways, Mr. Dole’s memorial to them, one for which he spent years crusading in the Senate.”

By the end of this year the Honor Flight organization will have flown 42,000 such veterans, at no cost to themselves, to Washington to see the monument. For as long as his health permits, Bob Dole will be there to greet—and thank—every single one.

Merry Christmas, senator. And thank you.

—Chip Wood

The Dow’s Santa Claus Rally

Where’s our Santa Claus Rally?

Back in the good old 20th century we regularly had a rally in the stock market in the days leading up to Christmas. During the last decade of the century it became such a regular part of the year end, everyone expected a “Santa Claus” rally.

Every December in the 1990s, with the lonely exception of 1997, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose during the five trading days before Christmas. In fact, the Dow rose in 13 of the final 14 sessions of 1991, climbing a total of 10.7 percent. It was called “the mother of all Santa Claus rallies.”

Christmas was not so merry for investors 95 years earlier. Because of World War I, the New York Stock Exchange suspended operations in July 1914. It resumed limited trading on Dec. 12. By Dec. 24, 1914, the Dow had fallen to 53.17—its lowest reading since 1907.

Full trading did not resume until April 1915. After the nine-month closure, a new tradition was established. Henceforth, the market would never be closed for more than three days. That is why the stock market holds a half-day session on the day after Thanksgiving.

—Chip Wood

The Lollipop Tree

Every year around this time our home becomes a veritable museum of Christmas art and artifacts—and I love it!

Decorations that my wife and I have collected over the years and from around the world come out of boxes and fill the Christmas tree. Her extraordinary collection of Santa Clauses is carefully unwrapped and she begins the lengthy process of deciding which one goes where. Thanks to gifts from family and friends, and her own enthusiastic shopping, she owns nearly 100 visitors from the North Pole. They range from a life-sized Father Christmas to the handcrafted Santa fairies on the mantel above our fireplace.

There are music boxes and carousels everywhere. A Santa train, pulling a colorful elves’ workshop, makes its merry way around one corner of the living room. (I confess, I have as much fun tooting the whistle, ringing the bells and having Santa call out a cheerful “Merry Christmas!” as any child who visits us.) Candles are in the windows, wreaths are on the doors and a colorful garland with big red bows is draped over the front door.

There are twinkling stars near the ceiling in our family room, thanks to some tin decorations we brought back from Mexico a while ago. In the living room, Mickey Mouse and his friends play Christmas carols on a xylophone. Everywhere you look there are things that twinkle or light up or play Christmas carols.

But of all the items we bring out of storage for Christmas, none gives me more pleasure or fills me with more nostalgia than a simple plywood Christmas tree my father made more than 50 years ago.

Each year we take the Lollipop Tree out of its box, put various colored lollipops in the spaces on its branches, add a string of red baubles around it and put it on display somewhere in the house.

Over time my Lollipop Tree has become a bit battered and stained. There are chips in some of the paint. And compared to all of the bright, shiny, electronic marvels that fill every corner of every room, it is very plain and simple. In fact, it looks old.

But I am thrilled to have it. It brings back vivid memories of my father’s one venture into entrepreneurship.

Back in the early 1950s we lived in an old farmhouse in northeastern Ohio. The land had been sold to neighboring farms long ago. But there were several sheds and a large barn on the property. All that space got my father wondering what he could build there.

The idea he came up with was the Lollipop Tree. The tree consisted of two pieces of plywood cut in the shape of a Christmas tree with a base on the bottom. Slots were cut in each tree, half running from the top down, half from the bottom up.
When slid together, you had a four-sided tree that stood on its own.

Two large vats of paint filled one side of a shed. One held red paint, the other green. The trees hung on racks, with their tops pointing down, as they were lowered into the green paint. Later, when they dried, the process was reversed and the bases were dipped in the red paint. Then, after the base dried, the edges of each limb were hand-painted in sparkly silver, to imitate snow.

Next came the scary part, at least to a 9-year-old. There were two large stapling machines, each one taller than me, on the opposite wall. The operator would guide each tree around a pattern, step on a foot pedal and—wham!—a staple was banged into the tree. The noisy process was repeated again and again until each branch had two staples in it, about an inch apart, pointing slightly upward. The machine was set so 1/8-inch of the staple was exposed—perfect for sliding a lollipop into it.

And man did we have lollipops. They arrived by the thousands in huge cardboard boxes. They were yellow, orange, red, green and purple. Each one was wrapped in cellophane. There were always dozens of broken lollipops in each box. My friends and I were allowed to eat the fragments, but there were so many remnants we couldn’t eat them all. It wasn’t long before we completely lost our appetite for the colorful candy. Mine has never returned.

When the tree was assembled and each branch held a colorful lollipop I thought it was one of the most beautiful Christmas decorations I had ever seen. Sadly, the market did not agree. My father sold a few to friends and neighbors. A couple of stores in our small town agreed to carry them and he sold a few more. Dad used the last of his savings to run an ad in a popular magazine of the time. I don’t remember the exact results, but I do know he did not sell enough to cover the cost of the ad.

The temporary help he had hired was let go. The fans and heaters in the sheds were turned off. The stapling machines were sold to someone who could use them. And Wood Enterprises’ first (and only) enterprise was shut down. As Christmas approached the vast majority of lollipop trees were stacked in our sheds, along with paint, lollipops, shipping boxes and who knows what else.

I never knew how much money my dad lost on his one and only effort to launch his own business. He would work for somebody else the rest of his life. Nor do I know what happened to his inventory of lollipops and the trees to hold them. I thought all of them were lost forever until I got a call from a cousin several years ago. In preparation for a move to another state she was cleaning out a long-neglected closet. In the back of it she found a Lollipop Tree in its original box. Would I like to have it?

Would I! I asked her to send it to me right away. It arrived in plenty of time for Christmas. As soon as it did, I rushed out to the nearest candy store and bought dozens of lollipops in various shapes, sizes and colors.

Every Christmas since then I conduct a small and private ceremony as I get dad’s Lollipop Tree out of storage. I set it up and go through my collection of lollipops, carefully selecting which ones will go on the tree this year. (As I travel, I keep buying more lollipops, especially when I see unique shapes and sizes in other countries.)

This year the Lollipop Tree is on a stand in the hallway that leads into my home office. As a result, I pass by it several times a day. Every time I do my mind drifts back to memories of Christmases past.

This Christmas, I hope your home is filled with wonderful memories of long-ago holidays. Chances are you’ll be with children and grandchildren who have no memory of the time before iPods and Xboxes. They won’t care to hear about the times when our Christmas pleasures could be as simple as fragments of broken lollipops.

Nowadays, I love seeing them roll their eyes at my stories and exclaiming “Oh, grandpa!” when they suspect I have been exaggerating a tad too much.

But there is no exaggeration today. The story of the Lollipop Tree is completely true. And so are my wishes to each and every one of you for a very Merry Christmas.

Until next time, keep some powder dry.

—Chip Wood

A $261 million job, 50-year Bonds and a Saab Story

*Man, that’s a lot to pay for a job. No one was surprised that Michael Bloomberg won reelection for a third term as the mayor of New York City. But what he paid for the dubious privilege was impressive—$102 million of his own money. Add that to the $74 million he spent on his first campaign back in 2001, and another $85 million in 2005, and you get $261 million he’s doled out to be called “Your honor.” That’s a lot of money for you and me, but a pittance to a man worth $17.5 billion.

*Loan China money for 50 years? Here’s another news item that struck me as strange. Last month investors snapped up nearly $3 billion worth of 50-year bonds offered by the Chinese Ministry of Finance. The notes pay 4.3 percent interest. Why would China offer the bonds? It certainly doesn’t need the money. And why would investors tie up funds for 50 years for such a lowly return? Neither side of this trade makes sense to me.

*A real Saab story. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the pun. Looks like the once-illustrious Swedish car maker will soon be but a faded memory. General Motors (GM), which acquired the car company several years ago, is looking for a buyer. If one isn’t found soon GM says it’ll fold the company. Estimates are that Saab will sell 10,000 cars in the U.S. this year—half as many as Honda sells in a week. Looks to me like the market has spoken.

—Chip Wood

The Ratification of the Bill of Rights

This week should mark one of the most joyous celebrations of the year for every person who loves liberty. Unfortunately, the reason for such jubilation will barely be mentioned.

On Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights became an official part of the Constitution of the United States of America. Virginia was the 10th state to ratify the first 10 amendments, thus providing the necessary two-thirds votes for approval. (Remember, there were only 13 states back then.)

You probably remember from high school history lessons that the adoption of the Constitution was far from a sure thing. Many legislators were afraid that the framers had not done nearly enough to protect Americans from the danger that frightened them the most—the almost-irresistible tendency of government to grow ever more powerful.

The first 10 amendments were proposed as a way to keep this from happening. The first eight, you’ll recall, enumerated specific things that the new government could not do, no matter the circumstances or excuses that might be used, and specific rights the citizens would always enjoy.

The ninth and 10th amendments were then added, basically to say, "And if we forgot to include anything, you can’t do that either."

How long has it been since you’ve heard anyone refer to either amendment? Would a schoolchild today even know what you were talking about if you were to say, "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." (Amendment IX)

Or, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." (Amendment X)

Today, every member of Congress, as well as the President and all Supreme Court justices, take an oath of office swearing to "preserve and protect" the Constitution.

Too bad that not one in 100 means it.

—Chip Wood

Honduran Democracy, Unemployment and Liberals

*Please Mr. President, honor democracy in Honduras. The people of Honduras have voted overwhelmingly for a new, non-Marxist president. The turnout of eligible voters was substantially higher than we had in the United States last November. A few days later, their congress also voted overwhelmingly not to reinstate Manuel Zelaya, the Chavez crony who was removed from office earlier this year. So now the question is, will the Obama Administration stop supporting a Marxist wanna-be and honor the wishes of a free and independent people? Let’s hope so.

*Those phony labor statistics. Also in the headlines last week: U.S. unemployment figures dipped from a record high of 10.2 percent all the way down to… well, 10.0 percent. “Only” 11,000 more workers lost their jobs in November, we were told. The market loved the news, with the Dow soaring over 100 points. What you weren’t told is that some 53,000 “discouraged” workers were no longer counted as unemployed… because they had stopped looking for work! The real jobless rate increased by 293,000 last month, to 5.9 million. Some recovery this is.

*Even the liberals are turning on him. My quote of the week comes from Tina Brown, the ultra-liberal editor of The Daily Beast. She says, “I have come to the conclusion that the real reason this gifted communicator (Barack Obama) has become so bad at communicating is that he doesn’t really believe a word that he is saying. He couldn’t convey that healthcare reform would be somehow cost-free because he knows it won’t be.” Gee, I don’t know, Ms. Brown. Outlandish exaggeration and distortion never seemed to bother the First Teleprompter before.

Chip Wood