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.