Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bellicose Equine

I ran into the wise old man at the Sushi place in Texarkana yesterday. We had both just seen the movie “War Horse” and were soothing our disgruntled critical spirits by spicy red tail and sesame salmon rolls. He didn’t like the movie and was reluctant to talk about it when I first joined him at the Japanese feast, but he mellowed as he munched on the artistically arranged fare.

“What was it about the film you didn’t like?”

He readjusted his chopsticks and replied, “Well, Dan, I think when a modern movie becomes more dependent on technology than on the skill, I mean the ART of storytelling, things go awry. That’s apparently what happened in “War Horse.”

“You mean the explosions and the realism of the way World War I was depicted?”

“Yes, I mean that, and I also disliked the slickness of it. You know that absolutely perfect period costumes, military uniforms, weaponry. It was as if the filmmakers wanted you to say, ‘My, what an artful job of depicting,’ rather than the more desirable, ‘What a wonderful job of storytelling.”

“I felt that the movie tried to tell too many stories.”

“Yes, Dan, I felt that, too, and I also think the actors worked too hard on their accents, so much so that I missed half of what they said.”

“I thought I was the only one. I blamed it on my hearing aids.”

“No, ask anyone who saw the film without captioning what the dialogue was in certain vital scenes, and I’d wager they couldn’t tell you. The farmers, for example, concentrated so hard on the glottal stop ‘t’ that they sounded like they were gargling.”

“Well, sir, I thought the episode in which the little French girl and her grandpa tended the horses was touching, I mean, in a fairy tale sort of way.”

“Touching, but contrived, Dan. No French farmer ever looked and acted so downright, well, French. Also, the girl was just too contemporary.”

“Was there anything about the movie you liked?”

“Emily Watson who played the farmer’s wife is a brilliant actor. Her only problem was the contrived accent. She emphasized the wrong sounds in an effort to be authentic. But her facial expressions told a story all its own—a mother’s empathy and longsuffering.”

“I agree. I believed the mother more than any of the others. I didn’t like the anthropomorphism. I know a little about equine training, and the way the movie showed that is way off. I never knew a horse that would learn by watching a task done. They have to do it."

The wise old man dipped his last roll into the sauce and said, "Steven Spielberg used to know how to tell a story. "Close Encounters," "Catch me if You Can," and movies like that, ones that know the story and tell it, will last. This Bellicose Equine foolishness won't."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy New Year

Happy New Year.

Happy—when I see that word I think of a fluffy puppy wagging its stub of a tail or a radiant child in receipt of exactly the hoped-for bicycle or a joyous senior citizen, holding a new grandchild or great-grandchild or a fulfilled though exhausted pastor with an altar full of responders to the Word or a determined teacher who sees light bulbs going off above the heads of once recalcitrant pupils in spite of the many unteacherly, administrative duties required of her or a committed young scholar unwrapping the offprint of that first publication or a haggard doctor witnessing the recovery of an iffy patient or a rekindled middle-aged couple reconciled after a moral failure or of a homeless family still together when Dad comes to the shelter with the good news of a permanent job or of an unappreciated city official, loving his community anyway. Happy means tail-wagging, wrinkled grins, warm hearts, the good kind of pride, satisfaction after it has been long-denied, unselfish labor on behalf of others, a heart full of forgiveness and hope after despair.

New—when I see that word I think of how nature itself perpetually renews and modifies positively, of how even in old age people can be refreshed by launching out on ventures never dreamed of in youth, of how old passages of Scripture one has known since Vacation Bible School can take on new meaning and speak directly to us from the heart of God, of the creative spirit of gifted teachers, who spontaneously and often subversively try new ways of teaching, respecting the individuality of their students more than the “how-tos” of education courses or guidelines, of new ways of fragmenting reality that result in contributions to knowledge by tenacious scholars, of medical advances that save lives and give hope, of new starts for troubled families who learn to let bygones be bygones. The word new means obeying nature, being bold, seeking Truth, being creative, contributing through unique giftings, healing hurts and restoring families.

Year—when I see the word year, I think of the worn path the earth takes around the sun, the long space journey, that ancient trip that has so many consequences seasonal and otherwise on our space vehicle, the earth. When I see the word “year” I think of happy birthdays for children and the elderly, of anniversaries, marked by recommitment, of medical check-ups that give correction and encouragement, of celebrations in the church year that remind us systematically of spiritually significant events in history that come true for us in the present, of time as a measurement not only of universal motion, but as a reminder of our own mortality. Our time in this dusty space suit is in decrescendo mode, heading toward arrest and epitaph, which will leave empty words like “Rest in Peace,” awaiting that great day when the miracle of the ages will help us finally obey the Biblical admonition, “Put on Christ.”

So, as your fellow passenger on our journey together, let me say, wholeheartedly, Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hidden Technique

Although O. Henry is known as a popular writer rather than a literary artist, we do find examples of unequalled storytelling in his voluminous work. He wrote mainly for newspapers and his constant modus operadi in his syndicated pieces was surprise endings. Many of us remember the shock of the ending in his “Gift of the Magi,” that frequently anthologized story about the man who sold his precious heirloom watch to buy his wife a comb for her lavishly beautiful hair and his wife who sold her treasured hair to buy him a chain for his watch. I have read that O. Henry searched everywhere for true stories he could embellish for his column and he even asked friends to be on the lookout for material he could use. Of course, many of his tales came directly from his rich imagination.

One of his imaginative stories, “The Furnished Room,” is my favorite in that it contains not only an elaborate surprise ending, but artful characterizations, riveting descriptions and a very keen vocabulary. I mean, he uses words such as “fugacious,” meaning passing quickly, “viscid,” meaning sticky and other words that would send most of his readers to the dictionary. But, as to the surprise ending, it is unsurpassed by any work of American literature to date.

The story goes this way: a young man searches the low-rent district of New York for someone with whom he was in love. O. Henry only gives hints of what went wrong in their relationship, but the young man wants to find her in view of reconciliation.
One furnished room is available in an area the thinks she may living. He rents it from the lady manager, who is a bit evasive, but is also a good salesperson. In the room, the young man begins to feel the mysterious presence of his beloved and smells the unique odor of her favorite perfume. He becomes so despondent that he closes all the windows and turns on the gas.

Then the story turns to a conversation between the lady manager of the rooming house and her friend over drinks in the evening. The friend asks if she has rented the room in which a young lady had recently taken her life. She says yes, just today I rented it to a young fellow who was very eager to find a young woman he described as similar to the one who died there.

It is a morbid story, but one in which the surprise ending works beautifully. There are very few hints leading up to the ironic conclusion that both the estranged lovers found their way to the same location to end their lives. An early literature teacher of mine used to say, “The finest art covers up art,” meaning that an artist’s technique should be subtle and hidden. If what that teacher taught is true, then “The Furnished Room” is as artistic as a story can be. It goes to show you that even prolific newspaper writers can hit just the right note at times.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas Away

My first Christmas away from home was in Germany. The military made efforts to make Christmas special for the troops; instead the meager decorations and the trumped up Christmas dinner in the mess hall, made most of us miss Mamma’s cooking and the comforts of home even more. I’ll have to give it to the mess sergeant, though: he roasted a bunch of turkeys and the drumstick I got was very delicious. He didn’t seem to sacrifice quality with the large quantity he was obliged to prepare.

The airman’s club had a special program that first Christmas and the main attraction was a group called “Bill Haley and the Comets.” That’s the group that made “Rock Around the Clock” famous. They were already old hat, a group from yesteryear, as the DJ might express it. But the rhythms and the loud electric guitars brought a warm nostalgic feeling to those assembled, especially the older guys, who had been teenagers in the early 50’s when Bill Haley was at his peak. Just after Christmas, the club brought in the venerable comedian Morey Amsterdam. His responses to hecklers were the most memorable part of his performance. I remember one of those responses as if it were yesterday. One newly arrived recruit up front close to the stage was giving Morey a hard time. When the comedian had enough, he simply said, “Son, go rub ointment on your pimples.” That shut him up.

Another good thing the military did to make Christmas special for the troops was to give us some time off. We had leisure to play some pool, to watch the dilapidated old television downstairs in the barracks, to catch up on letter writing and to listen to Armed Forces Network on the radio. My favorite radio program was called “Stick Buddy,” and it was country music, you know, your buddy from the sticks. One of my friends insisted that it was called “Stick Buddy” because, in the Air Force, pilots called their co-pilots stick buddies, because the operating apparatus of the early airplanes was a stick. I could never get a pilot to affirm that intelligence, though. The “Stick Buddy” radio program had a theme song that went, “I don’t want to be lying in bed when they pronounce me dead…I don’t want my hat to be hung when my last song is sung…I won’t be planting potato slips when I cash in my chips, etc.”

We also got a daily paper over there, “The Stars and Stripes,” which was, of course, modeled on the kinds of newspapers we were used to back in the states. I particularly enjoyed the comic section, especially the Beetle Bailey strip. So many things in those clever drawings and dialogue were very much like what actually happened in my unit. We had a sergeant that looked for all the world like Beetle’s Sarge and he didn’t like it at all if we posted a clipping from Beetle Baily on the bulletin board. He never said anything, but the cartoon never remained posted from one evening to the next morning.

Sometimes even now, when I read the funnies or hear a clever country song or bite into a succulent turkey drumstick, I have an involuntary bittersweet memory of my first Christmas away from home.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Travel Trouble

My advisor at Southern State College told me he would hire me if I went away and earned a Ph. D. in English. I did and he honored his word and offered me a job. The money from my three-year fellowship to Auburn had run out by that time and we were strapped for cash. I was looking for economical ways to move back to Arkansas.

A friend had a boat trailer for sale that he had converted into a utility trailer. He wanted $40 for it, and although that was a significant amount in 1971, I came up with it and bought the trailer. I underestimated the amount of stuff we had accumulated in four years of graduate school. We had moved to Auburn pulling one of those small U-Haul trailers, so I thought the converted boat trailer would be big enough.

I realized it was only half the size we needed, so, having some time on my hands, I decided to make one trip to Arkansas alone, with the car and the trailer packed and then come back to get the family and the rest of the stuff. Well, the first part of the plan went very well indeed. Southern State had a vacant faculty house for us, so I unloaded the tightly packed car and trailer into the living room.

But when I got back out there to Auburn and started packing, leaving room in the 1966 Dodge Dart for my wife and baby, I realized that I would still be short of space. Also, the washer was very heavy and it really looked like an unsafe burden for the converted boat trailer. After adding a rack to the top of the Dart and loading it, we were good to go. We set out before daylight the next morning.

The first part of the journey went fine, although I was nervous if the speedometer went beyond 50. When we got to Columbus, Mississippi, we crossed a very rough railroad track and the tongue of the trailer collapsed. We cringed our way to a nearby motel and got a room, a quiet place to rest and ponder our dilemma. Before going to sleep that night, I counted our money--$18. (We put the motel on our Gulf card). Also before going to sleep, I located a mechanic shop in the yellow pages, one that looked as if it may have had welding capacities.

I pulled up at that shop at about the time they were opening, dragging the wounded homemade trailer behind. I drew a lot of attention from the workers as I explained that we were half way to our destination in Arkansas and I had only $18 and a Gulf card.

“We don’t take credit cards,” the boss said, “but we’ll see what we can do for you. Are you in the service?”

“I was,” I replied, giving no more detail than that. (I had previously served four years).

To make a long story short, they had me pull the precarious trailer into the work area and told me to check with them after lunch. I called at 1 p.m. and they had it fixed—in fact they had installed a good, sturdy pipe in place of the old unreliable tongue. They charged $18.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

More Blessed

Jesus must have told Paul personally that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Paul wrote that statement as if he had heard it directly. That giving is more blessed that receiving is implied rather than stated in the gospels. It sounds like something the Lord would say, considering how John 3:16 resonates with Christians everywhere. In a nutshell, that verse expresses the thought that God loved the people he created so much that he gave the ultimate gift, His Son, so that we could be brought back into right standing with Him, even though we had made such a mess of handling free choice. So, our understanding is that love results in giving.

Married people know that very well. The old cliché that marriage is not a 50-50 deal but a 90-10 deal rings true in the light of love calling forth giving. If each person in the marital relationship is determined to be on the 90 percent giving end of the relationship, unselfishness results. It’s when we begin to feel that the other is not giving enough that conflicts arise.

“You never pay attention when I talk to you. Do you even know what I just said?”

“Sure, you said you’d like to go to the mall later.”

“See there? No, I said ‘would you like to go for a walk later.’ You never listen to me when I talk. Do you even remember what I told you I got for Aunt Mary for Christmas?”

“Uhhh, a hearing aid?”

“That’s so not funny. You haven’t a clue, have you?”

“Yeah, we’ve got Clue and Scrabble and Monopoly. . .”

“Just shut up.”

“I thought you wanted to talk.” And so it goes when one person in the relationship begins to feel that the other is not giving enough.

Further, if all of us determine to be more interested in what we can give this Christmas than in what we want to receive, we will be happier. And what we give does not necessarily have to be a material thing. I have known families to give handmade coupon books, promising certain favors to family members: this coupon entitles the bearer to receive one carwash, including detailing; this coupon buys clearing the table and washing the dishes (or loading the dishwasher); this coupon buys a Saturday morning donut feast, brought home hot by Dad, etc.

The point is that just as our God saw fit to give his most treasured possession to us, we should also be willing to sacrifice our pride, selfishness or ego for the benefit of others, especially of our own households and especially of the household of faith. For, just as the family is an organism (not an organization), with the father as head (not a boss), so the church is an organism with Jesus as Head. When we as the body hear from our Head that unselfish, sacrificial giving is good, we should do it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mule School

We were late getting to Williams Tavern Restaurant in Washington, Arkansas Sunday after church. It was almost one o’clock when we stepped onto the porch to discover the wise old man, meditatively sitting on a bench, gazing at the mule paddock.

“Hello, sir, will you join us for lunch?”

“Well, Mr. and Mrs. Ford, I had lunch at about 11, but it’s time for some blackberry cobbler and coffee, so, yes, I’ll join you.”

It took a long time for the understaffed restaurant to seat us. In fact, the wise old man got tired of waiting and sauntered to a recently vacated table by the fireplace and cleared it himself. As we got seated, the maître d’, I guess you’d call her that, let us know we should not have violated protocol and seated ourselves. The wise old man was unrepentant, though, and gave the haggard lady a very sweet compliment—something about her ability to remain fresh and pretty even in a high stress job. Her demeanor changed and we received special attention as we dined. His coffee cup was never more than half empty when the waitress filled it.

“Sir, what brings you to Washington,” my wife asked.

“Those two white mules out there. There is something about those big white mules that bespeaks nobility and gratitude. They put me in mind of the Houyhnhnms, those highly rational equines in Gulliver’s Travels.The mules seem so tranquil and appreciative of everything life has brought them, even though they come from two worlds, that of the horse and that of the donkey. Far from being conflicted because of this double heritage, these beasts are somehow able to look upon their sterile state as a blessing. Horses flee from danger but donkeys face it and figure out how to respond. So the mule’s impulses are cowardly but their mental discipline holds them steady. Their rationality can be mistaken for loyalty, though I believe it emanates from a benign gratitude, a spirit of acceptance of their fate.”

I was blown away by this vague concept and sought clarification by asking, “So what can we learn from the white mules? Should we go visit them?”

“Suit yourself, Dan, but Thanksgiving is the appropriate time to observe their acceptance of themselves and of their circumstances. I myself sense a mixture in my own nature, a kind of double heritage like that of the mule. I have the nature to flee like the horse, but there is enough donkey in me to keep me plugging away at the task before me. I am thankful for the calling that keeps me stable (no pun intended), thoughtful and full of joy.”

“What a wonderful thought for Thanksgiving,” my wife said.

“The school of the mule rules,” he said with a wry grin, as he finished off his cobbler.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Getting a Grip

I needed to move from a long-held professorship-deanship shortly after I turned 50. I mean, I had been part of that academic community for 20 years, but somehow I knew it was time to move on. So, I took a similar teaching-administrative position at another Arkansas university. It didn’t take two decades to realize it was time to move on from that place; it took only three years.

To escape from the office for a little while one Friday afternoon, I strolled over to the library on that campus and browsed around, coming upon “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” I scanned the headlines, looked at the obituaries, read a story on the bleak financial picture for public education in our state and then turned to the back of the periodical to look at the employment opportunities. One of these seemed to have a glow on it—a deanship at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. I jotted down the relevant information from the ad and then looked into some sources for information about that institution. What I found, both in pictures and words, was astonishing. It appeared to be a dream job.

My wife and I discussed the prospect at some length that evening. She had discerned that I was not thrilled with my current position. Our conclusion was that I should apply, which I did. About a week after I had mailed my application, we received a packet with pictures of that institution’s palm laden and fountain dotted campus, students studying at the nearby beach, faculty members earnestly breaking the bread of academics in state of the art, fully equipped classrooms. It was eye candy, so when they called and invited me for an interview, I went.

A sockless and bearded theology professor met my late flight at the WPB airport and spent an hour or two with me at the hotel giving me a rundown on the interview itinerary. Everything was peachy dandy, except for the fact that I thought the provost, who would be my direct supervisor, couldn’t stand me. Shaking his hand was like grasping a dead fish. He missed all my group presentations. He was supposed to take me to breakfast and to the airport my last morning, but he called my room at 11 p.m. the night before and told me to buy my own breakfast and take the shuttle to the airport.

I went home certain that I had blown my chances. But a week or two later, the provost called with wit, charm and good humor. He enthusiastically invited me to join Palm Beach Atlantic University as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English. The money was right, the family was agreeable, so I said yes, trying to hide my surprise at receiving the offer. Then the provost apologized: “Dan, I’m sorry for my demeanor while you were interviewing down here. I was ill with a lung infection and had to be hospitalized the day you left. We will be glad to have you on board.” The next time I saw him, his handshake had firmed up considerably.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Messenger

I had worked as labor and clean-up crew for my carpenter stepfather since I was about seven or eight years old, sometimes for pay but most often for other kinds of rewards, such as permission to go camping with the guys or the privilege of taking the family car instead of my jalopy for an important event. Mother tried to get me a paper route when I became 16, old enough to be legally employed, but there was none to be had. Throwing papers was a very popular job for boys back then. So, she began to ask her friends around town about a good after school, summer and weekend job for her boy.

As it turned out, her friend at Western Union, a straight-talking, rather gruff middle-aged man, was the message router and he needed a kid with a good bicycle to deliver telegrams and run other errands as called upon. I got the job and showed up with my “English” bike which I had purchased from a neighbor. It was a three-speed, stuck eternally in third. That vehicle was very hard to pedal, especially on the hills, but once you got it going, it was faster than its American fat-tired counterpart, even though it squealed like a laryngitic banshee. When Mr. Freeland, the message router, looked at that bicycle, he said with thinly disguised disdain, “Boy, you are fixing to have to get you a better bicycle for this job.”

Well, that was prophetic, because I started having flats just about every other day and I couldn’t find tubes for the unusual tires, and patching was often difficult and time-consuming. It didn’t take Mr. Freeland long to get tired of these problems, so one Friday afternoon he said, “Come on here, boy, we are going to get you a normal bicycle.”

We walked a couple of blocks up to B. F. Goodrich and he signed a note with me for a new standard bicycle. I seem to recall that my payments were $3.00 a week, which was a pretty significant hit on my meager salary. Anyway, I couldn’t believe a bicycle would go with so little pressure to the pedals. After that “English” bike, it was as if I didn’t have to expend any effort at all to make that B. F. Goodrich bicycle go. Going up a hill was nothing. And I didn’t complain that I couldn’t go as fast downhill as I could on the old bike. I mean, coasting is coasting and silence is bliss.

I delivered many a telegram on that bicycle as I worked there from ages 16 to 18. Mr. Freeland never softened his demeanor, but I could tell he was pleased with my mount and with his part in acquiring it. He was also pleased, I’m sure, that I never once defaulted on the loan. After the last day of work though, when I was off to the Air Force, I unceremoniously retired the well-worn B. F. Goodrich and never got on it again.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Good Sports



The big shift in weather from summer to fall happened during the day last Thursday. When I went outside at about noon, I suddenly realized, all of a sudden October is here and is making itself known just before November takes over. I had one of those rare involuntary remembrances brought on by the weather: it was as if I got transported back to a fall day in Germany. And it was as if no time had elapsed.

The main thing I remember about my time at Hahn Air Base is the grayness of the atmosphere. There was abundant fog in the fall, snow in the winter, rain in the spring and an all too short season of sunshine in the summer. Thus, the German people and the American transplants alike longed for summer and stayed outside as much as possible when it was warm.

I don’t remember exactly how, but I somehow made friends with some locals down on the Mosel River, robust, red-cheeked young people who worked in the vineyards and enjoyed the fruit of their labor, having done so since childhood. As an American, I knew very little about soccer (they called it football) but, to be part of the group, I attempted to play the sport with them…badly, I’m afraid. I mean, I had trouble limiting the use of my hands, having grown up on American football. But they were good-natured about my ineptitude and kept inviting me back to their contests, played on a flat place atop a mountain.

They didn’t let me participate, though, when the competition was serious, as it became when they played a nearby town. It was a rivalry more intense than Auburn-Alabama, deeper than Arkansas-Texas, meaner than SAU-UAM. But I did watch the big game and root for my friends Erich, Deider, Hans and others. I remember one such game between my friends from Neef against their rivals over the mountain and across the river in Brimmen. Even though Neef played brilliantly and with vigor, the Brimmen boys overpowered them and won by a point.

At first, the Neef boys were downcast and self-accusatory. But, after a season of sampling the store in the cellar, their spirits brightened and Erich hatched the idea of going to the sportfest in Brimmen, a town-wide party celebrating their victory over Neef. My German was not very good at the time, but I understood what was going on and I felt appropriately cautious about actually showing up over there in enemy territory. But the adrenaline and the refreshments prevailed and off we drove, about 14 of us loaded onto a weird German vineyard tractor.

Erich drove us to the railroad tunnel, parked the machine and led us through the long dark passageway until we emerged in Brimmen. What really surprised me was that we were welcomed by the Brimmen team and I saw a glimpse of good sportsmanship I had not witnessed before. It was a great party and I left understanding that friendship can be stronger than ego.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Coincidence?

We had been looking forward to a long weekend visit with our daughter and her family in Ohio. The time finally came when I had a Monday and Tuesday off and we headed out Friday afternoon to catch a plane in Little Rock. On the way to the airport, I started having ankle problems that felt very much like the beginnings of a gout attack. I thought I was through with all that, having modified my eating habits (mostly) to conform to a goutless lifestyle. But anyway, after I started pulling the rolling suitcase from parking to check-in at the airport, I realized, yep, this is gout coming on at just the wrong time.

I limped through the change of planes in Memphis and really slowed my wife down on the way to baggage claim in Columbus. The only thing more intense than my pain was the joy at seeing our expectant daughter accompanied by her two little daughters. After the celebrative greeting—the kids remembered us—we settled into the car and I tried to steer the conversation away from my doddering condition.

When we got to our daughter’s home, I called the VA in Mena and they collaborated on my problem and called me back to say they had a steroid pack and some pain medication ordered for me that I could acquire upon our return, which we did, but we couldn’t pick it up until Tuesday morning. So, when we got off the plane in Little Rock Monday afternoon, we located an airport wheelchair and my wife pushed me outside—it was a beautiful Arkansas day—near the exit from the baggage carousel. The crew could not get the baggage compartment open on the plane we arrived in; it took two hours to do so, so I started a fascinating conversation with a man sitting on a bench nearby who told me of an amazing coincidence:

He said he was O’Dell Smith from Marianna, Arkansas and that once, when down on his luck, he was sitting on a curb in an Indiana town when a homeless man with a bottle of wine in a paper sack sat down beside him. They struck up a conversation and the homeless man said, “Where are you from?” O’Dell said he replied, “Marianna, Arkansas.” Then the man wanted to know his name, “O’Dell Smith,” came the reply.

Then the homeless man pulled out his own ID and it read, “O’Dell Smith Jones,” listing a Marianna, Arkansas address. The homeless man said, “I was a friend of your daddy and he named you after me. Your uncle lives in this town. He’s been looking after me and I can show you where he lives.” So O’Dell Smith unexpectedly met the man he was named for and an uncle he had not seen since childhood, who put him back on his feet and directed him toward success, of which since he had obviously had a considerable amount.

I love coincidences. Although I lean toward the thought that there are no coincidences. The airport finally got the baggage door opened and I got my medicine in Mena Tuesday and I feel much less gouty and somewhat encouraged by O’Dell’s story as well as our newfound friendship.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Dart and Bucky

Our first brand new car after we married was a 1966 Dodge Dart. It was a basic car, with no air conditioner, no radio, no bells and whistles of any kind. Well, it did have a heater. Under the hood was a strangely placed straight six-cylinder engine, hunkering down in a slant. In fact, it was called a slant six. We both loved that car because it smelled new; it was efficient, comfortable and, after three years of payments, it was ours! What’s more, it still looked and drove like a new car, even after I got it paid for.

We put over 100,000 miles on it and never had any car trouble to speak of. Then, I sold it to a family member who ran it many more miles before passing it on to yet another family member for several thousand more miles. I’m not sure how the Dart died, but I’m glad I don’t, because it had been in the family so long, it had developed a kind of human personality.

I had a friend in Monticello known as Mars Hall who loved his Bronco. He named the vehicle “Bucky” and spoke of it as if it were human. His real name is Gary Marshall, but he broke his last name up into to as a nom de plume. He was quite a poet, one of the few people I have known who is a loyal journal keeper. He wrote down random thoughts daily and then occasionally revised the promising thoughts into poems.

Once Mars and I went on a canoe trip down the Saline River. I followed Mars in my truck with the canoe in the back down to a certain spot on the river, where we left Bucky to stand by for our arrival by water six or eight hours later. Then we drove my truck up to our point of embarkation. It was a lovely canoe trip, full of easy paddling and good conversation. About every 10 minutes, Mars would say, “I hope Bucky is OK.” When it got later, he would murmur something about Bucky getting impatient, or lonely or apprehensive. I tried to be as comforting to Mars as I could under the circumstances, but I couldn’t quite bring myself into his mindset of Bucky as a living, breathing entity with feelings.

I never saw a person get as excited as Mars did when, about seven hours into our slow glide down the river, he got a glimpse of his friend up on the bank. Bucky was glinting in the sunlight, actually looking a little relieved that his master had made it back. I thought, surely Mars will not hug the Bronco when we get up there, but he did. What is more, he seemed a little concerned that I didn’t share his joy in greeting his old friend.

We never felt quite as attached to the old Dodge Dart as Mars did to Bucky. We simply called it “The Dart” and never gave it human attributes in our imagination. If I had ever started talking about The Dart the way Mars talked about Bucky, my wife would have brought me back to reality instantly. She is good at that.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Love it or Leave it

I received a grant to do some writing and study of an anthropological nature at Berkeley, a university with a great library of ethnographic documentaries. During the two-month grant period, I watched and discussed and wrote about a great variety of films, having viewed hours and hours of footage on various primitive people groups, from Eskimos, to South American Indians, to Bushmen of Africa. I learned a lot about myself and the human culture I live in by studying these basic human beings, benignly unexposed to the so called modern conveniences. I think I learned something about tolerance and about not thinking my way of life is so superior to another’s.

First of all, I observed that all these groups I studied on film have within them a connection to God, in whatever odd ways they may conceive of deity. Their cultural stories, their myths, include the supervision and intervention of God into what they perceive history to be. Interestingly, when a particular group fissions (that is, breaks up into smaller groups) and the groups stay apart for a number of years, perceptions of history change somewhat from one group to another.

For example, one film I watched on the Yanomamo in South America, had this scene: The anthropologist asks the chief of one group, “Where did fire come from?” The chief replies, “The caterpillar brought us fire.” The anthropologist says, “But the people in the group upriver told me the alligator brought fire to human beings.” The chief looks disgusted and replies, “Alligator my foot. It was the caterpillar that first brought us fire.”

Now, that is a very radical variation--from caterpillar to alligator, but the myth changed that much from one tribe to another in just a few years. It put me in mind of our denominational boundaries and variations on Christianity. Even in small communities, we have a significant range and mixture of fragmentation and interpretation concerning the reality of our faith. And, it would appear, the church in general is not finished with fissioning.

Similarly, one film when the anthropologist asked to be included in a ritual at a tribal ceremony, the chief and elders refused on the grounds that he was not a human being yet. Interestingly, the word Yanomamo actually means human being. Perhaps the anthropologist’s command of the Yanomamo language was still somewhat deficient, or maybe he spoke the language with a Yankee accent. In any event, the group leaders discerned something different in the way he presented himself and consequently something non-human about him.

That speaks to our human tendency toward exclusivity, doesn’t it? It is as if our communities have signs reading, “If you live here, you have to be like us.” Or, maybe it is as if individually we have bumper stickers recommending that those who read our bumpers love the way we live or leave it. Like the early Puritans of New England, many people still have such an attitude as, “We’d love to have you here, but you have to fit in and be like us; otherwise, you will have to live elsewhere.”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wanting a Pony

“I want a pony.” That is a statement that almost every parent hears. Whether or not the family lives in an apartment complex in a busy city or in a house in a country town, that desire for a pony seems to be universal. Why? Maybe it is because humans have had such a long history with horses, our companions in labor, transportation and even warfare for centuries. Perhaps it is deep within us to want to interact with equines.

Be that as it may, I know I wanted a pony more than anything in the world when I was a boy living in a small town. Mother would explain that we didn’t have a place to keep a pony. My response was that we could keep it in the back yard. I even made a little corral out there and stocked it with pine straw, much to the amusement of my big brother, who thought every idiot knew horses didn’t eat pine straw. But my persistence paid off and Mother finally bought an old plow horse that we kept at the old farm place in Louisiana, about an hour’s drive away.

Old Nancy was not exactly a pony. She was a very large draft horse. She made up for not being a pony by her gentleness, though, a good kid horse. She didn’t exactly enjoy my company and she seldom wanted to go in the direction I urged her in, but she was gentle, having no ill will for humanity. She was just lethargic and perhaps insulted that a little boy a long way from manhood was her master. I mean, she had belonged to firm, hard-working men who insisted on their way with some force. I was more of a suggester than a demander and she showed resentment by her recalcitrance. She always took me where I wanted to go, but it was obviously a ride of resistance rather than pleasure for her.

I brought more forcefulness to the rider-horse relationship as I matured and found that the beasts want their riders to be in command. They feel a bit insecure if the human on their back is indecisive. I don’t mean that riders should be cruel, but they should certainly let the horse know who is boss. And, if the horse messes up, we have to remember that their attention span is short and their memory even shorter. They should not be punished for anything that happened more than 20 seconds before the correction.

The Kazakh people have been horse keepers from time immemorial. We have someone from that heritage in our family, so I am obviously interested in that way of life. What I see as the main principle in their culture is love of horses, but a love that includes getting the animals to be of one mind with their masters, and that takes some doing. Even little children understand the principle and they pursue that oneness of mind with their horses with vigor, determination, skill and great love.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Heart Thing

In the audiologist’s waiting area of the big VA hospital in Little Rock recently, I heard two elderly veterans discussing their heart by-pass surgeries in great detail. They told well-rehearsed and apparently oft-repeated stories about their trip to the hospital, the aides and nurses, the doctors, the anesthetist and other individuals associated with the process. What struck me most was their good humor and joyous delivery of the stories. The experience each shared brought roars of laughter from the other and a kind of camaraderie that I had not observed since my days long ago back in the barracks.

At first, I thought their mirth was brought on by a sense of relief that they had been through a trauma and survived. But the more I listened, the more I understood that there was much more than relief involved. The surgery experience had been life-changing for both of them.

One of the men said, “I’ll tell you one thing, when we get up there to Heaven and meet up with St. Peter, he’s not going to say you go over there if you are a Catholic, there if you are a Baptist, there if your skin is dark, there if it’s light. No, we are all in this thing together and we had better start treating each other that way.” The other veteran loudly affirmed the observation with an “Amen” and added a few insights of his own about the equality of all mankind in the sight of God. He then told a heartwarming story about the wonderful treatment he got from one of the aides of a complexion other than his own.

As I listened to the old soldiers, I thought of my father-in-law’s change of attitude after his by-pass surgery. He was eager to let everyone know the he had been wrong all his life about relationships with others. Like the veterans at the VA, he insisted on the equality of all people, always concluding with his conviction that, while man looks on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart.

Of course, as a Baptist minister, my father-in-law recounted the Bible story of Samuel the prophet looking to anoint a new king for Israel. Samuel thought some of Jesse’s son’s looked every inch a king and wanted to anoint the very first one that came before him, but God said no. Finally, when Jesse’s boys had passed before him, Samuel asked Jesse if he had any more sons. He said, just a young lad out taking care of the sheep. Call him here, Samuel requested, and Jesse sent for him. When little David showed up, looking nothing at all like a king should look, God told Samuel to anoint him King. Then, as my father-in-law loved recounting, God told Samuel that He always looks on the heart, nothing else.

Sometimes I’m glad about that. Sometimes I’m not. I’m glad God knows my heart when people misjudge me or ascribe motives to me that aren’t my motives. I’m not glad when I have something such as a grudge lodged in my craw.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Paying the Price

After basic training down in Texas, I enjoyed a 30-day leave before shipping out to Hahn Air Base, Germany. After a long season of GI issued food, it was heaven to sit at Mother’s table and, in a leisurely fashion, enjoy the food I had grown up on: fried chicken, purple hull peas, mashed potatoes, hot water cornbread, sweet tea and a great variety of raw vegetables, including succulent tomatoes. I came home for the leave skinny and departed for Germany with a loosened belt.

I rode the Greyhound to Trenton, New Jersey, from whence I was to board an airplane for my first trans-Atlantic flight. While I was waiting a long period of time to receive the final copy of my orders and the instructions as to where to gather for the flight out, I went to a busy restaurant just outside the military establishment to have a hamburger. There were lots of Americans in uniform there, apparently awaiting final orders as I was. An attractive young lady came up to my booth and casually sat down beside me. She introduced herself as Mary Jones, very ordinary name for such an extraordinary beauty.

She was a great conversationalist. She was mostly in the interrogative mode, seldom revealing information about herself. She found out a bunch from me, including my interests in sports, automobiles, especially hot rods, and current events. The little bit she revealed about herself sounded somehow as fictitious as her name: her mother was ill, her father had left them; she had to work hard to support herself and a number of younger siblings. Then came the sales pitch: “Since you are going to Germany, how wonderful it would be if you could stay connected with the States by magazines. I have some really great rates on Hot Rod, Sports Illustrated, and Time.”

To make a long story short, I gave her $10 and my APO address, and she promised that my subscriptions would start immediately. I would probably have magazines waiting when I arrived at my base. She concluded by saying she had really enjoyed our time together and that, if it was okay with me, she would correspond with me. Of course, I was delighted.

There were no magazines waiting for me at the base. There was no letter from Mary Jones waiting for me at the base. No magazines and no letters from Mary ever came. It was a scam, but, as a lonely teenager about to embark on a long trip into the unknown, I enjoyed her company, whoever she was. Was it worth $10? Yes, if I can forget about her callous lies and dishonest ways. No if I cannot. And I can’t. But I did get at least $10 worth of experience from the situation and, as I think back without projecting my older and wiser self into the picture, I sort of knew I was being duped and didn’t care. This was the last American girl I would talk to for a long time. I paid the price.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Spoon Bill

I bought a canoe one time and had fun fishing out of it, even though other fishermen looked at me funny. But I didn’t care. I could get that slender slip of a boat into places to fish that even the little 14-foot fishing boats couldn’t go. In fact, a friend and I took the canoe on a trip down the Dorcheat Bayou one summer and I couldn’t see any evidence that other boats had been down that slow brown stream.

We floated under several limbs that had big old wide-headed moccasins sunning on them, sprawled out up there thinking they were pretty. We came upon incredulous deer which stared at us with deep puzzlement. They had seen nothing to resemble us on the Dorcheat. We saw a baby beaver and a couple of armadillos as we came to the place where the bayou broadened out into the first of several little lakes.

I had been told by old fishermen who knew such things that if we wanted to catch catfish, we should try the deep water just when the bayou flows into the lake, so we baited up with smelly bait and fished deep for a long spell. Not a bump. At length, my companion said, “Let’s just do some normal bream fishing over yonder,” pointing to some willows and a little batch of stumps in the shallows. So we worked the canoe over in that direction and baited with red wigglers. As soon as the bait hit the water at the edge of the willows, chunky and feisty red-ears started tearing it up.

We fished one spot out and then moved down to the lower end of the lake, where we lodged the canoe in and got out on a little sand bar to have lunch. While we ate, we threw our bobberless and heavily weighted lines out towards the middle for catfish. I casually held my spinning rig in my lap—I was eating, not fishing. My buddy, however, was merely nibbling on some Viennas and concentrating on the feel of his line. Several times he thought he felt something on the line and gave his rod a jerk, but he came up empty. At length, he settled down to eat in earnest.
He put his rig down on the ground beside him as he reached for his second can of sausages, and at that moment, his rod and reel started travelling towards the water.

I never saw a plump fellow move as fast as he did as he retrieved his equipment at the last moment it would have been possible for him to do so. He jerked and reeled and played the fish that was making his drag squeal like crazy. When he finally brought the six-pounder in, we got our first up close and personal look at a spoon bill catfish. After carefully examining the odd looking fellow we took pictures and sent the primordial fellow back into the Dorcheat. He probably ended up down in the Bistineau.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fish Story

People on our planet have such a hard time getting along with each other, imagine what it would be like if other inhabited planets were close enough for interaction. Oh, I know science fiction writers have been imagining that for years. The title “Star Wars” puts our expectations for the outcome of interplanetary contact succinctly: wars. If we can’t get along with each other on our own planet, how could we possibly expect to get along with entities from out there somewhere? The intelligent designer was certainly intelligent to space inhabited planets, if they exist, out through space-time beyond the possibility of contact.

Let’s say an advanced civilization somewhere was actually able to send some scouts to earth and they landed at Rolling Fork boat ramp on Lake De Queen. You had just loaded your boat back onto the trailer and were looking forward to cleaning and frying up a pretty good mess of bream and crappie. You felt a strange and unusual desire to go sit at one of the picnic tables in the shade for awhile before pulling out, and as soon as you did so a little greenish blue man who spoke perfect south Arkansas language through a little box in his throat popped out from behind a pine tree and you two had this conversation:

Greeny: Hello, I’m here from far away on a research mission and I wanted to ask you a few questions if I may.
You: Sure.
Greeny: Why did you take them fellows from their homes in the lake and put them in your aquatic vehicle?
You: Two reasons really, sport and food.
Greeny: You eat them fellows from the lake? And you enjoy slaughtering them?
You: Well, we don’t consider it slaughter. It’s fun to lure them onto a hook and feel them fight as you pull them in. And they taste great fried up.
Greeny: Do them fellows from the lake ever win the fight?
You: Only if we eat too many of them and get indigestion. I guess they win in a way if you look at it that way. Sometimes they get away. Especially the big ones. Everyone has a story about the big one that got away. Often these stories are not true and the size of fish gets exaggerated regularly.
Greeny: So people on this planet say things that are not true to impress other people with their ability to be good sportsmen and gluttons?
You: No, you are missing the point. We tell things that are not true to entertain the listeners. Most people with any sense don’t believe stories about the big one that got away, they just enjoy hearing it. They are entertained by the extravagance of the lie. Let me ask you a question, do y’all fish where you come from?
Greeny: We ARE the fish and I consider myself the big one that got away--way away.
You: How can you breathe air if you are a fish?
Greeny: Air is water where I come from. I hope you have been entertained by that whopper.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wheels

In 1964, I met a fellow called Wheels from Ouachita Baptist College. He came to our apartment right after my wife and I got married while we were undergraduates at Southern State College. Wheels had been my wife’s friend when she was enrolled at Ouachita and he became my friend immediately. He was a thin, slow-moving guy with a deep, meditative diction pattern and he was extremely talkative. Not in a bothersome way, but his rambling was shot through with thoughtfulness and truth.

I will never forget two pearls of wisdom Wheels uttered that autumn day almost a half-century ago: first, he said there are success stories walking around all over the globe, and, second, he said you don’t hear of too many married couples starving to death these days. The first of these two platitudes came in response to our discussion of our life goals. I wanted to become a college professor and we wanted to raise a family in a small college town where I would work. Wheels’ statement was encouraging because he exuded confidence in me, a guy he had known only a few hours.

The second observation about not many people starving around our area came as a confidence builder as well. I think his message came as a result of his discerning a considerable amount of self-doubt as to my ability to make ends meet while we were in college. So Wheels’ words were a salve to our future anxiety and they built my faith that we could work our way through school.

Shortly after Wheels left to go back to Ouachita, the dean of men at Southern State flagged me down as I hurried across campus. “Dan,” he said, “You are an older student, a military veteran—you and your wife are just the kind of people I’d like to have hosting McCrary Hall (a men’s residence hall on campus).”

He went on to explain that the job included a rent-free apartment in the back of the dorm, utilities paid, tuition and fees paid for my wife and me, one meal a day in the cafeteria for both of us and $50 a month. When I mentioned the offer to my wife, she agreed with me that we should jump at the offer and jump we did. Wheels was right, we didn’t starve.

Wheels was also right about success stories walking around the globe. We both finished our bachelor’s degrees there and went on to Auburn University on a substantial fellowship that kept us from starving during the whole M. A. and Ph. D. programs.

Wheels was my friend for about four hours and the encouragement and truth that he spoke so long ago during that brief time have been mainstays for me throughout life. It is fair to say that we never know how much a little conversation can mean to people. It is also fair to say that when someone pops in to visit out of the blue and begins saying things that resonate inside your heart, you should honor that visitor and listen carefully.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Popcorn

When I was very young my family enjoyed the simple things: cool breezes on the porch in the evening, feeling the mud ooze up between our toes down at the creek, that first watermelon cooled way down inside the curbing of the well, those rare instances when we turned the magical crank and feasted till our heads hurt on fresh peach ice cream, fried fish freshly caught in the pond, the first tomatoes almost always by July 4, bedtime stories from the Bible or some other fascinating source and many other simple things.

I think often about the simplicity of our lives before we had television, shopping malls, interstate highways and jet airliners. The first building I ever entered with air conditioning was the First National Bank of El Dorado, Arkansas. I couldn’t believe the polar blast that hit me in the face when I walked in. It felt good for a brief moment and then it seemed uncomfortably cold. I noticed that all the employees in the bank were dressed as if it were winter.

We moved from the country to El Dorado when I was a kid. There were three movie theaters in that town: The Ritz, the Majestic and the Rialto. The Ritz was not air conditioned, but it had the best popcorn in town at a nickel a bag. The aroma of Ritz popcorn permeated the downtown area, luring passersby into the stuffy, hot and rundown establishment. For some time one could not go in and purchase popcorn without a ticket to the show, but that changed when I was about 12 and anyone could go into the lobby to buy the aromatic treat. I think the owner, made more money from popcorn than he made from Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Gene Autry and Lash LaRue combined.

The Majestic was a cut above the Ritz in that they had air conditioning plus there were no rats. I think there were no rats. People used to say you got a free shoe shine at the Ritz from the rats whizzing by. The Majestic showed “B” pictures with actors like Rory Calhoun and Johnny Saxon produced by companies such as RKO studios and Columbia and they had serials like “Flash Gordon” and “Superman.”

The Rialto was the mecca of movies in that town, and that theater was plush, carpeted, well-decorated and as cold as the bank. I saw “Gone with the Wind” there and such wonderful stars as Jimmy Stewart, Dorothy Malone, Bogart, Hepburn, Tracy and, as I grew older, Elvis. The same person owned the Ritz and the Rialto and he made kids behave themselves at the Rialto. I mean, you could hoot and holler at the Ritz but you better shut up at the Rialto, or you’d be back out in the hot sun.

Now, life is much more complex. Store-bought ice cream and microwave popcorn just don’t measure up. I’m thankful for DVDs, but I miss the Ritz, the Majestic and the Rialto.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Teaching Restraint

Having published quite a bit of my own writing, including poetry, I am sometimes called upon to teach college courses in creative writing. It is not my favorite course to teach because there is no commonality of skills the various students bring to the course. Teaching such a class requires a lot of individual attention to get the best out of students.

Because of the need for one-on-one instruction, a creative writing teacher has to motivate, guide, suggest, encourage and edit. Many writing students think that anything they write is good because, well, because they wrote it. The teacher has to change students’ conviction about that while avoiding hurt feelings that would stifle the creative urge. It is a tall order for teachers who would venture into a creative writing classroom, knowing that creativity can’t really be taught and that, as a rule, students are not as good as they think they are. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Some students come to the enterprise with splendid humility and an eager willingness to be corrected.

That’s why I try to start creative writing classes teaching the discipline of literary forms. In a way, I’m like a harness racing driver. That kind of racing is beautiful in its rhythm, flow and discipline. The trotting horse is not allowed to gallop or to shift into any gait but the fast trot. The beast’s instinct tells it to stretch out and gallop for speed, but training and specialized harness constantly inhibit this urge. “Do your best at limited capacity” is what the driver requires and the true champions do just that.

Thus, harness racing drivers must be much more skilled than their riding jockey counterparts. These latter hang on and urge their mount to maximum speed, unconcerned about form. They just want to cross the finish line ahead no matter how the horse runs. The harness driver, on the other hand, must exercise restraint and discipline to get the maximum speed out of the horse in a fast trot.

Like the harness driver, formalist poets confine themselves to certain traditional rules. The sonneteer, for example, must pour his soul into a meager 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Wordsworth compared the sonnet writer to a nun in her narrow room. And, like the harness driver, the sonnet writer wrings the best out of the constricted rules of tradition.

The reason I avoid free verse in creative writing classes is that in that kind of formlessness, the writer has a double responsibility: to create form as well as content. Most students in creative writing classes prefer to write in free verse, which most often fails to satisfy. Too much freedom leads to aesthetic collapse. If would-be poets could bring themselves to write in the established forms, half the battle would be won.

My advice to aspiring poets is to emulate the harness driver: get the best out of yourself by sticking to rules. If you imitate the race horse jockey, you may write with less restraint, but you will seldom cross the finish line first.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Whole Lot of Shaking

Barnabas and Paul had a hearty disagreement concerning Peter’s helper Mark. Paul thought Mark was unreliable because he took off for home during an earlier mission. Their argument became so intense that Paul cut off his relationship with Barnabas and continued his ministry with the reliable Silas and a half-Greek youngster named Timothy. Paul had a vision of a man in Macedonia beckoning for them to come help.

So, they went to a major city there, Philippi, and began spreading the gospel. Their first stop was at a gathering of women, at least one of whom, Lydia, was a believer in God and was seeking a deeper understanding. Paul was good at giving deeper understandings, having received his own in one fell swoop when the blinding light of Jesus knocked him to the ground and turned him 180 degrees from killing Christians to becoming one. Lydia, a businesswoman who dealt in purple cloth, was converted to the faith and baptized there in Philippi and a church was established in her home when she invited the team to lodge there.

When Paul and Silas left Lydia’s abode and entered the city preaching the Gospel, a fortune-teller followed them around day after day, inappropriately shouting that Paul and Silas were men of God, proclaiming the truth, trying thereby to garner favor for herself, posing as a member of their entourage. Paul put up with her officious fawning for awhile, but finally turned and rebuked the motivating spirit in Jesus’ name and she instantly lost all her demonic power. This event cost her handlers a lot of money as they were making a pretty penny through her dark abilities. So, in retribution, they turned Paul and Silas over to the authorities, accusing them of stirring up trouble in the streets. The magistrates had them beaten and imprisoned in the darkest, dankest, most secure section of the jail.

Undaunted, the pair prayed and sang praises all evening and at about midnight an earthquake shook the facility, causing chains to fall away and prison doors to spring open. Paul saw the terrified jailer about to fall on his sword and said, “Hey, we are all here, don’t harm yourself.” At that, the jailer cried out, “What do I have to do to be saved?” (Aside from the great miracle he had witnessed, why would he ask such a question unless he had been listening to their prayers and praises?) Paul, always ready to account for his joy, explained the Gospel in a nutshell on the spot: “Believe in Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” The jailer took the men of God to his home, washed their wounds, got baptized (probably in the very water they were being washed in), received a fuller understanding of the Lord and fed them as much of a feast as his astonished family could muster at that hour.

When the authorities found out about the jail miracle and that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were understandably nervous and urged them to leave Philippi right away. Did they leave immediately? Nope, they went nonchalantly to encourage the Christians at Lydia’s house for awhile.

By the way, it may have been that jailer beckoning for help in Paul’s vision that took them to Philippi. If you want a fuller account of these events, Chapter 16 of Acts recounts them a lot better than I ever could.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bellah Mine Woodchuck

One day last week, we saw a woodchuck on the side of Bellah Mine Road nonchalantly nibbling a nettle. At first we thought we were seeing a groundhog, but then noticed the furry tail. Those groundhogs we used to see in Ohio had only little nubs for tails, like rabbits. I rolled down the window and yelled, “Hey, you woodchuck, quit chunking my wood.” At that, he stood up on his hind legs and grinned at me, making some kind of strange rodent salute with his right front paw before he eased off down to the shade where the creek used to be before the drought.

I googled images for muskrat but he was no muskrat. I googled groundhog, even though I was familiar with these creatures, but he was definitely no groundhog. I googled woodchuck and there he was, as if someone had photographed the very Bellah Mine resident we witnessed. He was a handsome fellow, just like the one in the picture, with the most relaxed demeanor I’ve ever seen in a rodent.

The groundhogs in Ohio were not nearly that relaxed. They were downright fidgety, as if some human was going to make groundhog stew out of them. Several nice plump ones lived in the cemetery I used to cross to get to the bicycle trail and when they saw me coming they always dove for cover. Some lived in drainage ports, some in holes beside gravestones and some under piles of discarded artificial flowers. They seemed legless as they glided along across the well-manicured Good Shepherd Gardens.

One day I got a close look at one of the larger ones as I approached on my silent bicycle. The creature munched on something at the edge of the woods. He didn’t hear me coming and I got really close before he floated fatly into the forest in a rat-like panic. What I observed in my close encounter of the groundhog kind was that he looked terribly sad, as if living there in the cemetery had left its mark on his psyche. In my mind’s eye I seem to remember dark tear stains streaming down his facial fur, though that impression may have been false in the dismal shadows of the graveyard. Surely groundhogs don’t cry.

If I were a groundhog, or a woodchuck for that matter, I’d make my home far away from human habitation. In a big city such as Columbus, I suppose a cemetery seems to be a vast expanse of open space, inviting to wild animals that wish to avoid human contact. In fact, two or three late evenings as I sailed wearily through the cemetery on the way home from a bicycle ride, I saw not only the plump, morose groundhogs scurrying around, but a downcast rabbit or two and some depressed deer. The only humans besides me in the place were down in the ground, mere earthen and anticipatory vessels of their fled spirits.

On resurrection morning, the groundhogs and their animal companions at Good Shepherd will have reason to be startled. But not sad.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Clarence's Turn

Pop never learned to ignore advice from Mother, especially while he was driving. Once when we were on the way home from the old farm place, we approached a house Mother always referred to as that of the Old Grey Goose. I had never seen her, but I imagined her to be a gangly, goose-like woman dressed in old fashioned clothing. Just as we got near her house, we were in a long line of traffic and Mother said, “Why don’t you pass them?” So Pop started to execute the maneuver just as I observed from the back seat that the slow driver three or four cars ahead of us was turning left.

“He’s turning, Pop!” I exclaimed with some urgency.

“Huh?” Pop replied, turning around to look at me.

At that moment, our vehicle clipped the back bumper of the turner, pushing it off the highway and into the front of the Old Grey Goose’s house. Mother screamed, Pop swore and I waited to get my first glimpse of the Goose. She came out immediately, yelling at the driver of the car intruding through her front porch and into her living room.

“Clarence, you have ruined my preserves!”

Clarence retorted, “They pushed me into your house!”

Mother said shrilly, “We did NOT push you into that house. Get me some water. I have a heart condition (news to us) and I have to take a pill (it was an aspirin).
The Goose went into the house and returned with a glass of water and things calmed down a bit. The Goose did indeed resemble some kind of waterfowl. She had a very long narrow nose, a gangly neck and she wore a grey smock with intricate tatting around the neck and sleeves. She was barefooted. I saw no webbing.

When the deputy arrived, he began questioning the crowd of motorists who had stopped. He asked the first man in the little circle that had formed on the ruined porch, “Did Clarence have his blinker on?”

“I can’t say. But I knew Clarence was going to turn.”
The deputy asked the second driver gathered there, “Was Clarence signaling to turn?”

“I’m not sure, I was two cars back, But Clarence turns here every day at about this time.”

Each witness testified to the same thing about Clarence‘s daily routine. But when the deputy got to Pop, his reply was, “I didn’t know Clarence was going to turn. I didn’t see a blinker.”

When the deputy asked Clarence if he had his blinker on, he explained, “I don’t remember, Doyle Wayne, I just remember hollering ‘whoa, whoa’ and trying not to hit Maudine’s house.”

I guess Maudine is a good name for an Old Gray Goose, one with ruined preserves and a torn up porch and living room.

Anyway, our car was still drivable. There was just a little damage to the front bumper and fender. Clarence had to call a wrecker. Mother drove on home after the wreck, her heart having settled down. To her lifelong chagrin, the accident was adjudged to be Pop’s fault.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Walking to St. Louis

When my recently widowed mother moved to town from the country, she had to hire someone to stay with me while she worked to bring home the bacon. My favorite caretaker was, we’ll call her, CeeCee Lee, who was full of adventure stories such as her memorable “Rutabaga Man” that made no sense whatsoever. She was also very unorthodox in her idea of entertaining children. For example, she spent hours spitting Sweet Garrett spurts at ants and any other insect that ventured by in the back yard. She was grumpy in the morning but she got friendlier as the day went on.

Ceecee Lee liked beer so much she could hardly make it through the day without a cool one. Often, after my nap she would take my hand and off we would go, walking to St. Louis, which is what everyone called her part of town. Most of the time we went to the dark, humid Hilalli Bar, where perfumed women in bright clothes played dominoes with enormous men flashing gold teeth.

Ceecee Lee and I went there so often that I was considered a regular. The emaciated old bartender gave me ice-water and Safe-T-Pops (those penny suckers with limp loopy stems) every visit and he called me Danny Boy. In that culture, everyone had two names and if you didn’t have two they supplied the second.

When Ceecee Lee mellowed out, having polished off a beer or two, we’d head for home. Every time, just before we arrived, we had the same conversation:

“Is that a good sucker Dennis Dale give you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I bought that sucker for you, you know.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You are not going to tell your mamma we went to St. Louis, are you?”

“No, ma’am.”

“That’s good. You so sweet. You don’t want to get your Ceecee Lee fired, do you?”

I didn’t know at that young age what getting fired meant, so one night I asked Mother about it.

“Where did you hear about someone getting fired?” Mother wanted to know.

“CeeCee Lee.”

“Does she think I’m going to fire her?”

“I don’t think so.”

Mother could tell I was leaving a lot unsaid, so she undertook an investigation, involving my aunt, her sister, as a spy. When Aunt Sis reported one of our afternoon jaunts, CeeCee Lee was history. I hope she knew it was not I who betrayed her. I lived in that town until I was grown and I never saw her again. One of my friends from her part of town said word was she went to California with a gambling man.

I missed her and I missed my Safe-T-Pops. Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted or forgotten. Although Mother disapproved of our outings, and I appreciate her caution, the deep entertainment and acceptance I felt abides. Intercultural awareness is best introduced early in a child’s life. Every time I hear dominoes shuffling or see the sparkle of a gold tooth, I feel a benign chill like ice-water and a Safe-T-Pop craving follows.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hearing Test

I thought I wanted to be a chief academic officer at a college until I became one. Then I started having thoughts about leaving higher education. Those thoughts came at about the time the De Queen Bee was looking for a writer. I drove to De Queen, talked to the publisher and editor and took the job.

My first task after joining the paper was to cover an important trial. I had just received two new digital hearing aids from the VA. The busy, loud, clackity-clack of a newsroom makes it the world’s worst place to get used to new hearing aids, so it was a relief to go to the relative quiet of the court house to cover the trial.

When testimony got underway, I turned the volume buttons up high so I wouldn’t miss anything, causing the devices to squeal at a pitch above my capacity to hear. I noticed people, including the judge, looking in my direction. Finally, a policeman I knew came over to me and said, “Dan, your ear piece is making a noise.” Embarrassed, I turned the volume down and then it seemed as if the hearing aids were blocking my hearing, so I removed them and found a way to move closer to the front.

I simply could not get used to the things stuck in my ears, so, I don’t use them anymore and I think my hearing has improved. Just this past week, for example, I was driving down the road with my wife. She asked, “The VA doesn’t do an annual urine test any more, do they?” I heard the word “urine” as “hearing” and replied, “No, my hearing is a lot better than it used to be.” I didn’t know why my wife thought that was so funny until she said, “URINE test, Danny, not hearing test.” Then I saw the irony. My delusion that I am hearing better was shattered in one fell swoop.

That misunderstanding reminded me of the hot summer day years ago when I was riding my bicycle way out in the country. As I passed a little boy leaning on his mailbox, I thought I heard him say, “Hi, Danny.” I stopped, wondering who the kid was as only my loved ones call me Danny.

“Where do you know me from?”

“I don’t know you from nowhere.”

“Well, you called my name when I rode by.”

“I didn’t, neither.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Hot, ain’t it.”

It sounded like “Hi, Danny” to me.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Irony

In 1967, I started teaching freshman English and attending graduate school at a major Southern land grand university. Apparently, I wasn’t doing as well as I thought discussing literary irony in Eudora Welty stories early in my first quarter there. I noticed that the freshmen didn’t seem to be with me. So I asked flat out, “What is irony?” After a long silence, one fellow blurted out, “Irony is how your well water tastes out in the country.” No one laughed, even though I wanted to. I presented the explanation that irony is incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs, such as a teacher expecting a good definition from students and getting a lame one.

Ironically, most of my graduate English professors there were not at all like their left-leaning counterparts in many universities during that volatile period of protests, sit-ins and occupations of administration buildings. On the contrary, these professors considered themselves guardians and perpetuators of the sacred tradition of English letters.

Also ironically, in the first meeting of the first graduate course I had there, the English Renaissance professor violated a federal court order by requiring men to wear ties and jackets to the un-air-conditioned seminar. This was the summer quarter in the deep South and it was hot. We all grumbled among ourselves about the dress code then, but, I had to admit that the formal ambience of the class enhanced polite discourse and encouraged learning.

My other class that first summer quarter, however, was quite different. The Twentieth-Century Literature professor was about as eccentric as they come. Ironically, he sometimes parked in the president’s designated parking space because he “had a class to get to and the president didn’t.” Also, he squatted in the middle of his desk to lecture, filling his pipe with tobacco from a white mailing envelope and calling on people by name to respond to esoteric questions.

His methodology seemed strange, but, ironically, we all learned to think on our feet and to ask questions to clarify questions. We also admired his eloquence as he directed the three-hour seminar without a single note before him. His modus operandi was to read a passage from Conrad, Faulkner or Lawrence and then ask questions, refining our responses with his own insights and those of the literary critics.

As my graduate career went on, I had a number of other unusual professors there, none as skilled at drawing the best from students as the six-foot-five ex-pugilist Victorian professor. Once in his small seminar room, the 12 of us sat around a big table. He sat at one end, always smoking a corncob pipe and drinking from a huge mug of hot chocolate, tipping his chair back with his sandal-clad feet on the table. Once, when he made a significant point in his lecture, he tipped too far and all 280 pounds of him sprawled on the floor with a thud. Hot chocolate and live pipe ash sprayed all over him. The class members were dumbfounded until he said, ironically as he got up, “Laugh, people.” We did . . .ironically.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Gangster Car

Mike, the excellent self-taught trumpet player in our high school dance band, loved my 1946 Dodge. He called it our gangster car because, with the humped trunk and the bug-like profile, it resembled those mobster vehicles in the movies. Mike called it “our” car, that is, the band’s, and I didn’t mind. In fact, I felt some pride in being not only the bassist for the group, but the transporter as well.

One summer night in 1957 the Hi Fi’s, as we called ourselves, had a gig in a town about 12 miles from our home. We loaded the drum set into the trunk along with the guitars and amps The other instruments, including my old fashioned bass fiddle, we arranged inside the passenger section. The bass took up a lot of space, almost the entire car, with the body center rear and the neck stretching to the dash. All five Hi Fi’s bunched around and under it like well-dressed contortionists. It was Mike’s idea that we all dress alike--black slacks, white jackets, pink shirts-- and comb our hair like James Dean.

There was a great turnout for the dance, over a hundred people as I recall. We were thrilled to see so many there since we got a good percentage of the house. Our group played such popular tunes as “When my Baby Walks Down the Street (all the birdies go tweet tweet tweet),” “Sugar Blues” (Mike blew that one just like Clyde McCoy), “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and our theme song, “Blue Moon.” The refreshments were great, the girls were pretty and friendly and the money was right.

After the event, Mike wanted to drive the gangster car back home and, being pretty tired from thumping the bass, I agreed. Mike was giddy from the successful evening and excited about driving like James Cagney, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. I never pushed the old vehicle over 50, since it started vibrating and making threatening noises above that speed. But that night when I looked across the neck of the old bass at the speedometer, it registered 65. Mike ignored the pinging, popping and vibrating, keeping the old Dodge floored, probably pretending to be running from the cops. About six miles down the road, the engine had had enough. It wheezed like a laryngitic banshee, coughed up a rod and threw pieces of blackened camshaft out like candy at a parade.

The mood changed instantly in the Dodge from joy to gloom. Mike was full of chagrin and remorse. All he could say was, “I’ll make this right, Dan.” We caught a ride on in to El Dorado in a pickup truck that smelled like pigs and the next day Mike and I towed the poor old Dodge to my side yard. I ordered and installed a rebuilt engine from Sears with music money. The abused but refreshed gangster car ran fine for another year before the rear end fell out. Mike wasn’t driving then. I sold the noble old vehicle for parts. I lost money but had already garnered many great memories.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Steady Study

My step-father had interesting ways of saying things and he mispronounced many words. Soon after he married Mother when I was about six, I noticed that he referred to coffee dregs as drugs, as in, “Ain’t nothing left of this coffee but the drugs.” A slice was a slaish, concrete was con-creek and a plumb bob was a plumb barb. I enjoyed the linguistic variety, but Mother didn’t. She spent 40 years “correcting” him to no avail.

Pop pronounced the word “steady” as if it were “study.” I first noticed it when we were out quail hunting together when I was about eight. Pop was training a bird dog puppy named Bess and when she went into point, he would say, “Study, girl, study.” I actually thought for awhile that Pop was telling the dog to study the situation until it dawned on me that he was trying to keep the dog at steady point so she wouldn‘t flush the covey.

Of further interest was the fact that the reverse pronunciation was true: Pop said “steady” when he meant “study,” as in, “Boy, go to your room and steady.” (I would only partially obey--I would go to my room and draw or daydream, but I would seldom study.)

And my grades reflected this academic neglect all the way through school. So much so that near the end of my senior year in high school, my acid-tongued history teacher called Mother and told her that if I didn’t make at least a “B” on the history final, I would not graduate. When Mother marched me to the teacher’s room after school the next day, the teacher gave me an outline with page references to passages in the text book (which I had never bothered to open), so I stayed up the next night or two steadily studying. To my amazement, what I studied was interesting and even pleasant. I made a “B” and proudly received my high school diploma later in the week.

But I didn’t learn how much easier life would be with just a little steady studying until after Uncle Sam got through with me and I started to college. I think the military matured me a bit because I found that if I treated school like an 8-5 job, studying before, between and after classes, I made good grades, and had some free time at night and on weekends. What really surprised me was that I could actually learn and enjoy things like math and physics if I took the time to puzzle the problems out on my own directly after class.

So, Pop may have had something. Steady study makes for success. I eventually earned a Ph. D. degree in English and became a professor and dean. My half-century of involvement in the teaching-learning enterprise has convinced me that perseverance is much more important than intelligence. My advice to struggling students is always this: develop a schedule for concentrated steady study and stay with it. Steady study equals success.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cicada Cycle

For 13 years this red-eyed bug

Or whatever dull form he was in the ground

Was in the ground snug

In forest mensuration

Till some divine sensation

Or natural regulation

Spoke in bug

Come forth

Shed your pork-rind of a shell

On oaks or pines or sweetgum

Then with all the brother bugs tell

The girl bugs to gather round

There is deep need in the sound

You make

& what you make

Will take 13 more years to come

Forth.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

East Pointing Possum

High persimmon limb hanging
Possum horizontal in the storm
Sharp nose pointing east
Triangular bunched heads branch out from her snug pouch
Possum babies knowing such blowing is how life will be
Wind frizzed mamma possum
Dark peace in her bosom
Withstanding wind
With strong wound tail
Her ratty progeny unafraid
Inside the possum compass
Pointing toward sunrise and roosting hens
She’ll live through raging wind
To raid.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tongues

In that low bog, lo,
A tongues message
From one bass bullfrog
Among many tenor
Incantations full.
Oh owl interpretation!
Coyotes get the gist as well:
These tell
By hoos & howls
What that bass bullfrog bellows:
Kalla bo nika kalla kull--
“In this low bog, lo,
Same star stuff full
Shapes all.
You, oh man,
Are such as frog--of star. . .
But long since
Missed so very much
From talking sense.”

Partner

You hear
Without doubt
A fancy truth
Only fools get
You guess & yet
There is a chance
You are wrong.
The song
May be
For all to dance to.
If you
Show up
Who
Will cut the rug
With you?
Without doubt
You’ll find out.

The Food Curse

Uncle Tweed Walker was a man by God
Expressed--not a draft not flawed--
Shot with wit was he
From womb to tomb.
With me on his gnarly knee
Tweed told me once he’d seen
A snake come forth from horse hair in the trough.
This truth
Was absolute
In my youth:
The hair was there
& then the snake. . .
Now I am old
& my food tastes snakey
Just like Tweed said it would
If ever I doubted.
My faith is dead.
Even buttered biscuits taste
Like snake.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Music of Your Walk (for a friend in grief)

Smoothe cedars by the lake make violins
In shadows and sleek frogs thump double bass.
You slow your evening walk to hear begin
A symphony of lonliness and loss.
Not many nights ago she held your hand.
Dusk was different then when all you heard
Were happy wind and whippoorwills. The band
Now plays a mournful song. Without a word
You syncopate the song with heavy steps
Outwalking any sound till every din
Save one is gone: that din down in the depths
Of all it means to hold no hand again.
The music of your walk is not the same
For only stillness answers to her name.

tongues 2 mull

n that low bog lo
tongues message
from bass frog bull
mongst many tenor
n can ta tions full

o owl interpretation mull
coyotes can the gist as well
these tell
by hoos & howls
what lone bass frog bull bellows
n tongues kalla bo nika kalla kull

N THIS LOW BOG LO
SAME STAR STUFF FULL
SHAPES ALL
&
YOU O MAN
R SUCH AS FROG OF STAR
BUT LONG SINCE
MISSED 2 MUCH
FROM HAVING SENSE MULL.