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Thanks for all the memories, Harley. You will be missed.

On September 2, 2006, a 3.5 pound fur ball became a part of the Pierce family.  That was the day that Harley, a run of the mill, runt of the litter barn cat came home with my daughter.

I have never been much of a cat person as I prefer trainable, working class dogs.  But from the second I first saw him walking on a muddy farm path on that Saturday morning I was somewhat taken by him.  In fact, dare I say it, I actually liked him.  A lot.

Harley was last born of ten kittens, coming into this world on June 24, 2006.  He was the only one of his brothers and sisters to survive more than 24 hours after birth.  He was part of a family of barn cats and his owner took him inside, hand nursed him for over six weeks and worked diligently to keep the runt kitty alive.

My daughter and I went to see a co-worker’s mother, as she was a Shetland Sheepdog breeder and the family was looking for another dog.  Shelties are my choice of pet and I was interested in finding a blue merle Shetland.  I came away empty-handed that day, but my daughter did not.

Within minutes of starting to walk to the kennels and look at the various Sheltie dogs, a cute, small kitten started rubbing all over my daughter’s shoes and legs.  He followed her everywhere we went, but when I would try to pet him, he would run away.  He only allowed my daughter to touch him.  Even his owner commented how unusual that was, as ever since she had gotten him healthy enough to return to the barn, he would not interact with people.  And so it was that Harley picked us as his family, not the other way around.

As a runt who barely survived birth, Harley was afflicted by several cat diseases his entire life.  This often made things more difficult for the family.  Harley would visit the vet more frequently than a normal cat.  He took different medicines on a regular basis and had to have special food that, of course, he did not like.  He would much rather just eat chicken, tuna and beef.  You didn’t dare leave spiced taco meat in the pan on the stove after making your tacos or Harley would be in it and have it half gone by the time you realized he had jumped on the counter.

But for a cat with chronic illness, he had a good personality.  And that is what I liked about him – his personality.  Sure, every animal has a unique personality and does things with their owners that endear them to each other, but for me, not being a cat person, it was Harley’s attitude that truly won me over.

For starters, he slept roughly 18 – 20 hours a day and stayed out of my way 95% of the time.  He pretty much left the humans in the house alone.  Pretty much.  And the 4 – 6 hours that he did not sleep?  Often it was from 1am – 5am, when he would be in the kitchen, using his paws to flip at the cupboard doors.  He would pull the cupboard doors open a ¼ to a ½ inch and then let go, allowing the door to bang shut.  The noise was annoying, often causing the dogs to bark and wake everyone up, but Harley never got tired of doing it.  It fascinated him.  So much so, that I bought child proof latches to go over the cupboard door knobs to keep them closed.  He could still flick at the doors, but they would not open far enough to make noise in the night and wake up the family.

Like most cats, he was curious, but he was also lazy.  Lazy in part because he was a cat and lazy because he was always a bit under the weather.  He was a horrible mouser.  A few years ago, a mouse invaded the house during the winter and I watched as it scurried past Harley by a few inches.  The cat opened one eye from sleeping, decided the mouse was moving too fast and that it would take too much energy to catch it, and then just went back to sleep.

He was not the kind of cat to jump and climb into high places or try to hide.  He usually slept right out in the open, on the arm of a couch, in the middle of the living room floor and sometimes in the middle of the bed if the sun was shining in and making it nice and warm.  He purred….a lot.  More than any other cat I have ever been around.  It was not a loud purr, but instead a consistent, comforting purr at just the right volume to help relax you after a long crappy day at work.

He would sometimes head butt people and he often would put his nose right up to your nose, mouth, ear or even your cell phone camera and sniff at you.  He enjoyed sleeping with family members and there were times that I had to drag him off the bed, pulling his claws out of the pillow case, because he decided to sleep half on my pillow and half on my head.

For over 12 years, Harley warmed the hearts of the Pierce family, just by being a quiet, cute, harmless cat that defied the odds that he would live even 12 hours after birth.  And sadly, today, he passed away – the victim of feline cancer.

I grew up around animals and have experienced the loss of pets many times before and each time it is difficult.  Our pets love us unconditionally.  They are always happy to see us, they care about us – sensing when we are ill or not happy and trying to make us feel better.  They depend on us for food, water and TLC, but in the end, it is really us that depends on them.

And even though their life span is so short compared to humans and there is pain and sadness that he is gone, there will be another cat.  Or another dog.  Or more fish or maybe even a reptile or two in the future.  Because no matter how much it hurts to lose a pet, for a pet owner, it’s not about preventing pain and sadness, its about loving that pet while he or she is still with us.

And so the backyard of the Piercehaven farmette in Ohio now has another permanent resident, sleeping for eternity on earth, but sleeping on a soft, comfy bed bathed in eternal sunshine somewhere over the rainbow bridge.

Rest in Peace, Harley Davidson Pierce.  June 24, 2006 – August 11, 2018.

The Old Man and the Rose

Author’s note:  Each year during the Christmas season, tens of thousands of elderly people are left alone.  Please take the time to send a card, make a phone call or stop by and visit with someone who would otherwise be alone during the holidays.  I wrote this short story during the holiday season in 1987, after witnessing a similar scene.


A soft breeze made the falling snow swirl against the slightly bent, ancient body.  He brushed a flake off his cheek and spoke tenderly.

“It’s snowin’ again.  They’re callin’ fer another three inches by tomorrow mornin’.  Shore does make things look a lot prettier than they really is.”

The old man drew a handkerchief from his pocket, blew his nose on it and carefully replaced it.  He pulled his coat closer around his neck and watched the snow fall.  It was coming down ever so softly, so smoothly.  The old man spoke again.

“Bought a new jack-knife fer Tommy an’ a new fryin’ pan fer Mary.  Got the little ones each one o’ them cube things you twist up an’ then try an’ git all the colors back on each side.  ‘Member them?  Rubbish cubes I think they calls ‘em.  Little Joey’ll probably have it all figur’d out in a couple secon’s, seein’ as he’s as smart as he is.  Should keep the others pretty busy though.  I told Tommy not to git me nothin’, but I think he an’ Mary is up to somethin’.”

The old man stopped for a moment to look at the snow covered trees, and then he spoke.

“The tree’s real pretty this year.  Got some of the ol’ decorations out an’ put on it.  ‘Member the little stuffed sheep you got that one Thanksgivin’?  I put it right out in front where ever’body can see it.  Tommy thinks it looks real nice an’ so does all the neighbors.

“Ol’ Harley’s dog Rusty finally died last week.  Been sick with some disease of some kind or ‘nother.  Harley went to feed him last Tuesday an’ he had passed in the night.  We buried him in the orchard under the big apple tree that little Joey likes.”

The old man pulled his scarf tighter and watched the snow for a few minutes.  The wind had picked up and was starting to drive the snow into every nook, cranny, crack and hollow it could find.  It was drifting against tree trunks and rocks.  And it drifted against the old man’s legs.

“Snowin’ real good now.  Looks like they was right ’bout them three inches after all.”

He glanced at the sky, full of heavy gray clouds and white swirling snowflakes and then fished a tarnished silver watch out of his pocket and checked the time.

“It’s gitting’ late an’ I best be goin’.  Promised Tommy I’d stop in fer supper tonight with him an’ Mary an’ the kids.”

The old man placed a rose on the snow.  The harsh red petals blazed against the soft white snow on which it lay.  He reached out with a gloved hand and brushed the snow off the gravestone.

“Merry Christmas,” he whispered.

© Copyright 1987 – 2017, L.D. Pierce, Piercehaven LLC/Ahead of the Curve.  All Rights Reserved

Yellow #2

There are thousands of amazing items in our lives that we take for granted every day. Shoe laces and zippers, forks and spoons, even batteries. Perhaps the one item that is overlooked and dismissed daily without so much as a second thought, is the pencil.

Writing has existed for millennia. History records that the first inks used for writing were made from lampblack (soot) in both Egypt and China as long ago as 2,500 BC. Inks and paints were used with brushes for both art and writing. The Egyptians, as well as most other cultures, engraved on stone. In Roman society, scribes used a metal rod with a point, called a stylus, to make impressions on a crude paper made from papyrus; later scribes used styli made from lead metal that would leave a mark on the paper.

The humble pencil can trace its beginnings to 1564 in Barrowdale, England, where a deposit of graphite was discovered. Initially thought to be a type of coal, it was discovered that it did not burn. It was quickly found that it left marks darker than lead metal and was dry and did not smear like inks.

The first pencils were merely pieces of brittle graphite with cloth or string wrapped around them for support. Soon, the splinters of graphite were being put inside hollowed out pieces of wood to make them sturdier and thus the first pencil, as we know it today, was born.

Mass produced pencils would be first made in Germany around 1662. Nearly 100 years later, companies like Faber-Castell, Staedtler, Lyra and Eberhard Faber would be established and continue to produce wood cased, graphite pencils. However, ink and quill pens were still the dominant form of writing and would be until the mid-1860s.

Pencils moved to the new world as Europeans migrated, but ink and pen still dominated writing.  The first pencil made in the U.S. is credited to William Monroe, a Massachusetts cabinet maker, in 1812, from imported British graphite. In 1821, Charles Dunbar discovered a deposit of graphite in New Hampshire. Partnering with John Thoreau, they began making pencils by putting ground graphite and a binder into a groove in a piece of wood and then gluing two pieces of wood together. But New Hampshire graphite was poor quality and had a greasy texture that resulted in smearing when used.

It would be John Thoreau’s son, Henry David Thoreau, who would find a way to improve the pencil. While Thoreau is most noted for his writings, he grew up in the family business making graphite pencils.  By mixing various amounts of clay with the lower quality, North American graphite, Thoreau created a strong, quality, smudge free pencil.  By varying the amount of clay, the hardness of the lead could be adjusted, leading to grades of pencils that made light, medium or dark marks. (This is disputed at times, with claims that blending clay with graphite was developed by Frenchman Nicolas-Jaques Conté in 1795.)

In 1829, Joseph Dixon, who was a pioneer in the use and manufacturing of graphite, founded the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company. One of their main products would be graphite pencils. Soon German pencil companies like Faber Castell, A.W. Faber, Staedtler and Eberhard would establish factories in New Jersey, increasing pencil manufacturing in the United States.

Despite the availability of pencils in America, quill pens using ink were the preferred form of writing until the Civil War. During the Civil War, there was a need for a clean, dry and portable means to write. It was not practical for soldiers to carry bottles of liquid ink with them and quill pens were easily damaged. Ink would smear and run when it got wet. Pencils were cheap, lasted longer, easily portable and letters written in pencil did not smear when they got wet.  After the civil war, the pencil became a mainstay in America and by 1872, Joseph Dixon was manufacturing up to 86,000 of his Dixon Ticonderoga pencils every day.

While British graphite was high quality and Thoreau had developed a way to use lower quality North American graphite, the highest quality graphite available in the 1800s came from China. Most pencils were not painted, but left plain to show off the wood. As pencils grew in popularity, manufacturers wanted to find a way to differentiate between ordinary pencils and high-quality pencils made from Chinese graphite. That led to painting pencils beginning around 1890.

But why yellow? In China, yellow symbolizes respect, royalty and quality. A yellow pencil, therefore, indicated that it was high quality, having been made with the finest graphite imported from China. Today, however, yellow painted pencils are common place and are often basic and low quality.

An advantage the pencil has over ink is that it is erasable. If a mistake is made while writing, it can be eliminated with a few rubs of an eraser, saving time, effort and money. Pencils are a dry method of writing and a pencil is portable. Pencils can be stored for decades and do not dry up or clog like ink pens.  Pencils are not dependent upon gravity like the common ball point ink pen and can be used upside down, sideways and even in outer space. And if a pencil breaks, you can sharpen both halves and keep using them – try that with an ink pen.

Pencils became a means for everyone to be able to afford to write. Pencils were the media of choice for drafting and designing before computers. Most mechanical and engineering drawings were made in pencil first, then traced in ink to make them permanent. This was primarily because errors could be erased, but also because pencils can be sharpened to a very fine point, letting the artist, architect or draftsman draw with extreme precision.

In the 21st Century, as electronic methods like email, texting and social media have replaced letter writing as the primary forms of communication, the pencil still thrives. It is estimated that 2 billion wood cased, graphite pencils are sold in the United States each year. Pencils are ecofriendly, being made of wood and graphite – natural materials that biodegrade.

Environmental activists have complained that in a digital age, pencils consume far too many trees each year. But most pencil manufacturers use sustainable forestry practices and thanks to modern manufacturing methods, there is much less waste and more pencils can be made from the same piece of wood than 20 or 30 years ago. Some pencils are made from compressed sawdust mixed with a water based glue, further sustaining the forests by making use of a wood waste, rather than consuming raw wood.

Even with the ever-increasing use of electronics for writing, messaging and data storage, pencil sales continue to increase by approximately 4% per year.  The faithful, trustworthy old yellow #2 has been, and will be for quite some time, Ahead of the Curve.