Reflections

As I approach the two year anniversary of my first step in Spain, I decided to re-read my own book.  It brought back many fond memories from a wonderful trip.  For this week’s blog, I decided to share a sample chapter.  If you have not…

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Practically Perfect

I love a good ending. I love a good beginning even more. And here it is, the first day of September. A bit of both. All the abundanza of the end of summer, the lush gardens, the grapevines coming on strong, a sky full of thunderheads. But when I am outside at 1 a.m. with Orion and Mars and the stars, it’s almost cold. Crickets sing in the dark. On the little boom-box we play Muddy Waters and Jussi Bjorling. One speaker points out onto the patio, and one into the kitchen. Someday we will get a proper stereo. We are kinda afraid what the dust here would do to a proper stereo. We will stick with the cheap option until they stop manufacturing these things. Then, well. Silence is great. But everyone should have some “Long Distance Call” on September first, when the night is warm and the little string of solar bulbs switches itself on, the white wine comes up from the bodega at the just-right temperature. The end of a day of planting out the Fall crop of kale and chard and lettuce, topping up the dog- and chicken-feed, finally paying back Julia with a box of eggs for her many tons of apples, plums, membrillo and advice. (Her hens stopped laying when the men started re-roofing their house. Hens are touchy critters, and this time of year they molt — they change their feathers, they stop laying. Bob Canary changes his feathers, and stops singing. Everybody needs a holiday.) The Spaniards are back at home, back at school. All last week the trains were full, Moratinos and Sahagun teemed with out-of-towners, but their numbers slowly slackened. The Spanish summer madness winds down. The European Camino madness winds up. More and more foreigners show up now, thinking they won’t have to compete for lodgings and dinner-tables. There’s litter on the trails. A paint-can philosopher worked-over our labyrinth in the last couple of days, advising passing pilgrims that “The Silence Speaks.” (The Silence has spoken there for centuries without any help from dumb-asses with spray paint.)And so it continues.The Peaceable was busy in the past week. Patrick and I took turns going to Madrid to help a friend who’s feeling low. I attended an Anglican Eucharist, which is always utterly delicious. We hosted pilgrims here, met some fine people, heard some great guitar music, ate  razor clams and sardines and drank some good vino. It is tempered by the troubles of our friend. And Momo Cat going on another walkabout. And my own issues. I developed a toothache at the end of the week, and lost a good portion of the weekend to pain and pain-killers. Worrisome things. Paddy made lovely soup from beans and bacon. I harvested the tomatoes out back and made the year’s finest gazpacho. Tortillas, salsa, rice, easy things to eat. I am well cared-for.    And today… today was textbook late summer. The morning dog-walk was lovely, the dogs all had good runs and tumbles, almost no blood was shed, nothing was killed, we ran into no hunters, and all returned panting and well-aired. We went into town and found almost everything on the list — alas, no dentist available until Thursday! Out on the camino I spread manure and calendula seeds and lots of water round the base of the Phil Wren Memorial Tree, and discovered the mess at the labyrinth. My tooth did not hurt so much, long as I didn’t use it for anything.We made naan bread, a weekly team event. We read books, sitting out on the patio with dog noses poking at us. In the silence of the afternoon I went all round the walls of the house next door calling for Momo, just in case he was locked inside one of their outbuildings. (Mo has a distinctive bourbon-and-cigarettes sort of meow, and he answers when I call him.) No Mo. How tiresome.I took a nap. The sun went low. The dogs lolled and wrestled on the patio. We had naan and gazpacho out there, listened to Steely Dan on the speaker, talked about old friends, and the old house that’s for sale downtown. And just as Paddy wound up a discourse on Heideggar, we heard a noise. A yowl. A yip. Unmistakeable. Paddy’s eyes met mine, and we both gaped and grinned. Momo Cat, up on the barn roof, shouting to be let into the house. Home again, the bad cat! And so our evening is complete, our family circle re-connected. We put the hound dogs to bed in the barn, and opened up the front door so Mo and Tim and Rosie could join us in the gloaming. Beauty, it was. The music ended on the box. The crickets took up the tune. And now, upstairs, I can hear Patrick snoring. Down here by my feet, Tim snorts in his sleep, too. My tooth hurts, yeah. But everything is so fine. Even with a bad tooth, I have to say it: I live in the best place in all the world.

http://moratinoslife.blogspot.com/

Fruits

Accidents, stopgaps, decisions made at the last minute three years ago, they all are cropping now, they are budding and flowering and bearing fruit. Literally. This is the most wonderful time of the year for anyone mad enough to try growing flowers and food in the ground around them. It´s a ton of hard work and hassle, and the rewards are often not so great, or just nada. Good produce is very cheap here, sometimes it is free. I don´t know why I bother, but I do. This is why.  This year, for some reason, the skinny slices of dirt in the patio out front are booming, blooming with plants I expected to see, well… The same year I planted them. Three years ago, I planted poppy seeds out there, all different colors of California poppies, all over the place. Not a single one showed its head. Duds, I thought. (Meantime, wild poppies grow in great profusion by the acre, in the same kind of dirt, all over the region.) This year, in a big pot out front, a new plant put out lacy leaves and then little bright flags… bright yellow! Poppies! Something similar is going on with the nasturtiums, flowers with pretty round leaves and edible flowers. I planted a gang of them last year, with nominal success. This year they zoomed back, and are popping up all over the place in long plumes and tails, fat saucers of bright green, and only a few flowers. They all are orange. And the calendulas, too, are yellow and orange, and they are everywhere, front and back, tough as nails. I like these little guys because I got the first handful of seeds while out hiking in the mountains with my bud Kathy. We were in a mountain town called Boca de Huergano, on the Camino Vadiniense. I admired the flowers growing outside a trim little cottage, and the lady there broke off a couple of seed-pods and folded my fingers round them. “If they will grow here, they will grow anywhere,” she said. And she is right. Three years later, they threaten to overrun the back yard. Which would be kind of pretty. I wonder why, with all the multi-colored things I plant, they all come out orange or yellow. Which works perfectly in the red-tiled patio outside an ochre-colored house.  The flowerbeds are not just full of flowers. This year there are tomatoes growing in there, and an enormous eggplant (aubergine) covered in patent-leather fruits and purple velvet flowers. These were leftover seedlings, the ones that didn´t fit in the raised beds out back. They do a damn sight better out front, even with dogs walking and whizzing on them. Some visiting stoner disposed of a roach in the potted Pony Tail palm, and now there´s a marijuana tree in there that is taller than me. I did not plant it, I swear. There´s a grapevine out there, too. I never planted that, either, but it´s grown right up the trellis and is now heading west, over the wall. No sign of grapes, but what would I do with more fruit? Out back the fig tree is loaded down, the apple tree this year has clusters of fat green fruit. Edu and Milagros, Pilar and Modesto all have given us buckets and baskets full of plums, damsons, cherries, cucumbers, chard, and courgettes (zuchinni). Three stalks of sweetcorn grew this year, and we ate the first cobs last week, raw. The tomato plants are in overdrive — we are consuming gazpacho by the bucket (I asked Milagros for a single cucumber for a gazpacho, and I came away with three cukes and two courgettes). Tomorrow I make salsa. And plum tart. And a red-pepper quiche. It is delicious and gorgeous and good for us, and there´s enough left over to share. Abundance, sweet providence. The fruits and vegetables of our labor.         

http://moratinoslife.blogspot.com/

Fright

What would you do if fear were not present in your life? Fear and happiness cohabitate like oil and water.  Eliminating one creates space for the other to thrive. Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “Do something every day that scares you.” Embarking on a gigantic adventure…

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Mental Toxins

While taking A Million Steps the Camino de Santiago, my daily experiences were vastly different from those at home.  The mixture of meeting new people, getting physical exercise, finding beauty in nature, appreciating the simplest things in life, and living with a tiny pack full of…

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A Scheme is Hatched!

I give up one thing that doesn´t fit any more (like training hospitaleros) and another, bigger, more interesting thing zooms right in to take its place.I came to terms with the Depression. I agreed to sit still while the darkness lasted, because maybe there is something down here for me to learn. Sitting still is against all my upbringing. It is un-American. When anything is less-than excellent, you get up and do something – anything! — to make it better. Even when doing something is really not the best idea. So it is hard for me, just sitting here. But sitting here, after a while, I start to see the big picture. The writing on the wall stops being part of the décor and starts demanding translation. With fewer and fewer pilgrims stopping here, I don´t need to focus on accommodating them. I have lost a lot of interest in things Santiago. I have answered the same questions 100 times, and I´ve barked up the same trees at least as often to fix the things that don´t work so well. And I realize maybe the Camino does not need any fixing. It is exactly what it is. Pilgrims come and go, like they´ve done for a thousand years. We´ll continue giving them a bed and a meal if they need it. But what I achieve, or don´t achieve, camino-wise, means little or nothing. So I decided to stop training people to be volunteer hospitaleros. I sent in a resignation to the Canadian Confraternity and the Spanish federation a week ago, and posted the news on www.caminodesantiago.me, the forum where I am most present, camino-wise. Nary a ripple was seen on the stream. And a day later, up from Moratinos jumped another fish to fry. It´s fiesta week, and the town is heaving with friends and relations, come home to see granny and the cousins in the old pueblo. Everyone is happy to see the new chestnut trees and flowers blooming in the plaza, the cleaned-up streets, the fincas now for sale. Both church bells rang for the Santo Tomas procession, a jolly racket that echoed for miles across the fields and made all the dogs howl out loud. procession of Sto. Tomas ApostolAnd so we struck. A little group of us year-round residents rounded-up the visitors and founded a new Cultural Association, aimed at preserving Moratinos´ memories, informing outsiders of our little hidden treasures, and maybe shoring up our crumbling cultural patrimony, which is made of adobe.  Response was overwhelming. No fewer than 55 people put their names down, along with a 10-Euro note to get things started. Men and women, young and old, all of them with some tie to this town, people determined – even though only 20 of us actually live here all the time —  to not let Moratinos die.  I was made president. No one asked me. I was told. I think it is because everyone can talk to me. My uncle didn´t offend their cousin back in 1985, so I am OK. I am a goober, clueless to a lot of historical inter-familial bullshit – when that comes up, I pretend to not understand. I work hard to keep a civil relationship with everyone here.  Costume contest: the Asturian chickensThis, I think, offers an opportunity to heal old wounds.Only one family told me No, this can´t work, that people need to go home and mind their own business. They´ve been hurt in the past. I think they are just taking a “wait and see” stance. Once they see how things progress, they may jump on board, too. Because I feel pretty positive about this. And when I set out to make something happen, it usually works.  I don´t have to handle money. There´s a treasurer for that. No need to take notes, because we have a secretary, too. Total transparency will be written into the bylaws. I might have to mount a FaceBook page, and update it with photos and copy – I can find someone to help me translate. Maybe this will improve my Spanish. Maybe someone will step up and make a web page. There is a lot of talent here. Talent is cheap. Follow-through is what will make it really happen, once the initial enthusiasm goes. I am as hard-headed as a Castilian. I can make this stick. I just hope I do not step on too many peoples´ toes on the way.   this year´s winner: a Pirate Ship!We are starting out small. Tomorrow we will deposit all those ten-Euro bills in a new bank account. We will file papers to make ourselves an official Asociacion Cultural in Palencia province.  (You can join, too, and donate as much money as you like!) We will clarify our goals. We will settle on what to call ourselves. And then start doing. I have ideas, simple things we can execute with or without help from ministries or government groups. A sad fact is, many people here wait around for the government to improve things.  They don´t step up til they have a grant in hand, and grants don´t happen so much any more. But we can build a signpost, an information station to tell visitors what those caves are in the hillside, (bodegas), what those round buildings are in the fields (dovecotes). We can organize ourselves enough to open the church, open our bodegas, to show our children and our visitors that this is a rare sight, a disappearing resource, a  rustic little gem to be treasured.        Small things, simple things. If we can make that work, we can tackle larger projects. Make the collapsed bodegas safe. Fix the uneven pavement in the plaza. Rationalize the reams of mouldering historical documents into a small archive. Label old photos. Collect old recipes and craftwork and stories from the elderly, while they are still here.Things people say are impossible, or too much, or beyond the reach of a small town and little people. We are not many, but we have a big reach. We are scattered all over Spain, and most of us have some skill or another to offer. We love Moratinos. And we are only as small as our expectations. And here in the dark is something I believe in, something new worth working on.  

http://moratinoslife.blogspot.com/

If the light within you is darkness how great that darkness will be

The morning after we finished our camino Robin and I walked up from Plaza Obradoiro, through the archway up (past the musician) to the Plaza Inmaculada. It was a beautiful clear crisp morning with temperatures in the low 60′s F. We both were wearing light down jackets against the morning chill. We stepped down to the door of the cathedral, and entered. Our purpose was to attend the 10:30 English mass sponsored by the Camino Chaplaincy. We found our way to the Chapel of our Lady of Loneliness, located in one of the oldest parts of the cathedral (800 years old). As we stepped into the small chapel we were warmly greeted by an Irish nun, who was part of the volunteer staff, and made to feel at home. Good things were happening. We just felt it. Before the mass started the priest, a Venezuelan, who spoke English, introduced himself, as we all did. He welcomed us with a smile that lit up the chapel. His name is Fr. Juan Carlos. After we introduced ourselves and gave a brief synopsis of where we were from, where we started, and the route we walked, the mass began. Robin and I had no idea what we were about to experience as the liturgy began. But, once we reached the point where the priest gave his homily it became apparent that this priest was gifted in his ability to preach. He purposefully made his remarks short, but was able to say all that needed to be said in just a few minutes. He spoke of the longing many have for God to speak to them. How our prayers seem to go unanswered, and disillusionment sets in. We close our hearts to God’s words because we just cannot fathom how all this is supposed to work. Fr. Juan Carlos offered that God is waiting for all of us, waiting with unbounded joy, if only we can find a way to open our hearts, and respond to the love God showers upon us. Simply offering prayers without a heart that truly believes God is present in our lives, does nothing. We must learn to trust the very small voice that is trying to reach us amidst the clamor of many worldly distractions, and reflect the love God gifts to us. In short, it is up to us to take action if our faith journey is to go forward. This was a very simple, but profound message. God loves us, and our peace is only found in us being able to love God in return. Sounds easy enough. But is it? Obviously not, but it was the message of hope we needed to hear. After so many days of walking it started to dawn on us the magnitude of the journey we are truly involved in. Ours was not a journey that could be measured in kilometers, but only in prayers. We were at once both humbled, and encouraged that all that we have done, and will do, in this life serves only one purpose, to complete the journey Home. As we sat in that ancient chapel we paused to reflect on the gift of faith, its joy, and what that calls us to do.A further discussion with Fr. Juan Carlos led me to the Gospel According to Matthew. He suggested a series of readings in chapters 5, 6 and 7. In these parts of Matthew’s gospel many key teaching’s of Jesus can be found. He suggested that I should read small portions daily, and then allow myself time to to reflect, to listen carefully for the faint voice of God that always guides us. Above all be patient, and hopeful. He assured me that God’s grace abounds, and what you seek will be found.As I read through the suggested parts of Matthew’s gospel several things started to come together to reinforce what Fr. Juan Carlos had told me. His suggested readings opened a portal that had always been there. Concise instructions on how a true disciple of Jesus must live to enter the kingdom of heaven. There are challenges aplenty as Jesus calls us to behave in ways we are not always able to do.  But, when we fail he always encourages us to place our trust in God’s abundant love, and find comfort in the hope found in the journey home to God, the Father. He reminds us to depend only on God for all that we need. All our earthly worries will not advance us one step in our journey of faith, only opening ourselves to God’s love, and mercy accomplishes that. He reminds us that “the lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound your whole body will be filled with light: but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the Golden Rule, cautions us about being judgmental. After all, who are we to judge. Pray unceasingly, for it is to those who knock that door eventually opens, and it is those who seek that eventually find (yes, action on our part is required). Challenge yourself to “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. How narrow the gate, and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” The true disciple, is one who does the will of the Father, not the one who offers lip service in place of righteous deeds. Finally, Jesus pulls it all together by warning that those who follow his teachings will be like a wise man who builds his house on rock, not sand. The house built on rock (His teachings) will be able to withstand all the calamities that life will throw at it. The one built on sand will be ruined.As Robin and I walk the camino we try to embrace our hiddenness, our smallness, and use these moments to listen for that faintest of voices that fills us with hope that our lives are on the right path. So, it was not surprising that the true joy of our most recent camino was not found among the many splendid hills and valleys we traversed, but in the dark confines of the musty stonework of a small cathedral chapel where, once again, the faintest whisper was present, and we listened.

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Then and the Power of Now

While taking A Million Steps on the Camino de Santiago, I was able to reflect on many aspects of my life.  Around the 13 year mark, I began to experiment with beer. Unfortunately, I was really good at it and allowed  Coors to consume  the…

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Madmen, Piglets, and Sun-stroke: Three Days of Big Fun

It was only three days, supposed to be five. I only made it partway, and I should’ve stopped after the first day, but I kept on going. I thought it would get better, that I would get better. I didn’t. I got worse. It got bad, very quickly.It was a really self-serving hike anyway. The day of the last blog post, the day we saw through the neighbors’ house, was the day Momo Cat was last seen. Time went on, he didn’t come back. Pad and I both started looking glumly at one another, started giving up hope. So I did a Spanish thing. I made a promesa to Santiago. Momo comes back okay, I will go to Valladolid on the train, and walk home, as a thanksgiving. I said it out loud, in front of witnesses (Paddy and the outside dogs). And once the neighbors came back for the weekend, Momo reappeared, shouting loud outside the back door, not a scratch on him. We think he somehow got inside their house while it was open, and was locked in all week when they left. Thank God they’re coming back on weekends these days! Thank God indeed. You’d better start walking, Paddy said. And on Monday, full of expectation, I took the 11.05 train to Valladolid with my backpack good to go for a short hike across the meseta on the Camino de Madrid.In August.  I’ve been wanting to walk the Madrid for a long time. I was willing to do just the top bit, from Valladolid, just for a taste — it is hard leaving Peaceable for longer than a few days, seeing as Paddy can’t drive the car. I should’ve taken the 7:30 a.m. train. Should have got an earlier start. In Valladolid I knew which bus to take up to Simancas, where the Camino Madrid passes through. I knew which bus, but I could not find a bus stop for it. I wandered the city for an hour and a half, from bus stop to bus stop, like an idiot. No one knew. I finally took a taxi. By the time I hit the trail it was 1 p.m. The sun by then was cranked up to 10.  Only seven kilometers to Ciguenela, an easy two hours. In August, only mad dogs and Englishmen do that. And mountain-bike riders. Everyone with an ounce of sense stays in the shade with a cold drink.I walked long and hard, I was thankful for each little breeze that blew up the lonesome country road. Roads out there are Kansas-quality dirt, mostly straight, angled around property lines. Towns hide behind hills, you can see the church tower for hours before you get close. If you’ve walked the big Camino Frances, you’ll remember that long strip after Carrion de los Condes. This is something like that, but it goes on for days. I fell into my long-distance stride. Heat shimmered up off miles of stubble. About four kilometers in, I saw two figures on the road ahead, moving toward me. Bicycles. Two men, sweaty, weaving and laughing. Maybe heading home after a long, loaded lunch, I thought. As they came closer I realized they were not drunk. They were mad. Their handlebars waggled because their bodies shuddered. Their faces were like clown masks, they greeted me with wild hilarity and a wave that almost took one of them over. I played it cool, smiled and waved back as they passed by — I didn’t want to give them a reason to stop. They rolled past, up the hill I’d just come down, very slowly, out of sight. I walked on. I heard my pulse rushing in my ears. I felt light-headed. Soon as I stopped walking, a headache started. And a cold. I met the only other walking pilgrim on the Camino Madrid, in the lovely albergue of Cigunuela. He was very happy to see me.He had not seen two crazy guys on bikes, he said. I wondered if they were real. His name was Luis, from Aranjuez. He was dark and slender, a runner. He worked in an auto-parts factory outside Madrid. I could not keep awake to chat. Later on, through a haze, I saw him soaking his feet, then putting himself to bed. He was beautiful. In the middle of the night he woke me up. I was crying in my sleep, he said. He gave me some water. I was sweating hard, but I felt cold. My head pounded. Only a couple of hours of sun had done that. Luis was gone when I got up in the morning. He’d been doing 40 kilometer days, but his lightweight trainer shoes were shredding his feet. The early-morning walk was superb. I said all my prayers. I saw rabbits and hares, sheep and shepherds and sheepdogs, a weasel, a kestrel, and a hoopoe. My nose ran, I snorted and coughed and hacked. I was glad to be alone. I still felt light-headed. I drank lots of water, wore sunscreen and a hat, I walked in the shade at every opportunity. I saw Luis again in Penaflor de Hornija. He was slowing down. He’d see me in Castromonte, he said. I had trouble forming Spanish sentences. I drank two quick claras. (half draft beer, half 7-Up). I left Hornija just after 11, and the thermometer read 30 degrees. I went slow. A beautiful, medieval sunken lane, all dappled and dark, opened onto miles of endless wide-open blast furnace. An Allman Brothers song played an endless loop in my head. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy on me. Miles on I could see a line of scrubby oak trees. As I drew closer I saw some enterprising person had set up a piggery among them, and dozens of fine black swine browsed behind makeshift fences. Acorns. Black pigs. These were Spain’s famous Bellota hams on the hoof. They were friendly, they nosed up to the fence to say hello. And in the next pen were mother pigs, and a vast number of wiggly, wormy black piglets. They squealed and swarmed and ran, ran, ran, full of energy and joy. The moms were pretty active, too, at least the ones not fenced inside numbered concrete bunkers. Luis was there, snapping photos, grinning. It was impossible not to smile. We walked on, and on the right heard something crashing in the bushes next to the trail. Out burst a line of leaping piggies, escapees, playing chase through the woods. They saw us, screamed, and split up, some running up the trail ahead, others diving into the bushes. They kept us company for a half-mile more, the most joyous pigs I ever met. Maybe that’s why the jamon is so tasty — their lives may be short, but they have them some fun! Me and Luis straggled into Castromonte in the heat of the day. It is a gorgeous albergue. We did not see much of it. We slept. We walked into town and banged on the butcher’s door til he opened up and sold us some food. We saw inside the church, with its images of 25 saints — they take them all out for a parade every year, the Saturday before Pentecost. Beautiful adobe houses, leaning every which way, plaques marking birthplaces of forgotten fascists. We ate simply — pan-fried pork loin and cheese on bread. Olives. Plums from the tree outside. The scrap-end of a chocolate bar. Luis made me a “isotonic cocktail” with energy drink and powdered minerals. I repaired his blistered feet as well as I could, with the minimal first-aid supplies I had. Tomorrow, Medina de Rioseco, I told him. There’s a health center there. They can give you a proper bandage job. There’s a bus station there, too, he said. I can pick up there next year, walk on. He’d made a promesa, he said. His mom, last year, a cancer scare. She’s fine now. And so now he has a promise to keep, even if it takes him three years of holiday time to get to Santiago.  (I did not tell him about my promesa.)We both were asleep before the sun went down. A man painted a wall outside. The roller went shush-shush-shush. I said goodbye to Luis in the morning. I did not see him again. It was another beautiful morning. I do not remember it very well, but I liked it at the time. At Medina de Rioseco I toured the churches of Santiago and Santa Maria — the equal of any tourist attraction in Spain, and pretty much unknown outside this region. I had a horchata (an Arabic almond milkshake, cold and wonderful) at a bakery/bar run by a jolly family, but I couldn’t taste anything. I enjoyed that beautiful little Castilian town — it is known territory, a place I have always liked. But I do not remember it clearly. I stayed at a hotel. I took a bath with salt, I drank a lot of Luis’s isotonic cocktails. I came home the next morning on the earliest bus. I thought I might try walking if I felt better, but I had the shakes in the night. Defeated by the sun, smitten, I am taking my time getting back my energy. Paddy is being kind and patient. We’ve had few pilgrims, and none since my return, and that’s probably good. I am not fit company. Momo cat slinks about, utterly ungrateful. I didn’t exactly fulfill my promise, but he is only a cat. Do not let me walk in August any more.     

http://moratinoslife.blogspot.com/

Connecting

While taking A Million Steps on the Camino de Santiago, people often relied on strangers for help and comfort.  Gazillions of random acts of kindness were disbursed on that sacred soil each day.  It may have been sharing a blister bandage or maybe just an…

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