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Christmas Jelly, African Eyes, and more

Today is Saturday, November 3.

It’s a cool brisk day in the Appalachian foothills of Virginia.

Christmas Jelly, our latest short story collection. Now available!
$15 per copy

Excitement is building over our latest book, Christmas Jelly.

You can read a sample chapter here or order your own copy.

Ebook copies are for sale at Smashwords and Amazon Kindle.

Later this week, we’ll be giving away free downloads of Christmas Jelly.

African Eyes

African Eyes. Goma, Democratic Congo 2009

 

People often ask, “Why do you keep going back to Africa when there are so many needs here at home?”

I feel called. It may not be anyone’s else’s call, but I know it’s mine.

There’s always one thing that draws me back. It’s African eyes. Those dark inquisitive piercing eyes that seem to look into your soul. Most times, African eyes are dancing in a smile.

But the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen were in Africa. Hungry eyes that weren’t sure where the next meal would come from. Eyes that had seen things no child should experience. Eyes that had just buried an AIDS-ravaged mother. Dark eyes that had seen the destruction of war up close.

Most African eyes are delightfully inquisitive. Especially the children. The chance to touch and visit with a “Mzungo” (Swahili for ‘white man’) proves irresistible.

This photo was taken during a seminary class in eastern Congo. These children were staring at the three Americans teaching pastors. I stuck my hand through the large crack between boards and the kids ran shrieking. They soon returned and took turns stroking my arm, staring at me with those strong African eyes.

I’m looking forward to seeing African eyes again in January.

 

The following story is from Christmas Jelly:

Stolen Christmas Trees

 

“I know I tagged a tree in this area.” My neighbor Mitzi Foreman walks through our Christmas tree farm on a blustery December day.

Saw in hand, I desperately scan the area closest to the highway. “Maybe your tag blew off.”

“No, I tied it securely. You don’t think someone took it?”

I cringe. All of the other nearby good-sized trees are taken and I want my neighbors to have the best tree possible. However, we’re prepared for a situation like this—extra trees are tagged in a remote area of our farm. I walk Mitzi over to a beautiful Leyland cypress in the southeast corner of our field, away from the highway. She loves it and I quickly cut it before she can change her mind.

Later that afternoon, Daddy and I look for the missing tree. He points to a jagged stump. “Someone cut that tree with an ax or machete.”

He shrugs. “Someone stole the Foreman tree.”

Who in the world would steal a Christmas tree? I just can’t quite picture a family sitting there on Christmas morning, opening presents, singing “Silent Night” around a stolen tree.

That’s sorry. As my uncle would say, “That’s lower than a snake’s belly in a gulley.”

People will steal just about anything. In the gift shop at Dry Creek Camp, there is an ongoing minor problem with shoplifting. Ironically, the most stolen items are the W.W.J. D. bracelets.

W.W.J.D. stands for “What Would Jesus Do?”

Well, I know this much—Jesus wouldn’t tell you to steal a bracelet—or for that matter, a Christmas tree.

# # #

A few days later, I take my boots off at our front door. Hanging from the Christmas wreath is a scribbled note, “I cut a tree today.” Attached to the note, held by a clothespin, is a twenty-dollar bill.

I kneel and lift our doormat. Under it is another price tag, twenty dollars, and a scribbled note. “Wishing you a very a Merry Christmas.”

My daddy, the world’s most trusting soul, nails up a handwritten sign each year at our Christmas Tree farm:

“If we aren’t home, you can still get your tree. The saw is on the front porch. You can leave your tag, your name, and money by the front door. Now go do your thing.”

 

I love his benediction. “Now go do your thing.”

Unbelievably, this system has worked well. We’ve found that when you put trust in people, they usually come through in an honest way.

The week after the stolen Foreman tree, we noticed another stump. The thieves had evidently returned, or someone else had sunk to their low level. I tried to remember how many circles of hell there are. Christmas tree thieves deserve to be down there with Hitler, Nero, and the other dregs of history.

I told my three teenage sons, “We’re going to catch the thieves when they return.”

The next night about 10:30, my middle son Clint and I see the headlights of two vehicles leaving our driveway. We spring into action, running to my truck and taking off in hot pursuit.

We are dressed for battle—I’m in my pajamas and Clint in his boxers and a T-shirt. We catch the escaping thieves within a mile at the Dry Creek intersection.

It’s our moment of truth. I tell Clint, “We’ve got ‘em red-handed now.”

There the culprits are—my mother in her van and Daddy in his truck. They’d left one of their vehicles at the Christmas tree farm going to a basketball game. The headlights we saw were when they returned for the extra vehicle.

Clint and I both burst out laughing. I feel like Barney Fife on one of his overreactions in Mayberry.

My wife DeDe is waiting at the door when the heroes arrive back home. After we sheepishly tell our story, she asks, “Well, what would you boys have done if you’d caught up with the real thieves?”

I look at my nightclothes and shrug. “I guess I’d have taken off one of my house shoes and beat them with it.”

# # #

In the coming week, I try to balance the frustration of a tree thief against dozens of honest families and friends coming to select a tree. A neighbor arriving with a jar of coins to pay for their tree. The excitement of warmly dressed preschoolers running through the trees laughing and singing is enough to put anyone in the Christmas spirit. The fun of letting a five-year-old boy hold the other end of the saw as he “helps” me cut down a tree. As the tree falls he loudly shouts, “Timmbbbeeer.” He’ll always remember “cutting down that tree” during a Christmas season so many years ago.

A tree is special to a young child as this story illustrates: a local preschool class came for a classroom tree. They paraded off the bus running to the four winds.

Several parents came to help their child select a tree for home. Four of five trees were cut before the preschoolers loaded back on the bus. I put the trees in the back of my truck and followed the bus to school. About half way down my driveway, the bus stopped abruptly. Teacher Dianne Brown exited the bus. “Curt, one of the little boys is crying and shouting, ‘I want my tree. That man’s taking my tree. I want my tree right now!’”

It took careful explanation to convince him we were bringing his tree to school.

He thought I was stealing his tree!

 

# # #

A stolen Christmas tree could make one cynical, but the joyful faces of children drown out any disappointment. Besides, a thief has to live with himself. That’s pretty apt punishment in my book. He or she saved twenty-five dollars but gave up a little of his soul.

The occasional person who takes advantage of us is greatly outnumbered by the folks who are as honest as the day is long. Our honor system works well because of the belief that most people are good down in their hearts.

In life, we must choose a worldview: whether people are rascals or basically honest. There are plenty of examples at each end of this spectrum.

I recall other examples of “trustful hearts” in our community: Don Gray’s turnip green patch with a crudely lettered sign inviting people to pick all of the greens they need and leave their money in the mailbox.

Farmer’s Dairy and their butter dish bank for people to pay for their gallon of fresh thick milk. This honor system has been in use for years and Mr. Matt Farmer told me it has worked well.

It’s true—in life, we find exactly what we’re looking for. Our attitude and outlook determine how we perceive the world around us.

We can see every person as a potential Christmas tree thief, or we can see him or her as the person who’ll honestly cut his or her own tree and leave the money under the doormat.

It’s a choice, and the choice is ours to make.

We can either say “Bah humbug” or “Merry Christmas.”

I like the sound of the latter much better.

# # #

My Life Verse is , “But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matthew 6:33 See this verse in various translations.

  • My Life Statement: “To be a man God can use and be respected by my wife DeDe, our sons, and their precious families. “

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About Curt Iles

I write to have influence and impact through well-told stories of my Louisiana and African sojourn.

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