Friday, November 12, 2010

Living Drama

We bought a farm in Washington, Arkansas in the 1990s while I was teaching at University of Arkansas Community College in Hope. My wife went to work for Old Washington Historic State Park as assistant curator. We had a couple of horses on the place and I had the joy of regularly riding a quarter-horse or an appaloosa through one of the few towns in Arkansas where that mode of transportation seems natural and even normal.

I didn’t get involved with the State Park activities for awhile, being quite busy at the college, but eventually, after I was elected to the city council of Washington, I mentioned to the park superintendent that I wouldn’t mind getting involved in some of the reenactments. He said, “Dan, I’ll get you so involved you will wish you had never said that to me.” And he did.

The costume people measured me for period clothing and soon provided same, from hat to boots. I did a lot of performances as judge in Arkansas’ first murder trial there in the beautifully restored 1839 courthouse. They changed actors for prosecutors and defense attorneys, sheriffs and criminals but my glum old role as judge remained the same for several years. And the superintendent was right: I did indeed sometimes wish I had never spoken to him about my desire to get involved in the dramas.

Another role I played was that of a garrulous old Confederate soldier, Danny Smith, in the outdoor “Woods Walks” that we performed for various groups at night out near Pioneer Cemetery. The culminating dramatic event in “Woods Walk” was an exchange of coffee and tobacco between my group and approaching Union scouts. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a trap and shooting broke out to the delight of audiences. I had a great death scene, in which my last words were, “Tell Mamma I got the tobaccy.” I liked acting the role of Danny better than the old judge, ticks and chiggers notwithstanding, but actually got tired of both because we did them so often.

So, I thought I was through with drama for awhile when we moved to El Dorado early this century. But that was not the case. At the insistence of my college president there, I was cast in the role of John Hancock in “1776.” Actually, I knew the part fairly well, having acted in the play in 1976 over at Southern Arkansas University. I didn’t enjoy that play very much because everything was so prescribed. The Washington dramas were more or less improvisational, but we had to stick to the script in “1776.” So I was glad when it was over.

In a sense, life itself is an improvisational drama, isn’t it? Our role is to roll with the punches and come up smiling. Some of the old movies such as “Mrs. Miniver” or “Random Harvest” are deeply entertaining because they imitate life as we know it. These cinematic masterpieces capture human resiliency, that widespread trait of remaining cheerful even in the midst of multiple setbacks. The British “stiff upper lip” or the American “don’t let ‘em see you sweat” are manifestations of the quality of our very lives. With apologies to the Bard, life is not a tale told by an idiot, but story borne of always getting up swinging before the end of the count.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Responsible Journalism

There is a big difference between telling a story believably and telling it truly. I had to learn the difference quickly in 2003 when I left higher education for a stint at journalism. I had published some fiction and one of the novelist’s main concerns is making his plot, characters and situations seem real. In other words, the fiction writer must discipline himself to be a great liar. William Faulkner, for example, said he was always such a convincing liar he had a lot of trouble telling the truth. An Oxford, Mississippi native, a contemporary of Faulkner, said the novelist once told her, “I create much more interesting characters than God ever did.”

Writers often excuse their prevarication by saying that their tales illustrate a deeper truth than verifiable reality. Perhaps a lie is not a lie when it is not intended to deceive. Our willingness to suspend our disbelief as we read a fictional story is evidence that we feel it is permissible for people to lie to us if the lie entertains. It seems particularly non-blameworthy if it enlightens.

A strange thing happens to fiction writers after they get into their plot: characters have a way of coming to life. In a way they take a kind of control of the story. The consummate American literary giant, Mark Twain, explained it this way to a little girl who had asked him how he wrote stories: “I create a few characters and turn them loose in a manuscript and before long I have a story completed and it never costs me an idea.”

But journalism is a different matter. The newspaper reporter has to deny himself, take up his notepad and record the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Oh, there are many times when he may be tempted to improve upon the story in a police report, or jazz up the proceedings of city council or organize the random thoughts of a politician—but he must resist the temptation. The “who-what-when-where-why” may seem bland, but those elements of verifiable reality must remain paramount in the reporter’s consciousness.

For this reason, newspaper people ask a lot of questions and make a lot of follow-up telephone calls. If his memory fails or if his penmanship is faulty, he has to do further research. With deadlines breathing down his neck, he tries to get the story right the first time, but he dare not go to print with incomplete data, erroneous details or garbled thoughts. The reporter becomes his own best critic, insisting that everything he turns in to be published would make sense to those with a basic English vocabulary.

When the reporter goes to the courthouse to attend a trial or to look at the circuit court docket, he walks on eggshells. He dare not err for three reasons. First, he must respect the absolute truth absolutely. Second, he must not offend his neighbor by getting the facts wrong at the expense of reputation. Finally, he is responsible to thousands of people who read his report and believe it—any swerving, deliberate or otherwise, has unknown but potentially profound consequences.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Royal Blood

Once when I was visiting her at the nursing home, Mother told me Sis and Stelle owned the place and that their offices were on the second floor. The facility had no second floor and her sisters Irene and Estelle had been dead for a decade, so her statement was deeply intriguing to me. I knew that elderly people sometimes think they see those who had gone on before. I had read Kübler-Ross, Moody and others on the subject and, in part, believed the results of their limited research. These scholars had interviewed numerous people who had been clinically dead and somehow revived to tell the amazing story of life after life.

“I’d like to see their offices, Mother,” I said, hoping to get a glimpse into the world of cerebral atrophy or maybe even into the reality just beyond our view. I wanted to put myself into my mother’s shoes. So Mother led me down the hall, walking with determination and purpose. When James, a resident with whom Mother had been spending a great deal of time, came buoyantly down the hall, Mother stopped and told James, “Oh, we’ve lost our way.”

James took her by the arm tenderly and led us to the recreation room where we had a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Mother was obviously deeply content in the presence of James. She forgot about the office of her siblings and focused on James, whom, I found out that day, was, in her mind, King of England and her husband. She said, “Son, you have royal blood now. I am married to the King of England.”

“And, who would that be, Mother?”

“James, King James.” She had a Polaroid photograph of him with a foil crown on, beaming as Valentine King. James smiled broadly, very obviously proud of himself for having won the yearly competition.

James did have a royal demeanor, I thought. He carried himself imperially and he was enormously popular at the nursing home with residents and staff alike. Even though he occupied such a high position, he was exceedingly humble, helping with wheelchairs, keeping an eye on the feeble at dinner time, making sure all received adequate nourishment. He was a good king and a good husband to my Queen Mother.

I am told that many elderly people have such fantasies. Often they see people who have gone on to their reward, like Sis and Stelle. Maybe in her mind her sisters were somehow assigned to the nursing home from their eternal office on high, and Mother had gotten a glimpse into the ultimate reality.

As to King James, I’m glad that mother had grandiose fantasies rather than the bleak and horrifying hallucinations some have. I think her walk of faith, her optimism and her determination to be happy led Mother, depleted as her brain had become, to the rich life she led, even to the end. When I think of her now, I imagine her at a third desk there with Aunt Sis and Aunt Stelle, doing the administrative work royals must accomplish.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Left Dangling

An acquaintance of mine in Magnolia was an avid bow hunter. He liked to go deep into the woods around the Dorcheat Bayou during bow season, climb a high tree in a good location and wait for the big buck to appear.

Once in the ‘80s he was doing his thing down in the most remote area of the bayou bottoms, having climbed a giant white oak. He thought he saw something move about a hundred yards away on the other side of his tree. As he was leaning out to get a better view, he slipped off his perch and dangled on the safety rope.

He didn’t have the strength to climb the rope and he could not swing himself back to the limb he had slipped from. He could, however, swing really close to another limb, and he thought he could swing out, cut the rope and grab that limb. After a little rehearsal, he performed the act. The knife didn’t cut through the rope as quickly as he anticipated and he missed the mark, falling a long way down to the forest floor.

The hunter was unconscious for awhile, and when he came to, he discovered that he was badly injured. The way I remember the report, he couldn’t walk and he was having abdominal and chest distress. He was out there in the middle of nowhere for a long time. Fortunately, his son-in-law knew that he was hunting near the Dorcheat. When he didn’t come home when expected, the son-in-law went searching, found his vehicle and tracked him as well as he could. He located him just in time and got him the treatment he needed. Apparently the man is fine now.

I hadn’t thought of that event in years, but I pondered that man’s state of mind there in his helpless condition this morning. You see, I had a troubling dream. I was in an apartment similar to one we lived in at Westerville, Ohio, except in my dream, the place was 20 stories high. I dreamed I was out on the small concrete patio overlooking a parking lot and facing another building. For some reason, I wondered if I could stand on the railing and get to the little patio on other building. Being a tall person, I thought I probably could. So, I risked it, and, sure enough, I had my hands on the railing of the facing patio and my feet on my own patio. But I was stuck. I couldn’t go one way or the other. The only way to go was down. Twenty stories down.

I knew I would have to make a move soon because my strength was failing. The only plan that formed in my dream was to push off with my feet and go on to the other patio. I don’t know how I came out, because the next thing I knew, I was eating breakfast in the safety of my own house in the woods in Arkansas!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Late Fall Spiders

Late fall spiders claim these hardwood woods,
Spitting stiff patterns thick to hold a year,
Trembling fat and yellow, hiding sleek heads
In bodies bloated by the sun. It must be fear
That makes the hunters bulge on through with barrels
Of blue, omitting mansions from the air,
Sending jewels down in sickly swirls
To lie in leaf-rot until with brief despair
They become the bottom where they are. My home
Was spun on autumn hopes as well, a place
To summon up a dream, awaiting some
Chill other-worldly stroke to bring my peace,
To ruin my dear design, and yet to give
Me back the earth where yellow spiders live.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Amphibian Utterance

I caught the tree frogs speaking in tongues at dawn
Today & have the interpretation. They say,
“Rain, but more than rain, will fall today--
Scales will fall from jaded eyes and gone
Will be your fetid blindness to the Word.”
Hear, oh boggy swamp’s inhabitants,
You willful, backward cousins, uncles, aunts:
The croak has come at last for you. The Lord
Will give no choice but clarity at last.
Not one tittle, not one jot will fade
From what the frogs have uttered in the glade.
So here and now proclaim a solemn fast
& heed the tree frogs’ holy admonition
To embrace your God’s well-lighted disposition.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dancing Shadows

Summer dies a somber death with skies
From blue to gray fading. Chill by dark
Sneaks through a tangled swamp to awaken sighs
Deep moaned from frogs. They hum to leave their mark
Before the quiet--that early autumn quiet,
The kind that bruits the fall of humankind,
The fall of year, the fall of summer’s fight
To burn away the fossils in your mind
To no avail. Prehistoric you
Cannot admit all life will go away.
The holy prints of all you’ve found to be true
Inside your spirit man hold perfect sway:
So you hoard an ancient shale of many mansions,
Detailed hulls of hopeful shadows dancing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bleeding and Dying on the JerryCo Road

When Jerry Company called Jones for the long anticipated interview, he was exhilarated, but also nervous and quite anxious. Interviews seldom went well for him, largely because of his tendency to become frantic on the inside. His palms would sweat, his heart would pound, the wrong words would spring from his lips before he could squelch them and his knees often smote one against the other. He had put all his eggs in the JerryCo basket, having prepared his resume with that company’s profile in mind. He designed his cover letter very specifically, almost cunningly, to make himself an attractive candidate for the top job in security at the company. So he was trying to develop strategies for staying calm during the impending stressful interview.

When the big day came, he wanted to be dressed and groomed perfectly: look good—feel good. He took extra time shaving and combing his freshly trimmed hair and carefully brushed the stylish but conservative new gray suit he had purchased on his one non-maxed-out credit card for the interview. Fully dressed and looking good three full hours before the scheduled interview, Jones stood before a full length mirror in his apartment and extended his hand towards the mirror saying, “Good afternoon—I’m Jake Jones.” He tried the sentence with various inflections and tones and with smiles that seemed to him at first too broad, then skewed and, finally, just right. He was an actor rehearsing for the big audition.

Jones lived in a second rate apartment only a few blocks from Jerry Company right on JerryCo road—the “road” was more of an industrial alley than an urban avenue, so the apartments were cheaper in this downscale environment. Since the interview was on a cool October day, Jones decided to walk to the company offices, breathing deeply, trying to relax, uttering positive, confidence-building phrases under his breath.

He had only made it a little over a block when three thugs, reeking of the night before, jumped out of the entry of a defunct lounge, beat him up and relieved him of his possessions, including his new suit. One of the bandits cut Jones’ face with a broken bottle of Wild Irish Rose. As Jones was bleeding and dying on the JerryCo road, two employees of the venerable Jerry Company walked by on the other side, in a hurry to get back on the clock after their lunch break, avoiding the calamitous scene across the way. Their routine was more important to them than they dying man on the street. After all, such scenes were not uncommon on that stretch of road. But a silver Hummer stopped and Reginald Jerry himself stepped out with a First Aid Kit. The president of Jerry Company cleansed and bandaged Jones, put him in the Hummer and took him to his suite of offices.

Jones awakened later that afternoon dressed in warm-ups on a plush couch in President Jerry’s office, with an attractive nurse dressing his wounds.

“Young man, what happened to you,” the executive asked.

“I was on my way to JerryCo for an interview this afternoon.”

“What position were you interviewing for?”

“Safety Compliance Officer, sir.”

“The job is yours.”

It was the easiest interview Jones had ever experienced.

Who was the good neighbor, the two employees or Mr. Jerry? The man in the Hummer you say? Well, go thou and do likewise.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bang Slough Breakfast

I didn’t start grilling fish until we moved to south Florida. I went fishing on my 55th birthday with a friend of mine in the biology department and landed a very large mutton snapper. The biologist said in his New York accent, “Dan, you are a southern boy and Jacque is a southern girl, but please don’t take that fish anywhere near a frying pan.”

He knew that for us, a fish supper meant shaking the meat up in a cornmeal mixture and deep-fat frying it, along with hushpuppies and French fries.

“How should I cook it, then?” I asked.

“Grill it, Dan. Soak it awhile in a little lime juice and put it on your grill. And don’t over-cook it.”

The realtor who helped us relocate down there had just killed a hog in the Everglades and brought me some sausage. As I was soaking my trophy fish in a pan containing a whole bottle of lime juice, I prepared some patties of the fresh sausage, placed it on the grill, and put some biscuits in the oven. When the pork was smoking really well, I placed the snapper filets between the patties and dripped a little more lime juice on them when they started looking dry. I cooked the meat until the sausages were done and the fish was flaking.

It was a wonderful, delicious meal. I thought our teenage daughter would only have a sausage biscuit, not being much of a fish-eater, but she tore into the snapper with gusto and even complimented the chef. Jacque told me to remember how I had cooked the fish. She loved it. Since that day over a decade ago, I have grilled a lot of fish. These days I leave off the pork and experiment with marinades other than lime juice, but everyone, northerner and southerner alike, enjoys the grilled fish, whether fresh bream, bass, white perch or store bought fare such as mahi-mahi or already prepared blackened salmon, which one can find in some grocery stores.

But I’m not over my love for traditional southern fried fish. These days, we usually go out to one of our fine local restaurants for that delicacy. One of my happiest memories, though, is that of a trot-lining trip to Bang Slough between El Dorado and Hampton. My father-in-law and brother-in-law and I camped down there and set out lines and yo-yos all along the slough. We ran them all night, taking off and throwing away bunches of trash fish and keeping mostly channel cat. By “trash fish” I mean grindle, gar, turtles and mud cat. Well, we kept some of the prettiest mud cat.

It was dawn when my brother-in-law got the grease hot. We had a fish breakfast almost as good as the one the apostles had at the end of the Book of John. I feel sure Jesus grilled the fish that wondrous morning instead of frying them, but I’m absolutely sure the Lord would have loved the southern fried catfish there on the banks of Bang Slough.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Exculpatory Vultures

This first cool August morning draws us away,
Down the path where buzzards celebrate
An armadillo’s passing. They prey and pray,
Aware they will share their reeking repast’s fate.
It is a merry wake nonetheless,
Not sailing off until convinced we mean
To crash their party, having learned, I guess,
That humans mess things up. They flap to lean
Into the breeze like lines of lean black smoke
Above this smoldering mundanity
Called earth. Ashamed of death, they would revoke
The sentence, destroy the evidence clandestinely.
Exculpatory vultures clean our land
Lest the disease of death get out of hand.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Red Tail

I don’t begrudge raccoons a chicken now
& then, but when they want one every evening
It’s live trap time. One night I caught a sow
So fat it took a spell of heavy heaving
To load the trap for relocation.
I trucked her to the lake three miles away.
Untrapped, she made a nonchalant migration
Through swampy vines to where I hoped she’d stay.
A fortnight later I heard a stir out back
& set the trap once more. I found at five
I’d caught the same old sow again, I think,
The same in attitude and oversized
At least. This time I sprayed her tail bright red
Before I dropped her off. Enough said.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Conversation at Lake De Queen

Come to nose the fresh green growth, five deer
Beside subsiding waters stand calm not quick
To sail away in air when we come near.
They munch a mouthful more before they kick
Up muddy spray in flight that seems so slow,
Though they are deep in woods before she says,
“Time is an illusion in its flow,
Seeming slow and yet. . .” Within her pause
I add my spin, “Time doesn’t flow at all
But sometimes gives us slack to contemplate.”
“I wouldn’t take it there,” she says, “because
The deer were moving fast--our minds were late
To grasp.” Late to grasp defines our lives,
For in our final grasp no time survives.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The tendency to get entangled marked the donkey Lucky’s entire life. He never even considered that disentanglement was possible. He never learned to avoid his problems. On the contrary, when he was in the vines, he seemed to figure out ways to make the tangles worse as he moved around in mindless, purposeless ways, with a benign acceptance of his fate. I regularly found him and cut him loose, but he was only mildly grateful, and forgot my act of kindness within seconds, treating me like the untrustworthy omnivore he was convinced I was. There was no way to make him understand that I would never eat a donkey.

We named him Lucky because he was born on Friday the 13th. My big brother flew his 50th mission over enemy territory in a B-17 on Friday the 13th and came back from his long entanglement in World War II unscathed, so, in my family at least, Friday the 13th is known as a good luck day. But Lucky the donkey seemed marked out for trouble from his early days. He was the unluckiest donkey I have ever known.

Lucky recently got shot in the back leg. I gave him antibiotic crumbles in his feed and started him on a regimen of penicillin. But early last week, when I went to give him some feed and a shot, he was down, once again the victim of entanglement. He had his good back foot in some vines and he couldn’t get up. His wounded leg, I discerned, was definitely broken. The bullet had made its irremediable mess of cartilage and bone. I had to do what cowboys do when equines have broken legs. It was the hardest trigger I ever pulled.

I have pulled the trigger on my own entanglements more than once in my career as a college administrator. Several times the trigger I pulled was that of taking a new job, getting a fresh start. The changes were not without risk, but the grass was indeed greener on the other side of the brambles, for awhile anyway.

But in higher education administration, it was my experience that people invariably got hung up in process and began to serve the structure instead of the student. These treacherous vines of process grew strong and held tight. And annual evaluations did little good. I used to advocate an evaluation system for college administrators based on outcome rather than process. I recommended that we hand out a form to evaluate administrators to students and faculty that asked two questions: Does the administrator do a good job? Why do you say so? You know, keep it simple. How could you get entangled in process with that streamlined approach? No one paid much attention to the recommendation. It was more fun to darken bubbles and run Scan-tron machines.

Of course, my old recommendation would require some thoughtful writing and no one wants to get entangled in that kind of thing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Explaining the Unexplainable

There are many things in the universe we cannot explain. Fully half of our experiences on this planet cannot be described without acknowledging the spiritual dimension. All over the world, people are increasingly interested in the spirit realm, even though faith in both science and religion is apparently diminishing.

Famous people like Tom Cruise and Shirley McLain fan the flames of spiritism and everywhere we see a rejection of the scientific method for testing truth. On top of that, some traditional churches, once bastions of belief in the spirit realm, are softening their teachings about many things, including the hereafter. And who has not heard about non-traditional Christian movements beleaguered by scandal and suspected of charlatanism?

I wish more people would stand up for rational discourse in seeking truth. Faculties at the vital seminaries encourage responsible inquiry and the tried and true research and analytical methods of the scholar. But we must not neglect other ways of gaining wisdom. Scripture speaks to us in ways that are deeply relevant to contemporary experience.

It is strange that such an ancient document as the Bible can speak so directly to our current circumstances, often in the least expected places. It comments upon the importance of unity for those who would follow the Lord, of the unique requirements for holy leadership, of the mysterious relationship between love and knowledge and of the eternal significance of every moment of our lives.

Even though Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were in the finest Babylonian school, Daniel had a skill that could not be taught in the academic disciplines—dream interpretation. This God-given skill led him to outshine all the pagan wizards, magicians, fortunetellers and astrologers of the day. He became famous as an outstanding scholar who was blessed with Heaven-sent insights and powers. King Nebuchadnezzar and others in authority often referred to him as a man who had the Spirit of God in him.

But Daniel tells the king that he should not think him wiser than anyone, but that his job is to help others learn. All of us are called to learn and to help others learn about things we cannot explain.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pop and Pop's Pop

Loy Swilley showed up at 408 East Fifth Street in El Dorado courting Mother when I was about six. My father had died a few months before I was born. Loy heard on the ship on the way back to the States from what he called “them islands” (off New Zealand) where he had been a Seabee in World War II that Mother had become widowed.

Loy and Mother knew each other before she married my father, so Mother recognized this energetic little guy when he knocked on the door, and invited him in, thinking he was selling something. There were lots of door-to-door salesmen just after the war. Loy stayed a long time, never coming to his sales pitch. Finally, Mother, who was ready for the visit to be over, said, “Well, Loy, what are you doing for a living?” Loy replied, “I drive nails.” That’s when it dawned on Mother that this master carpenter had come courting.

I thought his name was “Boy Swilley” for a long time. I would ask, “Mother, is Boy Swilley coming tonight?” The answer was increasingly yes. He brought ice cream, candy, boxing gloves, a football, bats and balls, all my brother Curtis and I could hope for. He would also, from time to time, hold me awkwardly—I was as big as he was—on his knee. He didn’t really want to, but he was trying to impress Mother by appearing to be good with children. He always had a fresh pack of Dentyne gum and he smelled of whiskey and Camel cigarettes.

Mother suspected he was a drinker, so when he proposed sometime later, Mother said, “I will marry you if you will quit drinking and build me a house.” Pop said OK so they got married. He didn’t quit drinking, but he built her two houses.
Pop didn’t like our dog Fuzzy very much. Curtis and I got him when we first moved to El Dorado. He was a Spitz mix, a black and white ball of fur when he was a puppy. I wanted to name him Teddy Bear because he had the markings of one, but Curtis wanted to name him Fuzzy, so we named him Fuzzy Teddy Bear Ford.

Once Fuzzy followed me to school. I had run him back home two or three times, but after I got out of sight and into the school, he came and plopped down right outside the door. The principal called the dogcatcher and he came to pick him up. My teacher let me go out and talk to the dogcatcher, but he said he couldn’t let him go because the principal had called them.

I went to the principal’s office to borrow the telephone and called Mother at work. She said for me to go back to class and that we would go get Fuzzy that evening. I hurried home after school and when Loy came home, we drove to the pound and there was Fuzzy in a cage. If he could have turned red, he would have. Loy got mad at Fuzzy for that and for barking at night. One night he got up and whipped Fuzzy for barking. I saw his hand bleeding when he came back inside and said, “Did he bite you?” Loy replied with just a touch of uncharacteristic sarcasm, “No, you know Fuzzy wouldn’t do that.”

My stepfather’s father lost his lucrative grocery store business during the depression and started peddling groceries all over town from a homemade pushcart. He had eight nondescript dogs that accompanied him every day. They made a formation around him similar to a military guard unit. If neighborhood dogs came out barking, these soldiers would turn them back.

Mr. Swilley rang a dinner bell as he traveled to alert housewives to his presence. He did a brisk business in every neighborhood on his route during the 1950s when I was a kid. As the women came out of their front doors, he called out a list of the fresh vegetables he had that day. By the time he got to our house three miles from town, he was generally out of turnip greens or collards or tomatoes. Many of these were fresh from his own garden.

Mother, who worked in town, told her father-in-law he was welcome to go into our house to get a drink of cool water, which he did on a daily basis. She always left several pones of hot water cornbread, his favorite, out for him. (He called them dodger biscuits). Mother also had a standing order with him for a small package of cinnamon rolls and a bunch of bananas.

In the summertime when I was out of school, I would hear his bell from wherever I was playing—at the park, in a tree, at the creek, behind the church, in the ditch—and go home to eat a cinnamon roll and a banana and visit with him.
He did and said the same things every day. When I came in, he always said, “Danny, you old booger, where have you been?” I always told him specifically and in some detail. He listened attentively, with no comment. Then he would say, “I brought you some nanners and rolls.”

Mr. Swilley then ate a dodger biscuit and drank a glass of ice water while I devoured a cinnamon roll or two and a banana. Then he took out his pocketknife and cut a tiny plug of tobacco and pushed it way back into his jaw. Then he always said, “Tell Miss Pearl I enjoyed it.” Then he went on down the road, ringing his bell, with his little canine army regrouped around him.

When he was dying, he knew it. He went to bed in his little house on Jefferson Street and relatives went into the bedroom one by one to say goodbye. When it was my turn, I went into the room that smelled like tobacco and Watkins liniment. Mr. Swilley said weakly, “Danny, you old booger, where have you been?”
Hiding my sudden emotion, I replied dryly, “In yonder in the living room.”

Mr. Swilley laughed. It may have been his last laugh. He died the following week. He was in his nineties.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Homeward Bound

My father was already the late Gordon Smith Ford when I drew my first breath on a crisp December morning in north Louisiana. His ruptured appendix left my mother a very pregnant widow who had a son 19, a daughter 15 and a son five. The older son soon went into the service and flew B-17s in World War II. The older daughter experienced a failed marriage and then served in the Women’s Army Corps. Mother was left with a 40-acre farm with mortgaged crops, my brother Curtis and me.

Mother loved the country very much, but, even with the help of elderly neighbors and distant kin, she couldn’t make a go of it, and eventually got a job in El Dorado, Arkansas, some 50 miles north of the farm. She rented the Louisiana shanty out for almost nothing and rented us a similar dwelling place in El Dorado. Every chance she got, she would take us back down to the farm to visit, to reminisce, to stop by the cemetery, to spend time with Gordon Smith Ford’s sister, Sister. Sister had a little store and gas station in nearby Cooktown. She was married to Clarence Cook.

She was always so glad to see Curtis and me. When we drove up in the old Chevrolet sedan, she would cry out, for all in Cooktown to hear, “Oh, there are my chillun!” Far from the accent most people associate with the South, her talk was rapid-fire and crisp. She sounded almost Scottish. (Sister lived to be almost 100 and had the fortunate genes that would not allow her hair, which she never cut but kept balled up, to turn gray). She didn’t marry Clarence until after child-bearing age, so she had to heap her maternal affection on other people’s children—and she did that wholeheartedly. Curtis and I always left Sister’s with a bag of candy from her store and a deep conviction that we were loved.

Because of Mother’s love for the old farm place, I venerated it as well—Curtis somehow didn’t. When I got to be old enough to stay away from home for awhile, I would go visit Donny at the farm neighboring ours. Donny neither had the loquacity nor the imagination of El Dorado boys. He confined his remarks to “sure is” or “yep.” When he did volunteer an utterance, it would be something like “I like sugarcane, myself.” Or, “I know where we can get us a melon.” On one of my solitary summer visits, I got very homesick, longing for Mother, movies, my bicycle, my dog Fuzzy and the familiarity of urban life. I was supposed to be down there for a week. Three days after my arrival, conversations with my laconic companion grew intolerable, so I told Aunt Sarah (the “aunt” was a designation of affection rather than kinship) with whom I was staying, that I wanted to go home. They didn’t have a telephone. She simply had Uncle Curt (some kin, but not an uncle; Curtis was named for him) drive me to the bus station in Ruston, Louisiana.

As Mother drove back to work from lunch that day, she was astonished to discover me lugging my suitcase towards home from the El Dorado bus station. She never did understand why I cut my vacation in paradise short to return to city life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dangerous Dave's Brave Dad

I team-taught a Sunday school class in West Palm Beach with the father of Dangerous Dave, world kickboxing champion. Dangerous Dave’s daddy and I became friends right after he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He invited me to go to the fights with his family to watch their highly accomplished son live up to his moniker. The only way Dave disappointed the crowd was by knocking his opponent out very early in the fight, usually in the second round. It appeared that he could not restrain himself from landing the ultimate punch early. Part of his strategy was to discover the other fighter’s weakness in round one and then exploit it in round two.

The father’s strategy in his bout with cancer was similar to his famous son’s. Immediately after the grim diagnosis, the father, who is a psychologist with a couple of doctorates, learned all he could about the disease. As a strong Christian, he entered into a time of prayer and fasting.

Instead of following his doctor’s orders and submit to surgery immediately, he took a non-traditional route, visiting an out-of-the-mainstream clinic in Boca Raton, just south of West Palm. Under their tutelage, he ate nothing but raw veggies for a time, used his blender to combine all kinds of fruits, only ate seeds and nuts as they were sprouting and took a lot of herbs and vitamins.

That was round one, the diagnosis and non-traditional treatment, beginning about 15 years ago when my friend was in his late 50s. Now, in round two, he has discovered the weakness in his opponent. From what he tells me, the cancer cells in his prostate live on testosterone, so he started taking a Chinese herb that kills that substance. The PSA has gone down, but there is some concern that the bad cells have escaped the gland. I’m hoping and praying that the man, like his ferocious son, will knock out his opponent in round two.

A few years ago, my own PSA was slightly above average on one of my visits to the VA in Mena, Ark. My doctor there sent me to the big VA hospital in Little Rock for a needle biopsy. I am glad to report that no cancer cells were discovered there. I do everything I can to get that PSA number down, because I certainly don’t want another needle biopsy. Even though the procedure lasted only about seven minutes, it seemed like several hours. It wasn’t exactly torture. I mean, I would not have revealed any government secrets had the doctor been the enemy, but I was certainly glad when it was over.

Fortunately, I didn’t even have to enter the ring in the cancer fight. If I ever have to, I shall follow the traditional route. I admire Dangerous Dave’s fighting skill. I deeply admire his father’s courage in following such a dangerous strategy. However, if need be, I’ll do what the doctor says and knock the culprit out in round one.

There was a man who grew roses in our Sunday school class. He said the best way to produce prize-winning roses was to make it impossible for disease to get a foothold.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Guardian of the Loaf

Language is alive. Words simplify themselves over time and meanings change. Four centuries ago, for example, the word let meant to forbid. Today, it means just the opposite. Not many years ago, when a young person said someone looked bad, the individual meant someone looked good. The word tough used to mean hardened and mean and I think it means that again today. But, when I was a teenager, there was a period of time in which tough was used to describe a beautiful girl, as in, “You’re going out with her? Man oh man, she’s tough!” That didn’t mean she was hardened and mean, but that she was a knockout.

The word “lord” comes from the Anglo-Saxon compound word hlafweard, which means guardian of the loaf. Hlaf became loaf and weard became warden or guardian. Warden and guardian are variations of weard. So a lord is a loaf guardian. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the changes in spelling of hlafweard, thereby showing the gradual changes in pronunciation: from hlafweard to lafweard to laward to lord. We still hear people in our part of the country pronouncing it laward. I say it that way myself when I am relaxed and talking to people I don’t need to impress by measuring up.

Back in pre-Roman Anglo-Saxon culture, the hlafweard was the man who owned and distributed the bread at meals or banquets. Interestingly, the word lady comes from an Anglo-Saxon form that means loaf dough—she was the one who made the bread for the hlafweard to distribute at meals. It is possible that these Germanic people had no plates until the French victory in 1066 introduced them. Before that, Anglo-Saxons probably ate off of bread. The lady would slop a dipper full of stew on the hunks of bread the lord had distributed around the board (as in room and board) and they had at it.

Maybe in 1611 when the King James or “Authorized” version of the Bible was printed, the word “lord” still had a little of this bread distribution meaning left in it. Whether it did or not, it was the perfect choice for a title for Jesus. The word itself contains a picture of the Lord distributing bread at that venerable supper, where the whole meaning of Passover changed forever for so many. The Lord himself was designated as the bread that came down from heaven, thus associating himself with the manna that fed the wandering Hebrews so many years before. The institution of the Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper is the central sacrament in Christianity, because the gospels report that Christ admonished his followers to eat the bread and take the cup in remembrance of him. And the fact that some faiths call Jesus’mother Our Lady is linguistically interesting considering the fact that the word lady designates the one who makes the bread, as I reported earlier.

So, as Christians remember the Lord at his table some 2,000 years after the initial event, many understand on a deep level that he remains the guardian of the loaf. And, miraculously, he is not only the one who distributes it, he is it—the bread that came down from heaven. He is simultaneously the guardian and the guarded.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Donkeys Teach

Just watching a group of benign donkeys teaches us some deep things about patience, endurance, serenity and flexibility. In fact, when a human works with these noble equines, he or she is in for an educational experience—often when we think we are teaching them, they are in reality teaching us even more. I learn a lot about human relationships as I spend time in the round pen with my long-eared pupils. Gaining trust, communicating accurately and rewarding right responses are essential elements in training donkeys as well as in developing good human relationships.

Gaining a donkey’s trust takes time and patience. Because these sturdy equines have such a strong sense of self-preservation, they are more cautious than most animals—they don’t want to get hurt. They know instinctively that humans are omnivorous, capable of having them for dinner. And, as dedicated herbivores, they have to figure out whether or not we can be trusted not to eat them. Once they are convinced we mean them no harm, they become docile and more or less cooperative. It goes without saying that in human relationships, trust is the essential ingredient. We can’t have any kind of long term compatibility with another person without it.

We have to keep in mind that donkeys can’t read our minds. We have to communicate very clearly, in “language” they can understand, what it is we are trying to get them to do. How stupid it would be to punish an animal for not doing what we want it to when the animal does not have a clue what that is. Usually, a donkey balks when it does not understand the trainer’s wishes or when it thinks some harm will come. Clarity of communication is essential. That is certainly true in human relationships as well. I have even known cases in which men and women deliberately misinterpret the words of the other—yes it often comes to that. The remedy is to back off, pause a moment, reconnoiter all the verbal skills you have ever learned and say, “Now, let me try to restate that. What I really meant was…”

Donkeys respond better to rewards than to punishment. If we carry a pocketful of treats and give the animal one when it responds to our requests appropriately, we get that behavior nailed down quickly. However, if we hit the donkey or even yell at it for inappropriate behavior, the equine interprets that as, “Hey, maybe he’s going to eat me—maybe I can’t trust this human after all.” So a reward system works wonders and punishment does not work at all. The analogy to human relationships is obvious. We love it when someone we care about brags on us and we hate it when we get fussed at.

So training donkeys has taught me a lot about human relationships. Without trust, we can’t have a lasting relationship. Thus, we should figure out ways of gaining and retaining the trust we so desperately need. Next, we must keep those lines of communication open. If those begin to shut down, we just need to be aware of the need to talk—about anything: just keep jabbering. Also, we should try to reinforce the positive aspects of others and not be so hard on the negative ones. The old proverb, “You gather more bees with honey than with vinegar” comes to mind. May I put forth a new proverb? What things so ever ye teach a donkey, that shall ye also learn.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What Time is it?

Most of us older people reminisce a lot. We like to tell ourselves good versions of the stories of our lives. But do we get the stories right or do we tend to fictionalize the past in a kind of benign self-deception? That is a deep question, but I want to tackle it here.

St. Augustine characterized time this way: the past is just a present memory and the future is merely a present expectation. If we accept that view of time, all we have is the now. But as soon as the word “now” is out of our mouths, it is already in the past. So time must be a durational, fluid entity that our finite minds simply cannot comprehend. For example, if we try to think of the beginning of all things, or the end of time, our minds go numb. Even the holy men of old resorted to elaborate metaphorical expressions to cope with the complexity of time.

But time does not always seem so complicated to us. I know what it is until someone asks me. When someone does ask me, though, I don’t know how to answer. Oh, I can quote Aristotle: “time is the measurement of motion,” and explain that clocks and calendars measure the motions taking place in our solar system. But I know that my state of consciousness at, say, 4 p.m. has nothing to do with clocks and calendars. My sense of time is not related to universal motion and, furthermore, it is immeasurable.

Sometimes entire segments of our seemingly forgotten past are recalled to our consciousness in an instant, even though the recollection does not seem momentary. For example, when I was a pre-schooler, my aunt used to keep me while Mother worked. At my nap time, Aunt Sarah always turned on the radio to listen to her soap opera. So daily, I went to sleep hearing organ music with a very wide vibrato, the theme song of the program. Now, whenever I hear such music—which thankfully is rare—I feel very drowsy and catch glimpses of the old day bed and the green wallpaper of my childhood. This phenomenon often happens not only when we hear familiar sounds, but also when we smell certain memorable odors or when we experience other sensations similar to those we have had in the past. Thus, our inner sense of time is compacted and recorded to be released involuntarily when we least expect it—nothing we ever experience is lost.

The famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that everything takes on pleasing form in the eyes of memory. Maybe there is within us some healing agent that preserves the good and banishes the bad—or at least modifies it so we can continue to live with ourselves. Time will tell. Our minds are good managers. Whatever time is, we accept it along with the consequences of being alive on the planet, allowing some benign subliminal agent to monitor a myriad of sensations. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Talking Southern

Southerners have a strong aversion to being thought stupid or naïve. Nothing burns our bacon more than people assuming we are slow because of our accent. My wife and I were singled out because of our southern drawls several times while we were living in northern California,West Palm Beach and Columbus, Ohio.
West Palm is really a northern metropolis, even though geographically it is way down south. We used to joke that south Florida is the only place in the world from which one must travel north to get to the south. There are so many people inhabiting the area from the northeast that a truly southern accent stands out like grits at a clam bake.
My wife has a beautiful south Arkansas accent, having been raised in the oil country around Smackover. She is one of those rare southerners whose accent does not change no matter where she lives. Many southerners who move up north are verbal chameleons; they come back down here speaking with a strange accent after a few years—but not my wife.
She served as a receptionist in a West Palm Beach private school for a period of time. Once she answered the telephone and a man asked to speak with the principal. She told him he was out, but left word that if this particular individual called to give him a rather detailed message, which she began to deliver. The man interrupted and said, “Isn’t there anyone else there I can talk with?” My wife replied, “Sir, I know I have a southern accent, but I’m not stupid. This is the message you are to receive. . .” He let her finish and hung up.
In Berkeley one time I got a free hamburger for talking the way I do. The lady behind the counter in the burger place listened to my order and said, “Are you from Kentucky?” I said, “No, Arkansas.” She said, “That’s good enough for me—the burger is on the house.” She indicated she missed the way the old folks at home talked.
On another occasion in California, my wife discovered that the restaurants didn’t put much ice in their iced tea, so she learned to order an extra glass of ice to add to it. Once when she did that, the waitress said, “Are you from Texas?” My wife said, “No, why, is that the way Texans order their tea?” She replied, “No, that’s the way they say ‘ice’.”
Later, we were taking a little vacation, driving up to Port Angeles to ride the ferry across to British Columbia. We were having lobster in a nice restaurant in Oregon on the way. My lobster was gone before my baked potato was, so I started dipping hunks of potato into the melted butter provided. I said to my wife in my joking hillbilly voice, “Sugar, you better dip your ‘tater in that butter.” I guess I said it a little louder than I thought, because everyone around us stopped eating and looked our way, as if I were E. F. Hutton. We laughed about that one all the way to Victoria.
Overall, Ohio people are more tolerant of our kind of talk, maybe because the state abuts Kentucky and West Virginia. I got looked at funny two times up there, once when I ordered unsweet without saying tea, the way we do down here and another time when I put salt on my watermelon. Apparently that is not done in Yankeeland.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In the Beginning

Chimps, gorillas, orangutans and a few other critters can learn sign language, but, even with the device they are quite limited in their ability to communicate. Maybe they can tell you what they want or what an object is. In terms of having a meaningful conversation about what it feels like to be a chimp, gorilla or orangutan, though, we can forget it. They don’t have the right brain structure for using language with any degree of sophistication.
More than anything else, our human capacity for speaking, because of the structure of our brains, sets us apart from all the other creatures on the planet. The more people talk to each other, striving to understand and to be understood, the more “human” they become. Our humanity improves as relationships grow more harmonious. In Genesis, Adam is the only creature given the capacity to name the animals and thereby have dominion over them. In the beginning was, well, the word.
Other life forms can and do communicate, some with considerable sophistication. Bees, dolphins and even the great apes do creditable jobs of sharing information. But humans are the only beings on earth that can communicate symbolically. That is, we can picture things that are not right before us and discuss them.
For example, I can say or write “Red bicycle leaning against a Christmas tree” and other English speakers and readers get the picture clearly. It is a symbolic utterance and it transfers a clear picture of something that is not really there.
Some may see a Schwinn and others a Huffy. Perhaps one sees a cedar and another an artificial Christmas tree. But, in general, my verbal statement causes others to vicariously experience my mental picture in their minds’ eye. It is the miracle of symbolic image transfer.
Language requires us to create in our minds eye what is spoken or read. One reason movies made from novels are seldom as enjoyable as the original book is that we like participating in the author’s creativity. We half perceive, half create as we read. By their nature, movies have to nail scenes down to a single interpretation, limiting possibilities and stifling imagination. There have been attempts to give multiple views in movies, such as in suspenseful courtroom sagas, but, overall, movies do not require much participation in the creation of imagery.
Further, our desirable participation in the creative process makes for interesting and lively conversation. As two people talk, each systematically reduces uncertainty in the other’s mind, until they see eye to eye. Thus, conversation becomes the basis of real community. Even when we don’t agree, with good language skills, we can at least make the other see our point of view.
What would happen to community if all humans spoke the same tongue? Would one world language help form a more homogeneous global community?
We may know the answer to that question in a few decades. Even today, English is considered to be the worldwide language of business and transportation. Though there are more people speaking Mandarin Chinese on the planet than any other language, I understand that English teachers are very much in demand in China. English has over 600,000 words, thanks to the entire French vocabulary being dumped into our original Germanic tongue after the Norman Conquest of 1066. No other language on the planet comes close to that number of words.

To Tell the Truth

The word “ethics” derives from the Greek “ethos” which means moral custom. Most of us understand ethics to mean simply doing what is right. But defining what is right is not always so simple in the new international culture in which we live. The world is shrinking. Moral customs are manifold and in various forms across the globe. What’s right for you may not be right for me. That dilemma is called, of course, moral relativism, where there are no absolutes. How can we have a universally agreed upon sense of ethics without moral absolutes?
I’m afraid the concept of situational ethics has come more and more into play. That is the philosophy contending that the end justifies the means. The situational ethics advocate, for example, would say, “It was fine for me to lie in that situation, because the lie brought forth ultimate good.” The political situational ethicist might say to himself or herself, “The important thing is for me to get into office so that good will result, even though my means of getting elected may be questionable.” When people abandon a universal code of right or wrong, a moral custom, they come up with their own definition of good and create their own means of achieving it, however shady.
In this kind of environment, some feel threatened by any hint of absolute truth. Some want to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Some want “In God We Trust” off of our currency. Some want to tear down the wall of Ten Commandments from court houses. Some get nervous when people pray in public. It is as if some Americans want to turn their backs on our very heritage, which includes highly motivated intellectuals bent on achieving and maintaining the freedom and independence by-productive of a Christian or at least a Deistic world view. In short, it seems as if America is becoming Europeanized.
I presented a scholarly paper at the University of Bonn a few years ago. The title of my contribution was “He Was Talking About Truth: Faulkner in Pursuit of the Old Verities.” In it, I contended that William Faulkner believed that the writer’s goal was to present the old truths of the human heart. The organization wanted to publish some of the essays in a collection called “Rewriting the South.” My work was accepted for publication. But, the editors softened my assertions about absolute truth and when the book was published, the paper read as if an atheist had written it. When I wrote the word Truth the editors wrote, “Faulkner’s sense of truth.” Essentially, the paper was about Truth; unfortunately, the editors made it about a mere literary concept.
If Truth is merely a concept, then, by all means, tear down the Commandment walls, take out any reference to a creator in our national language and, you will most certainly want to hide when you pray. This latter may not be a bad idea, considering that Jesus said our prayers were more effective when done in the closet.
I’ll reveal my closet prayer here today: “Lord, show us the Truth that sets us free.”

The Potter Fund Son's Pun

See my ring on my finger? Let this Louisiana boy tell you how I got it.
One day when Daddy thought I was out of earshot, I heard him tell my big brother, “Your little brother wants me to cash in the John Potter fund now, while the market is warm; what do you think?”
“What’s his hurry, Dad?”
“Told me he wants to go to Europe to learn about various cultures. Learn some languages. Sample the cuisine. He has become an excellent cook since your mother passed away, you know.”
“He’s up to something,” my brother said. “He knows it’s about time to cut the cane and he doesn’t relish working in the fields.”
“Don’t you ever get stir crazy here on the place and want to roam, son?”
“No, I enjoy making ribbon cane. Besides, I hate Italy. Tell you what, Dad. Oddly enough, there may be some inadvertent wisdom in cashing the fund now, though. I feel uneasy about some of the foreign markets, especially the doubtful investments Potter makes in Middle East concerns and Third World infrastructures. Go ahead and cash it in. I can get a good return on my share at the bank and in some bonds.”
“My personal belief is that one reason you go fairly safe mutual fund is to have padding if things go south. But, suit yourself.”
Later in the day on the patio: “Boys, I have called you here today to distribute the Potter fund money. Here it is.”
I said, “Thanks, Daddy. Wow! We picked a great time to close it out. And goodbye for awhile.”
My brother said, “I have a place for this.”
I flew to Europe, but I didn’t learn any foreign languages. Instead, I cultivated a three-year hangover and spent all the money, more or less foolishly, hanging around top notch restaurants. Then, out of necessity, I went to work sweeping up and doing general custodial work at a mediocre hotel in Nancy, France.
I came to myself one evening while picking pink toenail clippings out of the lounge carpet.
“I’d rather be supervising migrant labor on Daddy’s sugarcane farm than gathering these little rosebuds. I’m headed home.”
I caught a tramp steamer and worked my way across. I caught a ride from New Jersey to Memphis with a guy on a rice-burner who looked exactly like Elvis. I called Daddy collect then and he sent me bus fare through Western Union. When I got home, I said, “Daddy, just give me a supervisory job on the place; I know and you know I blew it big time in Europe, but I promise I’ll reform and do better.”
My brother said, “No, Dad, he should start at the bottom. If you hire him, put him on as one of my fire-stokers at the syrup mill.”
“That’s the dirtiest and hottest job on the place, son. It’s nice that you want to work with your brother, but I have other plans for him. I haven’t heard from him in three years and we all thought he was dead till he called from Graceland. After we have a party, inviting all the neighbors and all the hands, I’m giving him a job in the kitchen as a pastry chef. I’ve been so hungry for his lemon meringue pie.
I immediately made several and that’s how I got meringue on my finger.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Otis Shaw Passed

Otis Shaw died last week at 112 years old. I went to the funeral at the old Methodist church in Washington, Arkansas. His brother Truman played Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” by ear at the funeral. He learned a lot of music by listening to albums. When I got home, I looked up this interview I did with Otis a decade or so ago.
I found Otis Shaw on the steps of the Pioneer Grocery in Washington, Arkansas one recent Saturday. He cut a modestly measured chew from the corner of a Brown’s Mule plug and poked it back into his jaw. His blue eyes contrasted strikingly with his weathered face, which was surprisingly free of wrinkles for a centenarian. I asked for an interview about Washington’s past and he agreed to talk.

DF: When and where were you born, Mr. Shaw?
OS: Oh, call me Otis. I was born here in the country west of Washington, down yonder off 195 just a little ways from the Bois D’Arc Creek. December 19, 1898.
DF: You seem to be in remarkably good health for a person over a hundred years old.
OS: Yes, the Gazette has done already sent a lady up here to talk to me about that. Did you read what she wrote?
DF: No, I missed that.
OS: Well, it was a while back about my hundredth birthday. Get you a copy. What I told her was that I didn’t eat much meat; maybe that’s why I have not died yet. Sometimes in the fall, I’ll eat sausage with my eggs if someone kills a hog and wants to give me some, or a little bacon, but most of the time it’s vegetables. I imagine sausages are so good, they will make you die if you keep on eating them. You got to be careful of things that taste too good. Collards all winter. Sweet potatoes when I can get them. I love pinto beans and cornbread. Plenty of onions and peppers and tomatoes. Sometimes in the fall, crackling bread. People will bring me fish, sometimes. I don’t pay no attention to exercise, but I walk four or five miles a day just doing what I do around the place. I walk up here and sit on the steps a time or two a week. I just got eight acres, but it keeps me plenty busy. I plow a mule. I’ve got a big black mare mule out of a Percheron from a mammoth jack. I still milk, too. I got several guineas and some banties.
DF: What about your family, Mr. Shaw—wife, children?
OS: No, sir. I told you to call me Otis.
DF: No family living?
OS: You need to get you a copy of that Gazette article that was done on my 100th birthday. I didn’t ever marry.
DF: Tell me about your family.
OS: My Papaw, Otis, didn’t talk much. He was real old when I was a boy. I think he was about 50 when my Pappy was born, and my Pappy was nearly 40 when I came along. But Papaw loved to take me and my brother Truman in the wagon way off down on the Bois D’Arc Creek to a place he called the Cat Hole. You know, I can’t find that swell in the creek now to save my life. There was a hermit that lived down beyond the Cat Hole, and he kept it cleaned out. His name was Eddie Rice and he had him a pet rooster that could do tricks. I don’t know what become of him. Some said he died in Bossier City in a rest home. I mean, it was a good-sized pool down in there, north of 195, sand as white as them clouds. And there was some big old mud cat in there. We’d come home with a stringer every time and Mamaw would have the grease hot when we got there. She’d hear the wagon coming and put the lard on the fire. She didn’t have to holler, “Did y’all catch any?” She knew that if we was going to the Cat Hole, we’d be home with something to eat. That woman could cook, now! She’d cook them catfish and bream and sometimes grindle just right and have hush puppies, sliced onions, radishes, big old fried potatoes and some kind of vegetable, greens or beans.
DF: But did he ever tell you anything about his past?
OS: Oh, yes. You’d kind of have to piece things together. He would just kind of hint at things, you know. Like he took care of Jim Bowie’s two pack mules for him. He said they were great big old white mules with blue muzzles. He said they’d be 17 or 18 hands high. Big old mules. Papaw said them mules had heads the size of pickle barrels. Every time he come through here, Jim Bowie would have them mules packed out with deer and bear and sometimes small game. And from the looks of him, he ate plenty well, too. Papaw said he was a big bald-faced man. They got pictures of him over yonder at the gift shop. And he talked about how good Jim Bowie could throw a knife. He said he could strike a match throwing one of them swords James Black made for him at 25 yards. He said one day while he was grooming one of them mules, Jim Bowie hollered at him from down yonder at the edge of the Royston property and said, “Otis, come here, I want to show you something.” When Papaw got there, Jim Bowie was sitting on a stump with a little bitty pin knife open. A salamander was kicking up dirt about as far as from here to that catalpa over there and he threw that knife before that thing’s head came out and the knife got there at the very same moment the salamander’s head did and Papaw said he never saw a man laugh as hard as Jim Bowie laughed as that thing flopped around with a pin knife through its head. Papaw didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but he said that day he laughed to hear Jim Bowie laugh.
DF: Did your grandfather ever say anything about the knife-maker James Black.
OS: Some. He knew him and felt sorry for him. He was blind toward the end, you know, and lived with Dr. Jones and them. Kind of pitiful. Papaw played with his children and said he pumped the bellows for him sometimes. He said James Black could tell Bible stories better than anyone he ever heard. He said he learned more Bible at James Black’s feet than he did at the church.
DF: Do you know the story of how James Black was blinded?
OS: Several versions. My Papaw said Mr. Shaw, the man Black worked for, might have been somehow mixed up with our folks, I don’t know. Anyway, he was a strange man. Papaw said he was a brooder and that he thought himself better than anyone in Washington. He wouldn’t want no one fooling around with his stuff. He sure would not have approved of anyone as a fit mate for his daughter, Miss Ann. He whupped James Black when he was bad sick with high fever. But Papaw said his eyes was already bothering him before that. Maybe being close to the hot fire all the time and so forth kindly cooked his eyes. He went all over creation trying to doctor his eyes, but he got to where he couldn’t see nothing. Couldn’t remember nothing either
DF: Did your grandfather ever say anything about the Civil War?
OS: Yes, he did. He was right proud of raising money to help our wounded troops at the end of the war. He said they had a big old shindig and raised mighty near $50,000 to help those boys. The war hero I admired most was a colonel in the Hempstead Rifles, Dan Jones. I used to work for him on his place up where the Golsten’s live now—right behind the May place where that park superintendent lives now. He was real old and I plowed for him when I was young and did livery work a right smart. He had the best walking horses in this part of the country. He had him a great sorrel horse that he would ride around the place with a cup of coffee in his hand and he would never spill a drop, that’s the truth. That’s how smooth that horse walked. He had a dozen gaited mules, too, little bitty things, out of standard jacks and pony mares. His wife was an artist named Birdie Warder Jones. She was a pale gray-headed woman from way down below the Red. Her people had money. I got a little painting of willows she gave me hanging over my settee. She was mighty good to us. We didn’t have to worry about nothing.
DF: By “us” who do you mean?
OS: Me and Truman. Dan Jones said the Hempstead Rifles used to have to kill their own meat during the war. Once in awhile they would get jerky from Camden or maybe sometimes smoked ham. But most often, they had to kill their supper—possums and what not. One night Dan Jones was out stalking a little yearling sow when a great big painter cat knocked him down—that’s right, jumped down on him out of a sapling, sure did. Knocked his gun slap out of his hand and was fixing to chomp down on his neck. Dan Jones had a piece of raw hide hanging out of his powder pouch and he snatched it out and, with one hand on one end and the other on the other end, he pushed it into that painter’s mouth like sticking a bit into a horses mouth. Then he come a-straddle that thing, and commenced to hollering and scooting around through the saplings. When his fellow soldiers come up, there he was. They thought he was riding that thing like in a rodeo. He got quite a reputation. He wore a tooth of that painter in his hatband till the day he died.
DF: Excuse me, but what is a “painter”? Is that a panther?
OS: You heard me right. P-a-i-n-t-e-r. You don’t see them around here no more. I seen two in the Florida swamps. You know, I was mighty-near forty before I ever rode in an automobile. It was a ‘39 Nash, a pretty light green one that a man from Dallas come driving through here in. He said he’d give me and Truman a ride if we’d wash his car for him. Of course, we was all for that deal. I thought me and Truman was going to jump out of that thing when he got it up to about 35.
DF: What has kept you in Washington all these years. Have you ever wanted to live anywhere else?
OS: I hate traveling worse than the devil hates conversion. I got my dog, the mule, the animals. I got stuff to do. I like to sit by the fire in the winter. I read a lot, till my eyes play out. I like my church. I go up here to the oldest Methodist church on this side of the Mississippi. We got a good preacher. That man can preach, now. Knows hardware, too. We have a good time. Singing is good. You know, unity in the church is illustrated by the sound of singing. If it sounds unified, like one great voice, or two in cooperation, you know the people is in unity. Romans 15:5 says we ought to have a spirit of unity among ourselves. Naw, I don’t want to go nowhere.
(Otis got up and walked to the edge of the porch and got rid of a little tobacco juice. When he looked back at me, his eyes said, please let me enjoy my Saturday, now, so I did. I later found out from other Washington residents that his just younger brother Truman lived with him. He had taken care of Truman all those years. Truman is a savant who can wonderfully play any musical instrument given him. His instrument of choice now is the harmonica, which most people in Washington call a French harp. He can also recite long passages of scripture, some say the entire New Testament).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Back at Fairhaven

I quit doing the column for the De Queen Bee. It was entitled "What Dan Says" and I didn't have anything else to say to that paper. Anyway, I discontinued this blog for awhile, too, but decided to crank it up again.

We were in Westerville, Ohio for the better part of a year. I was an academic administrator and Jacque and I had a chance to get to know our granddaughter, Lola, God's masterpiece. It was a great time of reconnecting with the Ohio part of our family but it is certainly great to be back home at Fairhaven.

Today, Jacque and I picked blackberries and she made a great cobbler for supper. It was tart and sweet all at the same time. Just like life.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


The Tower was a teenager hangout in my hometown. The place had the kind of food we craved: big juicy hamburgers that gushed grease when you mashed them, substantial French fries, chili-cheese dogs, crispy onion rings and chicken in the basket.

It was a great place to pick up food if you and a hungry date were going to the “7,” a drive-in movie on Highway Seven. Every Friday night The Tower had a great special--six hamburgers for a dollar. And, you could bargain with the owner to substitute a couple of orders of fries or onion rings for a burger. The manager was a good guy and never made you feel like a cheapskate in front of your date.

One Sunday night after church a bunch of us went to The Tower to get some food. Several of us ordered chicken in the basket. As we were waiting, we heard the manger singing over and over back in the kitchen in mock-Italian opera style, “How many chicken in the baskets do you want?” So, I drew a cartoon on the check when it came of him with a chef’s hat on, chopping a chicken’s head off. When I paid my check, he laughed at the cartoon as if it were the funniest thing that had ever happened. “Danny,” he said, “can you paint that cartoon on the front window?” Of course, I agreed to do so.

I spent a fun Monday evening with my watercolors painting the jocund restaurateur slaughtering a chicken, singing his aria. In the weeks and months to come, he had me come paint other things on his window: specials, pictures of hamburgers, milkshakes, onion rings and whatever else pleased his fancy. He gave me a buck or two, or, if I wished, he would pay me off in food. It was a great, though not very profitable avocation.

And, word got around. There was a Mexican restaurant out on the highway owned by an kinsman of The Tower owner. He sent word that I should bring my watercolors and come to his place. I did so, and he wanted me to paint cacti, donkeys, adobe houses and vendors in panchos all along the top part of the windows. It took a long time. All I ever got out of it was a taco or two and a date or two with the owner’s daughter. Neither reward was terribly satisfactory, though I got a lot of experience painting cacti.

I only had one other window painting job and that was when I was in Germany in the military. A sergeant saw some of my artwork and asked me to come paint a Christmas scene on his window in base housing. I painted baby Jesus with a bluebird landing on his uplifted finger. I think I took the idea from a Christmas card. The sergeant and his family were pleased and he gave me five bucks.

I went back to The Tower after I got out of the service. The manager asked me if I were still painting windows. “No sir,” I replied, “houses.”
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sunshine State

Storms are prevalent in fall and spring. In the fall, winter wants its way but summer won’t relent. In the spring summer strives for dominance but winter is reluctant to let go of its long frigid spell. So battles rage in the throes of transition. But between the storms, the beauties of fall and spring are unsurpassed. That’s the way it has been in my life during times of great change: beauty in the background of the battlefield as a new season unfolds itself.

One such circumstance was when we moved to south Florida for my deanship at Palm Beach Atlantic University. There was a lot of work to do, both on a personal and a professional level. Moving is a chore and starting an academic unit from scratch, as I was required to do, was challenging. And yet, in the frenzied activity, physical, mental and emotional, we could look out over the ocean in the evenings and find peace.

Palm Beach Atlantic University was and is a beautiful place, probably the most lovely urban institution of higher learning in our country. Nestled in the heart of Palm Beach County, population one-million plus, it is a campus full of art deco buildings, palm trees, fountains, alcoves and stained glass windows. It was impossible for me to carry the academic burdens of the abundant meetings all the way across campus. I always walked very slowly and often paused to sit on a bench beside a tropical fountain to watch an ibis or gecko and my troubles would vanish in the warmth of the Florida sun.

One of my friends said this at lunch in the cafeteria one day. “Do you know how you can tell Dan Ford is walking across campus?” My lunch companions came up with several witticisms, but the one who asked the question gave his answer, “Observe the distance between Dan and a palm tree and if the distance decreases slightly in an hour, he’s walking.” There was considerable mirth expressed over my friend’s observation, but the benign ridicule did not quicken my pace.

I am in the midst of another transition even now, as I approach the threshold of old age. On the one hand, I’m having trouble admitting that I need to slow down, mainly because I think I’m going pretty slow anyway. On the other hand, I realize, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those that loved me, and alone. . . Always roaming with a hungry heart, much have I seen and known.”

So, in this autumn of my life, I know that the summer is hanging on, wanting to remain. I know winter is coming, but there is a storm within me resisting its cold. And, strange as it may seem to some, I sense a springtime, too, a springtime in which beauty is the backdrop to my slow walk towards a whole new kind of sunshine state.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


When I was a little boy, I used to follow Uncle Curt through the rows as he plowed. He had a huge work horse named Huey P. Long that you could plow without lines he understood the commands so well: get up, gee, haw, whoa and back up.
Uncle Curt delighted in snatching horse flies off Huey P. Long’s rump. It was a sight to behold for a young boy to observe the skill my uncle plied as he captured the pests and sent them to bug heaven with a snap. Uncle Curt hated horse flies more than the devil hates conversions and the big horse seemed deeply grateful for his master’s diligence.

I really liked it when we got to the end of the last row, because my uncle would pick me up and put me on Huey P. Long’s broad back. My legs went almost straight out. He would disconnect the plow and leave it under a little shed at the edge of the patch and I would ride the big horse all the way back to the barn, where Uncle Curt would disassemble the complicated harness. I would sit on a hay block while Huey P. Long got toweled off and brushed out. He would also get a little reward--a coffee can half full of sweet smelling feed.

Then, my uncle and I would sit on the front porch of the dog trot house (the kind of dwelling with a breezeway through the middle of it) and cool off. Aunt Sarah, Uncle Curt’s sister who lived with him, since both their mates were deceased, would bring us each a glass of cool water and a fruit jar full of watermelon hearts from the icebox. This refreshment was welcome after a long spell in the Louisiana sun. Uncle Curt would take off his straw hat and empty the sweet gum leaves he kept in it as insulation and fan us both with it.

Uncle Curt was a talker. I remember listening to adult conversations between him, my parents, and a couple of aunts. These people knew politics, baseball and scripture very well. They listened to news programs regularly and read the newspaper front to back. They could even recount what happened to Dagwood or the Katzenjammer Kids in the funnies.

Once on the way home after a visit, I asked Mother how far Esconcern was from the farm. “What, child? How far is what.” I explained that I kept hearing Uncle Curt and other relatives say “As far as Esconcern.” Then Mother got it. “No, son, we are saying, ‘as far as that’s concerned’.” I appreciated the clarification, but never understood the functionality of such an expression in a conversation. I preferred my vision of the city of Esconcern, perhaps just over the Texas border.

Uncle Curt died of cancer in a nursing home in Haynesville, Louisiana when I was a young adult. We went to visit not long before he passed away, and he was just as talkative as ever, and just as knowledgeable about news and sports. When he looked into my eyes that day, I knew that this enemy of horse flies was going far away, even beyond Esconcern.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Entering Modernity

My parents lived for a long time without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing and got along just fine. One of my earliest memories is the great event of electric lights coming to our home. My brother just older than I, always a quick wit, quoted the Bible when the lights came on: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.”
He had a way with Bible verses. In the little country church my family attended, children were supposed to memorize an assigned verse during the week and they were brought forward in the Sunday school assembly to recite it. Once my brother’s assigned verse was, “I was glad when the said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” His rendition of the scripture provoked a lot of mirth in that solemn assembly. It was, “I was glad when the told me to get under the church house.” My brother immensely enjoyed having entertained so well.
The very next Sunday, the verse was a much simpler one. Maybe the Sunday school teacher wanted to avoid any more comedy, so she picked a short verse. Her plan didn‘t work. The verse was, “We are helpers.” Of course, my brother’s version was, “We are heifers,” and, much to the chagrin to the serious-minded teacher, the congregation howled and another mischievous child mooed.
It was not long after we got electricity on the farm that we moved to the city. There, we had all the modern conveniences. I recall being afraid of the bathtub. I had always bathed in a number two washtub that, in the winter time at least, would require Mother’s regular addition of boiling water to the tepid contents. The reason that new fangled bathtub was so frightening was that when you pulled the plug, it made a gurgling whirlpool that, in my mind, at least, could suck you under.
I am sure Mother felt very smug and sophisticated in our new place with all the amenities. I remember going with her to the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. One of the series of films was about the time Pa won some kind of contest and was awarded a new home with all the modern conveniences. They didn’t know how anything worked and the humor came from their superimposition of their old country ways onto the latest technology. I don’t think I ever heard Mother laugh any louder than she did at that movie. Sure, she was laughing at the characters on the screen, but she was also laughing at herself--at all of us.
Even though we were living a comfortable life in town, Mother held onto the old farm place and rented it out for a little bit of nothing. When she remarried, my new stepfather, a carpenter by trade, saw the place as a potential getaway only 50 miles to the south. After they got rid of the renters, Pop really fixed the old place up, adding plumbing, a well pump and other needful accouterments. Our family spent many happy weekends down at the farm. We even had a television set there. Let there be “I Love Lucy” and there was “I Love Lucy.”
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ham and Eggs

A decade ago, I took a job at a college in my old home town. Shortly after my duties started there, I was walking to the library, across the street from the administration building where my office was located. An older gentleman with a raspy voice stopped me, introduced himself and started a conversation that went on so long that we sat down on a bench in front of the library.

“I used to live over on Fifth Street when I was a kid,” I told him.

“Did you sure enough? I lived across the way behind Charlie Murphy’s house.”

“Really? Did you know Modine Edwards?”

“Modine? Yes, I certainly did. She was a fine woman. She passed a few years ago. Good while ago.”

“Yes, she took care of my brother and me while my mother worked at the bank.”

“Well, you got some good upbringing if Modine had anything to do with it.”

“You are right about that. You know, I learned to swim in Charlie Murphy’s pool.”

“Did you sure enough? I used to cut Charlie Murphy’s grass down there around that pool. You might have seen me way back then.”

And so the conversation went. I vaguely remember a young man that used to mow Charlie Murphy’s grass, and I assumed that was the guy.

A few mornings later, I was in my office and my secretary came in and said there was a man there to see me. It was my new acquaintance. I was working on a pressing report at the time, but had her send him in.

He sat down and began a long stream-of-consciousness diatribe that became more and more bizarre as he talked. It had something to do with a previous co-vivant, a law suit, a difficulty with bill payment. He began to quiz me about local attorneys, which ones I would recommend. I told him I didn’t know anything about lawyers in the area and hoped I never needed one. It was then he said in a loud rasp, “I want some ham and eggs.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Should I make a joke of it and say, I just happen to have some ham and eggs here in my drawer? Should I offer to take him to breakfast? How should I handle the situation? So, I started to act busy, which I should have been anyway, looking down at my report and scribbling something.”

“I want some ham and eggs,” he said louder.

“Well, sir. I want you to have a great breakfast over at the place that used to be Woody’s across the street.” I stood up and walked to the door.

“I want some ham and eggs,” he said, as he walked out. I hope he got some.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Shinola Coffin

I’m not sure why children always want to have funerals for their pets, but they do, and they are quite serious about it. Most kids are inexperienced with such events, so they go by what they have seen on television or in the movies and make up a somber decorum of their own.

I had an involuntary remembrance of one such funeral of my childhood when I was in basic training in 1959. What brought on the sudden flash of memory was a spilled bottle of polish that we used on the edges of our boot soles to make them shine. (It was impossible to spit polish the sole edges the way we did the boots themselves, so the barracks furnished several bottles of the potent shoe sole polish that we shared). The containers looked like king-sized versions of Shinola liquid shoe polish with which I had been familiar as a civilian. But the contents of the big bottles gave off a much brighter gleam when applied and dried.

The Shinola shoe polish packagers of my youth had a great idea. There was a little bottle-shaped tear-out section of the box the product came in, into which one lodged the container to keep the liquid from spilling. The box provided a secure base against tipping. The big bottles we had in basic training had no such safety device, and, as I was removing the dauber one evening, I spilled about half a bottle on the barracks floor.

It was at that moment that our childhood pet funeral was borne in upon my consciousness, as if the event had happened just days before. I was seven and my brother was 12 at the time. Bush hogs were clearing an area near our home to make a park. (My street was named Parkway Drive, so they had to make a park). After the workers had gone home for the day, my brother and I found a baby rabbit in the stubble, its tiny sides rising and falling with life. I guess the doe rabbit got the rest of the litter out of there before the dangerous humans returned.

Mother said we could keep Uncle Wiggly. My brother named him that on the way back to the house from the soon-to-be park. He doubtless imagined that the little rabbit would grow up to resemble the handsome rabbit on our board game, but that never happened. Mother advised that we should feed it Pet Milk with an eye-dropper. Even though Uncle Wiggly didn’t want any Pet Milk, we forced the issue, until his little sides stopped rising and falling with life.

The Shinola box lined with cotton made a perfect little coffin for our short-lived pet. I sang “You Are My Sunshine” at the funeral under the gum tree and my brother preached. I don’t remember what he said, but, whatever it was made me feel comforted. I briefly had that good feeling at basic training until the drill instructor started yelling at me.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Art of Boyhood

We made our own fun when I was a boy. The drainage ditch behind our house was the source of several enjoyable pursuits: clay for molding, crawdads for catching with a hunk of dry salt meat, “quicksand” for sinking in and banks for digging caves.
My best friend and I made Native American settlement from clay, sticks, paper and foil down by the ditch under the shade of a sweet gum tree. We used watercolor on the clay figures, giving the braves war paint and providing their pinto ponies with realistic splotches. The foil created the illusion of streams and lakes and intricately decorated paper bags became teepees. We made little boys fishing in the ponds with twigs for poles and their mothers cleaning fish in front of their wigwams. Also, before we tired of the project, we had molded a fairly large herd of buffalo. These were just suggestions of the beasts, without much detail. Once we had given the adults a tour of the exhibit, we became cowboys and had great fun wiping out the village with BB guns and dirt clods. We hung onto a few of the finer figures, but most of them went back to dust from whence they came.
A little later, my friend found a tree in the nearby woods that yielded very good bows and arrows. I’m not sure what kind of tree it was, but I remember big horse apples nearby. It could be that we were making our weapons from Osage orange (bois d’arc), the actual material used by the Caddo and other tribes. We fashioned a lot of these, decorating them and ourselves with berry juice and feathers. We looked more like the Indians of the movies than the actual noble people Hollywood misrepresented. I came upon a very nice way of making arrowheads: driving a finishing nail into the end of the arrow, then beating it flat with a hammer and shaping and sharpening it with a file. Those arrows would stick into anything! I would not have allowed my children to play with such dangerous toys. But, we somehow knew that we should be very careful with our creations and we were.

Much later, when my wife and I were cleaning out the old house I grew up in, I found some clay figures from our long summer days at the ditch. One of them was my own creation, a bust of a very primitive-looking man. He had a heavy forehead, deep-set eyes, small knotty ears and a blank gaze that seemed to say, “I am mysterious and unfathomable.” The only thing that didn’t seem quite right was his rather menacing grin, showing a few misshapen teeth made of pea gravel. The old guy was either grinning at his young creator or sneering at what I had become. Either way, I wish I had included him in the destructive raid of so many years ago. Some works of art are not meant to last.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Road Trip

My widowed mother took a job in a town 50 miles from the subsistence farm we lived on and moved us there when I was three. I still remember the trip up there in Mr. Parnell’s old hissing and popping farm truck. A good crowd had gathered to welcome us: one of my cousins, some neighbors of various complexions, a widow that lived on the wooded hill behind our rent house and her reclusive artist sister, whose studio was visible from our back porch.

Mother left me with the other widow fairly often when she went to work until she was able to employ Modine both to keep house and baby sit. When I was at the other widow’s house, I gravitated to her sister the artist’s studio as often as possible because she was an interesting person who made few demands on a kid and genuinely enjoyed my company. She wore a large hearing aid that did little good and chain smoked cigarettes, seldom removing them from her lips. She would sketch and talk and laugh and satirize church people (the way they dressed with “their little bonnets,” the way they avoided her and they way they were hearers only and not doers). Of course, I didn’t know the word “hypocrisy” at the time, but I understood her point completely.

The summer after first grade, my artist friend asked me if I knew Miss Dyer, who taught music at the school.

“Yes, m’am, she came to our room and taught us “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “Are You Sleeping.”

“I’m going to walk to her house. Will you come with me?”

“Where does she live?”

“Over on Quaker Street.”

“Yes, m’am. I’ll go with you.”

So she lit a smoke and we set out on our rather long journey. She laughed and talked the whole trek, making jokes about the big houses and manicured lawns on Madison Street. Of course, I didn’t know the word “ostentatious” at the time, but I understood her point completely.

Quaker Street was just a gravel road back then, and Mrs. Dyer lived way out there. I remember stopping at a little grocery store, where my artist friend bought me an RC and one of those little cans of peanuts with money in it as a prize. It looked like a snuff can. We had a lovely time sitting on the porch of that little store, she smoking and talking and I giggling and deeply enjoying the unexpected repast.
When we got to Miss Dyer’s house, she greeted us, called me by name and brought out a tray of cookies and a pitcher of water. The two gifted ladies had a wonderful visit while I petted a cat named Mozart under the Chinaberry tree. I don’t remember the trip home.

Thoreau said he didn’t want to come to the end of his life and discover he had not lived. Both these ladies have long since passed on. I am sure they truly lived. I am sure they live. Of course, I didn’t know the word “mentor” at the time, but my life was enriched by more than one.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Watch Out for Fools

Paraphrasing scripture into modern English has been done extensively, but, somehow Proverbs 18 cries out for a fresh modern paraphrase, so here goes:

If someone is not friendly and treats you rudely, more than likely that person is out for personal gain and does not care about others. These people lack sound judgment because they do not care how their actions appear to others. They never evaluate their relationships with a view to correction. In fact, because of their blindness of how others see them, they could possibly be fools.

Here’s how you can tell if people are fools: they take a lot of pleasure in articulating their own opinions without facts or experience to back them up. They do this with no sensitivity at all. If they stay on this path of no self-examination, you can be sure wickedness will follow and good people will ultimately hold them in contempt. They will be disgraced and their shame will come too late for correction. The awareness of their folly will cut them deeply, since there is no way to go back and undo or unsay what they have done or said.

The fool’s opinions can be compared to people who wade out too far into an unfamiliar lake, expecting the water to stay shallow, but when the drop-off comes, they suddenly discover that they can’t swim. In other words, they very quickly come to the end of their own knowledge and find that they can’t fake it any longer. Wise people, on the other hand, are like a bubbling brook, sending out a constant stream of well-founded talk, not too deep and not too shallow; their words ring true. Their honesty attracts followers.

It is easy for the fool to gain favor with many, because of fine words that please the ear. But ultimately, those words deprive the innocent of justice. Strong justice that will inevitably come upon fools involves strife and defeat. These people’s mouths are their worst enemy, especially when they themselves begin to believe their own lies.

It is one thing to report and quite another to gossip. Just as fools like to make their words sweet, the words of a reporter who is a mere gossip are like spoiled gourmet food, they go to the hearer’s inmost parts and do damage.
Moreover, a lazy person who depends on the labor of others is the same as someone who destroys.

Even in the midst of fools (gossips and lazy people depending on those in high places and those who trust in riches) good people have a sanctuary: the authority of God. That authority is like a strong tower of safety.

In that tower of safety, good people learn these things: never answer before listening. If your spirit is healthy, your body will respond. Good people try to be wise. Generosity returns favor. Those who cannot agree should not confront each other. Don’t hang onto any insult—let it go. What we say has eternal consequences—be careful. Marriage is good, because God intended it. No matter how many friends you have, your truest friend is the Lord.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My City is Eternal

The bass guitar riff that opens “My City Was Gone” by The Pretenders sticks in my head like goat weed seeds all day long sometimes. I’ve been wondering why this bass melody has that kind of power over me and I think I know: it says plod on, Dan, just keep on trucking, not in a stubborn way, but determined to fulfill your purpose on the planet.
Now, I don’t think the lyrics of “My City Was Gone” have much to do with that conclusion. It is a song about an adult going back to Akron, Ohio, her childhood home, and seeing that the whole town was very different. The train station was gone, businesses had been torn down and replaced by parking lots and, in general, it was an ugly place, nothing like the romanticized nostalgic view most of us have about our hometowns. It is a dismal realization.
I certainly experienced a similar disappointment when I returned to my hometown after four years in the military. In the name of progress, many of the old establishments were gone and new factories had sprung up, leaving a blacker air. American Oil’s refinery had become a place that burned toxic waste and the park where I used to play had become a Third World flop yard. The theme song for that disappointment might be one by a punk rock tune like Talking Heads.
But, what is attractive about the bass riff in “My City Was Gone” is the regular rhythm, the dogged repetition, the intermittent variations and the feeling of progress by small increments. It is as if the guitar is crying out, “Small moves; be patient; don’t be discouraged; you are getting there; believe in yourself,” and other encouraging words.
I am not sure why Rush Limbaugh uses that riff to open his radio show. I have read that he pays a steep royalty to The Pretenders for its use. Of course, he can afford it. But I think the reason must be that same sense of optimism in the midst of despair that the song is about. The riff is not gloomy at all, just persistent. So, when the vocalist comes on lamenting the demise of an American city, there is a certain incongruity involved. Naturally, Mr. Limbaugh cuts the riff off before the vocal starts. I think what he must be after is the “plod on” aspect of the music. Limbaugh seems very certain of his purpose and calling on the planet and he reiterates it frequently on the show, so he plods on, determined daily to fulfill his perceived purpose.
As a Christian, I know my purpose is to stay in love with God, try to love others, helping them to see their own purposes and to tell others about the Truth as I have discerned it through study and spiritual experience. So, I’ll be plodding on for God, not in a stubborn or obnoxious way, but with great determination to fulfill my purpose on the planet. When I get home, I know my City will not be gone!
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.