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


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.”