Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Chase

“Why are you lying so close to the road?” the country mutt named Rosco asked of the rotund Hound Fred reclining nearby. Rosco’s master was a row farmer a couple of miles down the road from Fred’s master’s cattle and swine operation. Rosco’s master was an elderly man who was given to new hobbies, even in old age.

Hound Fred was brief, cogent and succinct by nature, a hound of few words. So he replied merely, “Bicycle.”

“Those rolling humans again?” I have not seen rolling humans out in these parts for months,” Rosco said.

“Before daylight,” Fred explained, knowing Rosco slept late while he himself visited pre-dawn attractions such as nearby Farmer Claude’s garbage bin or the pig sty, hoping for fragments. Also, occasionally Farmer Claude’s daughter would let Beatrice the cocker out for her morning constitutional and Fred never missed an opportunity to visit with her. Beatrice was the joy of his life, though she most often treated Fred with benign aloofness.

“How many riders came by?” Rosco queried.

“Just one old dude on a mountain bike.”

“Did you give chase?”

“Does a pig grunt?”

“Could the old man ride?”

“When that sucker heard me baying he spun those pedals like a kid. He was over the hill before I got my second wind.”

This uncharacteristic loquacity and downright garrulousness emanating from Hound Fred must have been brought on by the excitement of the rare morning chase. Bicycle chasing was a pleasure second only to courting Beatrice the cocker.

Rosco asked, “Do you think he will be a regular on our road? I’d like to wait with you tomorrow and help you chase, if you don’t mind.”

“Be here early,” Fred advised.

Rosco did get there early. Very early. But Fred was nowhere to be found. He was a mile and a half away, following behind the ostentatiously prissy Beatrice, who had an air about her of love-loathing as she led Fred on into the pine thicket. She could have led Fred anywhere.

Just before daybreak, the old dude came whistling by on the bicycle and Rosco gave chase. You can imagine how shocked Rosco was to hear the old dude call his name. He stopped his barking and got a whiff of the bicycle rider—unmistakably his own master. “What’s he doing on a bicycle?! Surely he’s not drunk this time of day.”

About mid-morning Fred nonchalanted by Rosco’s and Rosco told him the whole ironic story. Strangely preoccupied, Fred grinned smugly and said nothing.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Joker

When William Sydney Porter, pseudonym O. Henry, was a teenager in Greenville, N.C., he tended to be a somewhat cruel practical joker. How he developed this inclination is a mystery, though we do know that his aunt home-schooled him and encouraged his satirical cartoons and caricatures as well as his sometimes quite poignant writings. Further, he had little patience with people’s vices and foibles.

Some of the practical jokes got out of hand as reported in Gerald Langford’s biography of the writer. Apparently Porter’s father was an alcoholic physician who, because of his drinking, had to quit his practice. Since he was not doctoring, he took up a project in the shed behind the house, intending to create perpetual motion with a water-driven apparatus. The ruined doctor apparently thought he could actually create a self-powering “machine.” Knowing otherwise, young Porter would regularly sneak into the shed and subtly skew the project, secretly laughing with glee when his frustrated father discovered the flaw. Thus he contributed to keeping the old man busy.

Another of his jokes had a remedial intention. One of the employees at the pharmacy where he worked had created a long tube or “straw” that he secretly sank into the whisky cask in the cellar of the drug store. (I think that store used to prescribe whisky for toddies). Porter hid in the basement and observed the employee sampling the whisky through the tube repeatedly and with gusto. So, when that employee was out delivering some meds, Porter got some very hot pepper flakes and laced the interior of the straw with them. The next time the employee went to the basement, he came bursting back up through the store and ran out front to the watering trough, into which he plunged mouth open. Langford reports that Porter joined him at the trough and got a confession out of him while he and the other pharmacy personnel howled with laughter.

So, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that O. Henry’s first published story, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” contains a turn of events that could be classified as a joke played on some criminals. Dick, the hobo who was a great whistler, picks up a new stocking that has fallen off a high class buggy. He follows the buggy full of rich people and goes behind the great plantation where it stops. There he encounters a group of crooks who let him in on their plans to start a fire in the field and when all the menfolk are dealing with the fire, steal all the valuables from the house. Dick wants no part of it so he writes a warning note revealing the plot, inserts it into the stocking with a big rock. He throws the missile through a window, thereby thwarting the sinister plot and saving the plantation.

Now that I think about it, all his stories are, in a sense, practical jokes on the reader. Isn’t that what a surprise ending is—an unexpected twist that tricks you away from your expectations?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Alive and Mobile

I’m so glad the bicycle was invented. It was truly a civilizing contribution to society. I got my first one for Christmas when I was seven. My two older brothers “taught” me to ride it by getting on each side of me at the top of a hill and pushing me down it fast, saying as they let go, “Ride, Danny, ride!” I got the hang of it quickly because I hated ridicule and skinned knees. I grew to love riding that bicycle because it gave me a new freedom to roam from home. I explored the highways and byways of my town and the surrounding country with great interest.

My cousin’s house about three miles from mine was a favored destination—or resting place on my way to other locations. Even if he was not around, I would pause there to interact with Leroy, the pet raccoon, eat a pear from the tree if there were any, check on the deeply stupid chickens, watch the development of tadpoles into frogs in the ditch out back or just sit under the Chinaberry tree and stroke French Harp, the big tabby. If my cousin was there, he would often join me on the remainder of my itinerary.

His house was on North Madison, an avenue that continued to be extended throughout my youth and young adulthood. We named our bicycle rides according to the expansion. At first it was, “Let’s ride to the end of North Madison.” Then it became, “Let’s go to the end of the end of North Madison,” then, “Why don’t we ride all the way to the end of the end of the end of North Madison?” and so forth incrementally. There was never anything to see there except road construction equipment, but in was a good tradition.

Another ride took us six or seven miles out a county to a very cold spring-fed pond, hidden away back in a thicket. It was a much better swimming place than the city pool and there were seldom more than five kids swimming there. I learned to appreciate the city pool, though, after discovering that we were swimming with snakes, some of them aggressive. You pay a price for being uncivilized, I guess.

On that topic of being uncivilized, several of us went on a few bicycle camping trips. We had trail bikes that were never intended to be trail bikes. We were always breaking spokes, chains and occasionally parts of the frame. Luckily, we knew an old man who had bunches of bicycle parts cheap and he could fix our bikes for a dollar or two. He even repaired flats. But, as I was saying, we used to go camping on our bikes way out in the bottoms where there was no evidence of human habitation. We came back full of ticks, mosquito bites, chiggers (we called them red bugs) and sometimes poison ivy, but happy and fulfilled.

A bicycle is a civilized invention, but it took me to the very edge civilization, where I felt truly blessed to be alive on the planet. Alive and mobile.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Religion of the Heart

Human beings have a tendency towards being religious. I don’t mean just in our various worshipful expressions but also in other activities such as ball games, medical appointments, registering for classes, student-teacher nights and arrest procedures. You name it. Any process that gets repeated on a regular basis gets religious and often impersonal.

One intimidating thing for me in visiting the doctor is the fact that the receptionist, the nurse and the doctor are religious about the process: They know the drill, go through the routine, take the visit more or less lightly while I am nervous, uncertain and hard of hearing. I don’t mean deaf, though I am. I mean I can’t make out what people are talking about in a doctor’s office. Are people talking faster these days or am I just hearing more slowly?

(Midwestern accents are moving south, friends. How many people have you known from up north that change their accents when they move down here? Nada. What about people from down here who move north and come home six months later talking differently? What does that say about our feelings towards the way we talk?)

I know that previous paragraph was a bad digression, but I had to get it off my chest, y’all. My subject is our tendency to be religious, that is, rigidly routine in so many of our activities. Some colleges are similar to doctor’s offices in that the academic personnel assume too much knowledge about how to register on the part of new students. Administrators and faculty at these institutions don’t seem to understand how confusing the process can be to students fresh out of high school or the work force. Instead of putting themselves in the students’ shoes, they get religious and are comfortable there while the students are very uncomfortable.

We are often even religious about ball games. The PA announcer always says “first down (name of team)” in such a way as to elicit cheers from the crowd. And the word “Touchdown (name of home team)” is articulated with considerable coercive excitement. In the stands some kid is always eating a pickle and another is burning his esophagus with jalapeno nachos. Good old boys who see each other every day and talk with their pickups door to door visit at ball games as if they have not caught up in years, while cheerleaders go through their repertoire that has not varied except in energy (and lumbar leanings) in my lifetime.

What about church meetings? I know people who go to church every Sunday and go through the motions but have no relationship whatsoever with the God they claim to worship. It is as if they think that if there is a God they will fool him into believing they are on his side by attending church. It doesn’t work that way. The religious activities that take place in a church can be absolutely meaningless if hearts are not involved. These activities can also be the most wonderful experiences of this corporeal realm if hearts are involved. Wanted: a religion of the heart.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Swallowing a Pencil

We were surrounded by family and friends at a restaurant Sunday. Convivially, my wife brought up the fact that I used to have very vivid dreams that I believed to be true until I was convinced otherwise after slow awakening. We laughed particularly hard at the one I had about swallowing a pencil. I had that dream early in our marriage when we were spending the night at my parents’ house.

At about 2 a.m. I was on my hands and knees in the bed coughing and spitting. Groggily, my wife said, “What are you doing?” Between coughs and gagging I muttered from my sleep-sodden subconscious that I had swallowed the pencil that was on the night stand. “Why did you have it in your mouth,” she asked, as if I were rational and awake. “I don’t know, but I swallowed it and I can’t get it to come up.”

At that point, she apparently perceived that I was asleep. She had always heard that it was dangerous to touch a person having a nightmare for fear of the reaction, so she got out of bed and began to call my name loudly. Her alarmed utterances brought Mother and Pop from a snoring sleep to an adrenaline-pumping awareness. They came wide-eyed into the room.

“What the Dickens is wrong with you, boy,” Pop wanted to know. My wife, beginning to see the humor in the situation, said, “He thinks he swallowed a pencil.” Mother, also amused, asked, “Where did he get it?” My wife explained that I told her it had been on the night stand. “There was no pencil on the night stand,” Mother laughed, “He’s dreaming.”

I was beginning to come to a little bit by then, and remember that Pop started laughing and had to sit down on the bed he was so tickled. For the rest of his life he would ask me often if I had swallowed any pencils lately.

Well, when my wife told that story at the restaurant last Sunday, one of our friends there was not listening to the whole narrative, having been preoccupied with the menu, the children and other matters. So, when the explosive laughter subsided at the table, he asked, “How long was the pencil you swallowed, Dan?” Then the laughter started again and I had a difficult time through the mirth recounting to him that it had been a dream.

I’m very thankful that I sleep more peacefully in my old age and have not had such a vivid and disturbing dream experience in many years. In fact, I often don’t remember my dreams. The ones I do recall, I try to record, because I read a book by J. B. Priestly called “Man and Time” which contends that we can have precognitive dreams, that is, dreams that predict the future. Be that as it may, I’m sure glad the pencil dream did not come true. I try not even to chew the end of a pencil.