News From The Woods.21


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published July 1, 1998

"My Mentor"

Every once in a while, if you are lucky, someone comes along and makes your life better and changes your life forever. While my father was instrumental in shaping my life in so many ways, it was my Uncle Harold who really had a profound impact on my young life by being there for me after my father's death in 1967, before I even turned 21. More importantly, Uncle Harold had an infectious smile and was always looking at the positive side of life. I wanted to be like him, happy with myself and happy in my work.

Uncle Harold and Aunt Francis were my parents closest confidants. Back in the old days in St. Louis, before I was born, they had many adventures together. Mom was a professional entertainer, Dad was a World Champion Skeet Shooter, and Uncle Harold worked for the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. Aunt Francis and my mother were, besides being related, the very best of friends. While my father was a heavy drinker and rode life hard in the saddle, Uncle Harold was a teetotaler who provided a more sober balance to the foursome and was always working to keep my dad's escapades in check. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But he and Aunt Francis were always there whenever mom or dad needed them.

When I was born in 1946, dad decided to move to the Ozarks and get into the resort business. I guess he intended to slow down a bit while at the same time provide a more serene setting in which to raise his son. So he moved us to Mountain Home, Arkansas and began a new adventure as the host of Blackberry Hill Resort, located on the newly-formed Lake Norfork which was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers just one year prior to our relocation. It was basically a wilderness area, which suited my father just fine. Plenty of game to hunt and fish to catch. The resort was a magnet to the many friends and associates who travelled from all over the US just to spend some vacation time at this paradise carved out of the backwoods.

I remember Uncle Harold showing up one time with all his telephone lineman's gear. He single-handedly wired a telephone line from Blackberry Hill to the nearest phone company pole so we could have telephone service. I'll never forget watching with fascination as he strapped the pole climber spikes to his legs and then climbed up the pole to attach the wire. I still have the pictures that mom took of this monumental event. In one fell swoop we were catapulted into the 20th century! Not only did we have immediate voice contact with Mountain Home, some 9 miles away, but we could now take resort reservations over the phone, which increased business very rapidly.

Uncle Harold and Aunt Francis would visit several times a year. I could hardly wait for their arrival. Aunt Francis would always bring a "gooey butter cake" from a sweet shop in St. Louis. She knew it was my favorite. Sometimes Uncle Harold would bring me a toy cap pistol or something, but the biggest event for me was when he would set up the screen and 8mm film projector and show home movies of their latest travel adventure. Now, these home movies were not of the boring variety that most people were forced to endure for hours on end. They were exciting and colorful and professionally shot and edited. Sometimes he would even create little stop-motion animations which he would cut out entirely by hand and shoot 10 frames at a time then edit to make it look like a cartoon. He referred to himself in later years as a film "hobbyist" but I would call him a professional filmmaker. His scene composition and attention to detail made such a profound impression on me that I aspired to be like him and took up filmmaking in my high school and college years. When video came along I made the transition easily because I had already learned all the camera technique from Harold's home movies.

When I was 25, Harold and Francis came to visit mom and I and he reported that he had something "special" for me this trip. I stared in amazement as he pulled out two 7-inch reels of 8mm film, representing some 2 hours of film. On the cover of the top can were the hand-drawn words: "This is your Life, Bob Ketchum". He had painstakingly filtered through over 100 reels of film and edited out all footage of me and my family from the year I was born up until the most recent footage of their latest vacation to the Ozarks. It must have taken him weeks to compile and sequence the footage. That night I sat with tears in my eyes as my life unfolded on that time-worn silver screen set up in the living room.

Years later I asked Uncle Harold for permission to convert all his old home movie footage to video. By that time I was a professional videographer and had a complete production studio at my command. I explained that his old movies were losing color with every passing year and that I really wanted to preserve all those memories before the aging process would destroy them for all time. He dismissed the idea by telling me: "Those old movies aren't worth it. It wouldn't mean anything to anyone else. Don't bother going to all that trouble". For several years after that I kept mentioning it to him but he just didn't understand that how important it was to ME. It would have been a labor of love, seeing all that classic old footage again as I converted it to video. But it was not meant to be, for one night in 1989 their apartment building caught fire and many of their precious belongings were destroyed, including the trunk containing all those years of film stock. Every time I saw Uncle Harold after that he would well up and tell me how he regretted not giving me those films. I would always tell him: "At least you gave me those wonderful memories in 'This Is Your Life'".

Whenever I was going through a really tough period in my life Uncle Harold would always show up and we would go off by ourselves and have a man-to-man. He had a way of talking about life experiences that would lift my spirits and give me hope. He would point out life's ironies and tell me that everything in life has a purpose. Then he would tell some joke and his eyes would crinkle up over a broad smile and it would always make me feel better. He was one of the funniest guys I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I'll never forget the time they were out fishing on the lake and Aunt Francis innocently asked "Harold, what kind of bird is that there?". Uncle Harold looked up and said "That's a tern, honey". She said "Why do they always seem to travel in pairs?', and without the slightest bit of hesitation he answered with a poker face, "Because Francis, one good tern deserves another". His practical jokes were legendary, but they were never malicious or mean-spirited. He and Aunt Francis were inseparable and displayed a love for each other that is usually reserved for newlyweds.

A few years ago Aunt Francis started to lose her mental edge which soon deteriorated into dementia and Alzheimer's. Watching her slip a little each day must have been pure hell for Harold. Although his physical health was failing, his mind was still as sharp as a razor, which probably made things worse for him. On June 19th, 1998, Harold Deems succumed to pneumonia. I suppose it was a blessing in disguise. Like he always told me, there is usually a reason for everything in life. I will miss him forever and I will never forget the things he taught me. To be humble. To always go for your dreams. To be proud of who you are as an individual. To smile everyday. To treat everyone with respect. To have faith in God.

Another bright light dims on earth as another shining star takes its rightful place in the heavens.

(Updated June, 2004: I recently discovered a poem that Uncle Harold had composed and sent to me. I would like to reprint it here- Bob)

"Little Miracles"
Harold Deems

There are the miracles of the Bible's day,
I have so often heard people say;
This to me I cannot understand,
because I get miracles at every hand.
They may not be spectacular things to see,
but they are little miracles to me.

The sunrise that brings the light of day,
the wind that blows the clouds away;
Thunder and lightning that some may fear,
in these God's touch I see and hear.
The stars at night shrouded in ageless mystery,
these are little miracles to me.

The springtime when life begins anew,
diamonds that sparkle in the grass from dew;
A spiders web, a falling leaf....
so many things beyond belief.
The beauty of a rose I see,
these are all little miracles to me.

The sea, whose waves break upon the sand,
that once washed the shores of the holy land;
I watch them as they roll upon the beach,
then drift away beyond my reach.
A sea gull soaring gracefully,
these are little miracles to me

A rainbow painted by Someone on high,
white clouds drifting in the sky;
A flock of geese in flight,
A full moon that brightens up the night.
A soft whispering breeze from o'er the lea,
these are little miracles to me.

A babbling brook in the morning mist,
with rays of sunlight softly kissed;
A trout rising to a fly,
A hummingbird..... A butterfly.
A squirrel scolding from a nearby tree,
these too are little miracles to me.

Oh, I could go on forever more,
God's miracles are a countless score;
They are here and there for all to see,
these little miracles that mean so much to me.

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