Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hometown Water

Here is something from a story I am working on that may be of interest to readers of this column. In the middle of the 19th Century, three young bachelors of Washington, Arkansas breakfasted sumptuously together every Sunday before church. They were the twins, store-owners Tom and Lum Williams, age 30 and Dr. Elias Hart, age 27, who had recently established his four-room clinic next to Williams store. Lum served up plump corn cakes and salt pork from the potbelly stove situated in the middle of the hardware section. On this windy and rainy Easter morning, the heat from the stove was most welcome.

“Y’all planning on church this morning?” Tom asked and then went on before the others could answer, “I don’t think I’m going to make it in this storm. I would like to stay warm and dry this morning. Besides, The Reverend is preaching a series on the Second Coming and I find it very speculative. There is nothing definite in those sermons. I need edification this morning, not speculation.”

“But brother,” Lum jokingly put in, “You don’t want to waste that rare bath you took last night. I know you put on clean clothes, too, all the way down, for I saw you.”

Tom grinned good-naturedly and replied, “I’ll just have a sanitary Sabbath here at the store on my own, thank you. I have been pondering a passage of scripture I need to spend some prayerful time seeking the Lord’s counsel on.” The brothers shared a two-room apartment in the back of the store, while Elias made his home next door at the clinic. Many people in town felt that Tom had missed a call to the pulpit, but he believed everyone, not just preachers, should be interested in understanding scripture.

Dr. Hart took a sip of coffee and found it satisfactory before he said, “Tom, are you still worried about that Bethlehem water episode from II Samuel 23?”

“No, not worried, Doc. I am more concerned than worried. I do not understand it is all. Why did King David consider the water from his own home town of Bethlehem, water that he requested, as poison to be poured out on the ground?”

Lum chewed on a piece of dry salt meat as he said ponderously, “Brother, listen. The scripture is very clear. There is nothing puzzling there. David, having been in an exhausting fight, longed for water from his own city. Isn’t that how we feel about the taste of Washington water when we go to Fulton for supplies? That water down there tastes sulfuric, as if it bubbles up from Hades itself. All David wanted was water that tasted right, like our water tastes to us.”

“Why did he pour it out, then?”

“Because those mighty men had risked their very lives to fetch it. He honored them by pouring it out,” Lum explained.

“He should have drunk it. We eat and drink the Lord’s Supper, don’t we?”

“That is a very good point, brother,” said Lum, “but I find no typology in the passage.” And so the story goes.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Put Your Foot Down!

When I was a child back in El Dorado, I overheard Red Mack explaining how to train a mule. He was employed by a man who raised trotting horses, but there were also some draft mules on the place. Red was sitting on the corral fence with my cousin, a lad of about six, and they were studying a big molly mule of about three years old. I was playing in a sand pile nearby watching and listening. Red Mack said, “Those mules like this big old baby here, why, they don’t know enough yet to respect folks. The first thing you got to do is get them to respect you. If you don’t get a mule’s respect right at the start, there will be trouble down the road.”

“How do you do that, Uncle Red? How do you get them to respect you,” my cousin wanted to know. Red was not his real uncle. Mine either.

“Well, sir, let me just show you.” With that Red picked a Catawba bean hanging over the fence and threw it hard at the mule. It hit her on the front hoof. The animal shied, but not much. She stood her ground and looked sideways at Red. He rushed toward the bean and the mare was so surprised that she backed up a step or two and snorted. Then Red put his foot on the bean and said loud to the mule, “I am putting my foot down on this here bean, now, you big old mule. I am putting my foot down.”

The mule stood erect and alert as Red bent down and picked up the bean. He walked towards her waving it and she didn’t budge. Suddenly he threw the bean at her hard and hit her between the eyes. She tossed her head back and almost sat down. Then Red put his foot on the bean again and said even louder this time, “I am putting my foot down on this. You hear me?”

With that the molly mule began to lick her lips and relax a little. Then Red brandished the bean above his head and walked towards the mule. The animal turned her rump to Red and walked to the corner, looking back.

“Get in up on the fence at that corner, boy, and shoo her back. My cousin did so and the mule turned back to Red and dipped her head. Red Mack threw the bean over the fence and began to pet the big animal between the eyes, speaking softly.

“See, boy? You got to put your foot down. Then they will know you mean business.”

I’m not sure his method is fool proof. I think he may have been joking with my cousin. I think Red had been working with that mule awhile and he wanted the kid to believe she was greener than she was. Whatever the case, the training session was good theater. It was a kind of dance between a truly happy old man and a mule who must have wondered what was going on. Please do not try this method on a green horse or mule and if you do, don’t hold me responsible. I was only four and my memory may be flawed. My cousin doesn’t remember the event.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jackie Earl

In my opinion, Hal Holbrook was and is the best mimic in the business. A few decades ago, this speech teacher became famous for making up and dressing up like Mark Twain and he did so brilliantly. Apparently he listened to a rare recording of the great humorist’s voice and got it down perfectly. He was more like Mark Twain than Sam Clemens ever was (ha ha). But it is not easy to portray historic figures. It is very difficult.

An on-line image of Confederate States of America Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, for example, reveals that the casting office for the new Lincoln film knew what it was doing when it cast Jackie Earl Haley in that role. The resemblance is striking. I would say Jackie Earl Haley looks much more like Alexander Stephens of Georgia than Daniel Day Lewis looks like Abe.

I had not read much about the movie Lincoln before I saw it, so it was a delightful surprise when Haley came onto the screen late in the show. I remember him as Kelly Leak, the great pitcher and batter in Bad News Bears. I remember him as Moocher in that wonderful Indiana movie about bicycling, Breaking Away. And, in Lincoln, Haley nailed the Georgia accent, even though he is a California native. He looked, moved and sounded very much like what Vice-President Stephens would have. Most actors just can’t quite get the Southern sound and cadence. I don’t know what the dialect coaches do wrong, but even Southern actors like Reese Witherspoon sound phony when they are in Southern roles. Tommy Lee Jones talks just the same in every role he plays, kind of like John Wayne did.

I was interested in finding out more about Haley, so I looked up some information on him. I learned that he got out of acting for a season after his brother died of an overdose. He turned to directing and made commercials in San Antonio, where he still lives. He is a close friend of Sean Penn, who talked him into returning to film. Among other roles, he is the new Freddie, the villain in Nightmare on Elm Street.

Be that as it may, I thought his brief but careful portrayal of the Confederate leader was sincere and as accurate as any actor could have made it. There was, however, something insincere about some of the other portrayals in the film. As much as I like Tommy Lee Jones, I found his work stagnant and overblown. Sally Field was too much of a modern woman for the role of lanky Abe’s wife. And most of the minor actors such as David Strathairn and even the great Hal Holbrook were mere caricatures or stand-up comics.

But seeing Jackie Earl Haley, hearing him patiently explain to the Union delegation that Reconstruction would not reconstruct anything, was like seeing and hearing an old friend who has grown much older and wiser. His face contained all the agony of defeat and yet there was something auspicious in his demeanor. He was, in short, a fine actor in a mediocre movie.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Are They?

My wife and I used to look for opportunities to come back home to Arkansas for visits when we were in graduate school at Auburn University on the eastern side of Alabama. If we were going to have a three-day weekend, for example, we would have the 1966 Dodge Dart all packed and ready and for departure at the end of my last class in the afternoon or when she got off work. In those days, we didn’t mind driving practically all night long. It was a nine or 10 hour trip from Auburn to El Dorado no matter how you cut it.

On one such trip, late one Thursday night (or in the wee small hours of Friday morning) in the middle of Mississippi, I put the pedal to the metal on a straight stretch, hoping that Smokey was snug in bed with Mamma Bear in this seemingly backwater region. My wife was in the back seat of the Dart with our infant daughter, keeping me alert with a huge thermos of coffee and intermittent sparkling conversation. At one point, my speedometer read the incredible speed of 79 miles-per-hour. Simultaneously with noticing this breakneck speed, I thought I saw the fuzz behind a billboard. As I took my foot off the accelerator, I heard from the back seat, “They are coming!” I thought, Oh my, this is going to be an expensive trip. I replied to my wife’s statement, “Are they?”

She said, “What are you talking about?”  I replied, “Didn’t you say the cops were coming?” She laughed and said, “No, Danny, I asked if you wanted more coffee.” We laughed about that misunderstanding off and on all the way home. “The cops are coming” sounds nothing like “Do you want more coffee,” does it? I don’t know what that was I saw behind the billboard.

I still have some communication problems with my wonderful wife. We are now living in a home that is new to us. We are trying to understand the computerized air conditioner. It is one of those that you have to tell that you are home. Otherwise it goes to 78 degrees. One night recently I went to bed before she did and was just about asleep when she came into the bedroom and said, “It is really warm in here. We need to adjust the AC.” I wanted to know what temperature it was set on so I asked, “Where is it?” Her response was, “The air?” That misunderstanding brought forth peals of laughter that lasted much later that I wanted them to. But, I’m told, uncontrolled laughter is good for your health. If that is true, I should be well.

I guess you have heard the story of the three hearing challenged men playing golf. One said, “It’s windy.” Another said, “No, Thursday.” The third man said, “I sure am, let’s go get us a drink.” I know such infirmities are not laughable, but we may as well have a sense of humor about it.