Wednesday, January 25, 2012

First Flight

My first airplane ride was on a TransTexas goony bird from Louisiana to Texas. After I enlisted, the military put me up for the night in a hotel in downtown Shreveport. That night was long and lonely, with plenty of time to contemplate the irreversible nature of what I had done. Earlier that day, I pledged to give my all for my country, and I meant it in my heart. After the day’s manifold events—paperwork, physical exams, instructional sessions and the enlistment ceremony—I was sure I was not my own person any more, at least for the next four years.

The only other person from my hometown there was a pale red-eyed guy I had never gotten to know real well. He had a bad cough, but not bad enough to keep him out of the service. We sat together on the airplane—it was his first flight, too—and his coughing intensified as the loud and shaky plane gained altitude. I spent the time memorizing my service number and had it down pat by the time the flight attendant brought us a white box with a cheese sandwich and an apple in it. I reflected that the snack was a good combination: a slow digester followed by substantial roughage.

I also prayed a lot on that flight. My sub-verbal utterance went something like this: “O Lord, here I am embarking into the unknown, way up in the sky. I have a lot of fears, the most pressing of which is about this airplane. I pray that just as the song says, you have the whole world in your hand, that you have this TransTexas airplane in your hand and that you will set it down safely and soon in San Antonio.”

My companion was coughing and I was just saying amen when we did squeal down more or less gently at the Air Force Base. The new recruits on board were hustled onto a big bus and it was soon packed full of nervous, though prayed-up young men. They unloaded us at the mess hall at about midnight and served us our first dose of hash on toast. That’s not what they called it, but I choose not to report their colorful name for the dish. It wasn’t bad, though, as the cheese sandwich and the apple had not gone far.

We got yelled at for an hour or so. I heard most of what the sergeant was saying through the coughing of my companion. The main thing I heard was, “Listen up you people.” I had never heard that expression. I had heard “speak up” but never “listen up.” I tried to listen up real well, but when he said, “I could care less,” I began to wonder what he meant. Did that mean he cared a lot, so much that any other caring would be less? From the context, I decided he meant, “I couldn’t care less,” but I quit equivocating linguistically shortly, but never broke the habit, as readers of this column know very well.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jailed at 17

I’m not sure exactly why, but I had a lot of freedom as a teenager. Maybe it was because Mother was newly married to my stepfather and they liked me to be out of the house; maybe it was because, as working parents, they were too tired to be strict on me; maybe it was because (and this is the most unlikely) they thought of me as a responsible person. Whatever the cause, they gave me a lot of latitude. This fact, combined with my tendency to have older guys as friends, led to some interesting episodes.

One of these happened in the winter when I was 17 at 3 a.m. in Warren, Arkansas. My older pal Larry, who had graduated from high school two years before, and I were coming back home to south Arkansas from Springfield, Missouri on a Sunday during Christmas break. His father had a second-hand furniture business up there and Larry, who was employed by the Army Corps of Engineers at Calion Lake, and I had gone up for a few days to give him a hand. Larry liked to tempt fate and take chances, so he didn’t put gas in the old Buick regularly. He noticed just north of Warren that we should add a few gallons, but the vehicle coughed and gave up the ghost a couple of miles from town.

“We are out of gas, Danny,” Larry said, as if I were stupid.

“What are we going to do?”

“Well, we could sleep in the car,” Larry replied, “or walk to town.”

“Will there be a filling station open at this time of night?” I queried.

At that moment, a sheriff car drove up and a friendly but suspicious deputy came to Larry’s window. “How are y’all doing,” he said.

“Out of gas,” Larry explained cogently.

“What y’all gonna do? Sleep in y’all’s car?”

“I guess so. Have you got a better idea?” Larry sounded a little smart mouthed when he said that and I hoped the deputy was a patient man. He was. He drove us into Warren and gave us a bed in the jail. I called Mother collect, who was worried, having expected me home the previous evening.

“Where are you, son?”

“In jail. But it’s not bad. I mean, the deputy gave us a place to stay until we can go to the filling station. We ran out of gas.”

“Well you get yourself home as soon as you can and you are not ever going anywhere with that Larry again, do you hear me?”

I heard her, but she soon forgave (or forgot) and Larry and I remained friends. He became a Methodist preacher, a very successful one. I became a person who avoids Warren because of the ambivalent feeling the town gives me. I have a cousin living there and I think he would give me a place to stay if I ever ran out of gas. But I’m not a risk-taker along those lines like Larry was.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Having Fun

The kind of fun kids had when I was coming up was quite different from the attempts at amusement I observe today. For example, we played the simple games of rover-red-rover, Mother may-I, sling the statue, hide-and-seek, leap frog, etc. over and over again, often till way after dark when someone’s mother would insist upon the cessation of noise. Computer games can’t compete with the joy, laughter and physical exercise these activities required.

Even the inside games we played elicited more exuberance than the ones I see around me in 2012. Our church group played upset the applecart at almost every opportunity. And, when we could convince our adult leaders to chaperone it, we would go down to the Ouachita River for a wiener roast. This activity didn’t require a great deal of advance planning. We dumped a block of ice into a washtub, adding soft drinks thereunto, bought some mustard, buns and wieners and took off to the river. We told ghost stories, jokes and tall tales around the fire. We sang such songs as “Do, Lord,” “Kumbaya,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” On one of these river outings, when I was in the “Young People” class at church, the leaders allowed us to play spin the bottle. But, instead of getting or giving a kiss when the bottle pointed to us, we got to walk hand in hand around the edge of the firelight. A lot of romances were sparked that evening.

One of our leaders in the Young People department was a single guy named Silvertooth. I always thought that was an odd name for him, because he had perfectly aligned pearly whites, not a silver one among them. But Silvertooth was a great outdoorsman and he liked to take kids fishing. One Saturday in the springtime, he loaded about 15 of us, both male and female loaded he us, into his Studebaker pickup truck and took us to a very remote pond. He provided the poles, bait and tow sacks for the fish we caught. The fish we caught—catfish, bream, a bass or two and some grindle—were abundant. I had a sack full. A very annoying kid who was not a regular in our group did not catch a single fish because he was too busy bothering the others.

It just happened that Silvertooth let that guy and me out of the truck at the same stop. The annoying boy grabbed his fishless tow sack and followed me towards my house. I knew he lived in the other direction, so I asked, “Where are you going?”
“I’m coming home with you. You are going to share your fish with me.” And, to get rid of him, I did, right there on the spot. In fact I handed him the whole sack full, mainly because I didn’t want to clean them.

But, what I started out to say was that we used to have fun outside and we got plenty of exercise. Just about any recreation we did required us to move around a lot. Hoping not to sound like an old man longing for the “good old days,” I’d like to say we need more of that kind of fun today.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Flood of Authenticity

Gilgamesh is a prehistoric text in cuneiform that predates Abraham by five centuries and Homer by eight centuries. It contains the story of the flood. Utanapishtim is Noah’s counterpart in the older story and I wanted to quote a section of it here from Benjamin R. Foster’s 2001 translation: “On the seventh day, I brought out a dove and set it free. The dove flew off, then flew back to the ship, because there was no place to land. I waited, then I brought out a swallow and set it free. The swallow flew off, then flew back to the ship, because there was no place to land. I waited, then I brought out a raven and set it free. The raven flew off, and because the water had receded, it found a branch, it sat there, it ate, it flew off and didn’t return.”

Of course, the King James Version of the Bible has it this way in Genesis 8:6-12: “And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made: and he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; but the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.”

Also, the Quran has the Noah (Nuh) story of the flood and other ancient civilizations have versions of it as well. One can find comparative charts online, harmonizing the various versions. I bring all this up here to ask a couple of questions: why are there so many stories of the flood if there was none? Do you know of that many other persistent myths that are not based on some actual historical event?

It is fascinating as well to look at other events in Gilgamesh, such as Gilgamesh’s plot to kill Humbaba, the guardian of God’s forest, and cut down the tree he guards as a sign of strength. These stories remind me of those of modern day primitive peoples such as the Yanamama of South America, who have several versions of the same historical or cultural events.

Aprocryphal stories lack authenticity. But there is a deep authenticity, far beyond the merely literal, in the Biblical book of Genesis.