Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stogey Saturday


I knew a true leader named Jake when I was a kid and he led me into many good things and one not so good. It was not at the bar where I smoked my first cigar, but in a hole in the ground. And that event led to a long term habit that I was ashamed of and seemingly unable to escape for many years.

Jake’s dad ran a very successful nursery in my home town on about 10 acres at the edge of the city limits. He sold a lot of sod, trees, landscaping items, birdbaths, birdhouses, etc. I can’t remember how many brothers and sisters Jake had, just that there were a bunch of them. I do remember that Jake was the oldest and a kind of father figure himself.

Jake took the lead in everything, including his rare Saturdays off. He put us all to work one Saturday morning digging tunnels and caves in the soft rich dirt on the back side of the nursery. What started out as World War II trenches and foxholes ended up as elaborate underground caves and bunkers with fireplaces and innovative furniture. When I see old movies such as “The Great Escape,” about ingenious English speaking peoples outwitting German guards by tunneling out of the Stalag, I think of Jake’s old underground network.

I’m thankful I’m not a smoker now, but I had my first cigar in Jake’s “mother-pod” back there. In it, we had developed a good fireplace with a bottomless bucket for a chimney and we had dug some holes so the draft would allow a fire. Each member of the underground construction team had an assigned seat on the sod bench along the wall opposite the fireplace. When Jake passed out the Roi Tans, I didn’t want to be the only one to decline, so I lit up and smoked that stogey with abandon—to get it over with. When we went to our regular above-ground homes that evening, the distaff side of each household had one query: have you been around a fire? I told my mother all about the project (but not the cigar) and she accepted it with a benign grin.

However, Jake’s dad stopped the project the following day. He called us all together after church and let us know how unchristian it was to partake of nicotine products. (He, himself, chewed Red Man on the sly, but that was an era in which you didn’t argue with elders—about anything). I don’t think it was my mother, but someone doubtless notified Jake’s dad after one of our crew confessed to the stogey sin.

The next year, Mother found a pack of Luckys and a penny box of matches in my supposedly fool-proof hiding place. She shamed me into abstinence by saying, “Son, you know how I hate it when your step-father drinks whiskey? Well this is 10 times worse.” Like Job of old, I fell to repenting right then, but the allure of that nicotine buzz plagued me for many years to come.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Accidental Lie


I have been telling a story that I thought to be accurate but I found out yesterday that it wasn’t. Here is the story: I was at an Alzheimer’s unit a few weeks ago to visit a loved one and saw a familiar face on a guy who was trying unsuccessfully to button the bottom button on his shirt. I reached over to help him and asked his name. I thought I heard “Tommy Leetham,” the name of a boy who used to be a fellow messenger at El Dorado Western Union back in the 50’s. I thought, so that’s why he looked so familiar. I said, “Did you once work for Western Union in El Dorado?” and he replied, “Yes, I did, and I later worked in North Carolina.” Then he trailed off into indecipherable language common to his condition. “I’m Dan Ford, Tommy, I used to work with you. Do you remember?” Tommy smiled and shook my hand. I took that handshake to mean I resided somewhere in his tragically disjointed memory.

Since then, I had told that story repeatedly because I thought it was such a great coincidence and because I was so glad to reconnect with an old acquaintance from so long ago. But yesterday, I was back in the unit visiting the loved one and Tommy was in the room. He brightened up and spoke to me warmly. A woman hovered around him, brushing off his lapels in a very wifely fashion. She came over and introduced herself as Tommy’s wife. I said, “I used to work with your husband in El Dorado.” She replied, “He never worked in El Dorado.” I said, “That was way back in the 50’s.” She simply said, “Nope.” I asked her if his name was Tommy Leetham. She replied, “Tommy Ethan.” That certainly ruined a good story. It also confirmed the need for me to actually wear and use my hearing devices. I need to quit hearing what I want to hear instead of what is being said.

Speaking of these wonderful auditory aids the VA provided for me, I really think they help with volume but not much with consonants and “th” sounds. The good part about them is the Bluetooth device they gave me that hooks into the television. It sends out signals to my hearing aids and I can hear everything on television now, even when the set is muted. Not that there is much on there I want to hear, you understand, but I can hear it loud and clear. And I can mute it with the thing that hangs around my neck.

Further, as a teacher, the hearing aids help me hear people on the back row when they enter into the discussion. I can’t tell what they are saying, but I can hear them just fine. If one of them says, “How many pages should this essay be?” I might hear, “So many sages would possibly be,” which obviously makes no sense. I have learned not to articulate what I think they say, I just walk back there a little way and ask the person to repeat the question. Most often, I get it the second time.

I guess I really wanted Tommy to be my old messenger companion. But he wasn’t.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ending Well


ENDING WELL: Comments on Endings in O. Henry and William Faulkner

In one sense or another, all great stories have surprise endings.  The ancient tale of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32), for example, contains an ending with an unexpected twist. Who would have thought that the father would be so extravagant in his love for his son who had gone against everything the family stood for? And who would have thought the older son would remain so hateful? Also, consider The Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). Even that title is a shocker because the people in the audience would have thought of that as an oxymoron; could there be any such thing as a GOOD Samaritan?

 

Further, most of the old beast fables gain their interest from endings that bring us up short. A case in point is the Aesop fable “The Dog and the Wolf” (http://www.aesopfables.com) in which the wolf behaves unexpectedly at the end of the story. Even though he is famished and there is a bowl of food in front of him, goes away hungry rather than risking captivity. That same old late twist is demonstrated in more modern stories.

 

Of course, O. Henry is famous for surprise endings as in “The Furnished Room” (Kelly 115-164),  a tale about a man seeking his lover in an old dilapidated rooming house in New York. Even though the reader is not in on it until the end, he finds the room in which his beloved took her own life and coincidentally takes his own life in the same location. Such surprise endings are common in the writings of O. Henry who, to many critics, seems little more than a literary trickster. Incidentally, just to place O. Henry in history, he died in 1910, the same year of Mark Twain’s death.

 

But, we don’t expect manipulation to achieve a surprise ending in the writings of Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, who was 13 when O. Henry and Mark Twain died. We don’t expect surprise endings, but we often get them. In his famous short story “A Rose for Emily” (Kelly 155-164),  for example, we don’t learn the awful truth about Emily Grierson until the very last sentence when the doctor holds up something he finds on the pillow beside a skeleton: a long strand of iron gray hair. At that moment, the chilling Gothicism of the entire story is borne in upon us as we realize this surprise ending is deeply organic and not manipulative at all.

Most writers may not even be aware that they are setting up a surprise but they do so unconsciously. So, the bottom line is this: if you are not surprised at the end of a piece of writing, a movie, a play, a song or a dance, you are probably not artistically satisfied.

We learn from Gerald Langford’s well-known biography of O. Henry that when William Sidney 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 Langford’s biography. 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.

 

Langford recounts that another of his jokes had a remedial intention. One of the employees at the pharmacy where he worked—he became a licensed pharmacist at 19--had created a long tube or “straw” that he secretly sank into the whiskey cask in the cellar of the drug store. (Apparently, that store often prescribed whiskey for toddies). Porter hid in the basement and observed the employee sampling the “medicine” through the tube repeatedly and with gusto. So, when that employee was out delivering some meds, Porter brought in a batch 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 open-mouthed. 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,” (http://www.literaturecollection.com) 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 crooks that 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, an honest hobo, 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.

 

One could assert that all his stories, like “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” 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?

As Langford asserts, O. Henry never was free from the fear that someone might find out about his three-year term of imprisonment for embezzlement. In fact, that is one reason he changed his name to O. Henry when he began to gain national attention as a clever writer, whose surprise endings were his stock in trade. Towards the end of his life, he confessed to one of his close associates that he was tired of what he called the trick of unexpected conclusions to his stories. He said he wanted to write without the device, but he didn’t live to try it.

 

I think he came by the trick honestly, since his life was so unpredictable and adventurous. As Langford reports, born in Greenville, N.C. to an ailing mother and an alcoholic father, he was raised and home schooled by an aunt, who taught him the value of a good vocabulary and encouraged his early efforts at story writing and drawing. Because his father’s medical practice was waning, Will Porter studied on the job and, as mentioned earlier, became a licensed pharmacist at the age of 19. He didn’t care for that line of work, though, and spent a lot of time caricaturing customers both in drawing and writing.

 

At about the time he became a pharmacist in North Carolina, Langford goes on, he had the opportunity to join some family members on a huge ranch in west Texas and he lived a rugged life out there for several years, learning about roping, herding, riding, shooting, gambling and other cowboy activities. There was not much to read on the ranch, so he devoured whatever he could find, including a Webster’s dictionary. Later in life, he astounded friends by their inability to stump him on the definition and spelling of any word they found in the dictionary. And, those who have read a few of O. Henry’s stories know that he was not afraid to use unusual words in his writing.

 

The biographies assert that after marrying a beautiful woman in Austin, Texas, he got a job at the First National Bank of Austin, where books were reportedly kept in a haphazard way. From what I have read about the accusation of embezzlement, it seems to me that his crime was being in a job for which he was so ill suited. At any rate, money came up missing; he was accused; he left the country. He spent a little while in Honduras working and observing life and learning Spanish before he returned to face the music. He was sent to prison in Columbus, Ohio. for three years, where he served as assistant to the prison pharmacist.

 

While in prison, Langford says he sent stories to magazines under the name O. Henry and began to gain popularity and money. He sent all he made to help support and educate his daughter, who lost her mother to consumption. Upon release from prison, O. Henry went to New York City and established a very lucrative writing career. His own death was a kind of surprise ending. The funeral was held in a church where a wedding was to take place the same hour. The minister rushed through the service and those who attended could hear the celebrative wedding party in progress.

 William Faulkner was a much more complex and less formulaic writer than O. Henry. His culminating work, Go Down, Moses, which Random House brought out in 1939, contains the long version of his short story masterpiece, “The Bear.” At the end of that story, Faulkner accomplishes a surprise on a deep and complicated level.

Ike, the central focus of “The Bear,” (Faulkner 191-331) was looking for truth with a small “t” as he reviewed the ledger books of his forbears. But he was looking for Truth with a large “T” in the wilderness dominated by the bear, Old Ben. What he found in the ledger books, the maze of corruption in his grandfather’s life, he rejected in a life-changing repudiation. What he found in the wilderness, honor, pride, pity, justice and courage, he accepted with a life-changing love. Ike’s relinquishment to the wilderness balances his flight from tainted inheritance. His older cousin, Cass, is a classical teacher as he leads Ike through the ledger books. Sam Fathers, the half African, half Chickasaw sylvan mentor, is like a shaman, leading Ike through the wilderness. That is until the old bear himself takes over as the boy’s supreme guide.

Ike realizes he is lost deep in the wilderness after he has left his compass and watch, the man-made and traditional contacts with space and time, on a bush. Very slowly, he does as Sam Fathers has taught him to do when lost: he makes a small circle going in one direction, then a larger one going in the opposite direction, attempting to find his own tracks. When he does not find them, or any tracks at all, he begins to walk a little faster, not panicked, but certainly frightened. At the moment of his realization that he is hopelessly lost, he sees the crooked print of the bear, filling with water. Old Ben has just stepped there. Looking up, he sees other prints of the bear also filling with water as if the bear has just made them and he follows them. They lead him to the watch and compass, glinting in a ray of sunlight. Then he sees his guide. Old Ben seems to be an apparition which soon sinks back into the wilderness looking back over his shoulder. Faulkner creates the sense that Ike, lost and panting with fear, follows a spirit which leads him out of his despair into space and time, then briefly allows himself to be seen (Ford 316-323).

So the surprise ending of “The Bear” has to do with the wilderness of truth and the ledger books of corruption. But here is the surprise: Faulkner creates an answer for Ike: artistic time in which beauty and truth cohere in eternity. He told a story about hanging up our watches and compasses until we are lost, trusting some invisible truth to lead us to safety and allow its face to be seen before some rough beast brings it down.

The complexity in Faulkner’s technique goes far beyond O. Henry’s. Yet both writers tend towards that ancient tendency of story tellers to give us a surprise, simple or complex. I think both of these writers may be saying that surprises are in store for all of us.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Aesop. “The Dog and the Wolf.” http://www.aesopfables.com.

Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. Vintage Books: New York, 1973.

Ford, Dan. “Faulkner in Pursuit of the Old Verities.” Rewriting the South: History and Fiction,     ed. Lothar Honnighausen and Valeria Lerda. A Franke Verlag: Tubingen und Basel,   1993.

Kelly, Joseph, ed. The Seagull Reader, 2nd ed. W. W. Norton: New York, 2008.

Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry. Macmillan: New York, 1957.

New English Bible. Oxford University Press: New York, 1972.

O. Henry. “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking.” http://www.literaturecollection.com.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sunrise


The sunrise today brought a little gasp. I cooked some sausage for breakfast and opened the front door to let the smoke out and there it was, an artist’s canvas stretched from the hardwoods to the pines with turquoise, pink, orange and red streaks and bursts and swells, the sun itself smiling itself into view. Slack-jawed, I stood thinking there has never been another sunrise like this and there will never be another. Everyone who saw the heavenly painting knew it was a sunrise, knew the name of the thing, but this specific, unique one, being born before our eyes, was the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega.

The art produced in this morning’s sky will never reside in a museum, though it was a masterpiece. It will never bring millions of dollars at an auction, though it was a perfect composition, the epitome of chromatic harmony. And, sadly, it will never be seen again. Even if someone photographed it, that kind of holy art cannot exist in any form but its own. It was a work in progress, allowing onlookers to watch the work being accomplished slowly and methodically, only to fade away with day.

That sunrise was valuable for its beauty but also for its transience. Things are precious because they are temporary. One reason I like living in Arkansas is the change of seasons. We lived in the perpetual summer of south Florida for a long time and I felt a certain discontent down there. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until one Christmas when we were visiting relatives in Mt. Holly I realized, it’s the seasons. The temporariness of winter, spring, summer and fall make them precious. I even had trouble keeping track of what month it was down in West Palm Beach.

The first year we lived down there, on my 55th birthday, December 19, I was out with friends in a boat fishing the reefs. It was 85 degrees and sunny. I said to one of my buddies, “This is the longest summer I have ever experienced.” He replied, “It ain’t over yet, Dan.” And he was right. Oh, we had a few chilly mornings in February, but it warmed way up during the day. No, the weather wasn’t boring, because we had seasons of torrential rains and periodic hurricane threats. But it was hot all the time.

The sunrise over the ocean was beautiful and even the sunset somehow reflected in the eastern sky. And I did ponder the uniqueness of these phenomena and I did appreciate the artistry. But there was something very special about the winter sunrise I was privileged to witness this morning. Maybe it was the warm colors against the frigid sky. Maybe it was the surprise of heart-warming beauty on a cold morning. Whatever it was that made it special, I appreciate it deeply and, as the poet Sara Teasdale said about the stars, “I know that I am honored to be, witness of such majesty.”

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Raven


I feel certain that the great Sam Houston had no idea that he was being prepared for unique diplomacy when he ran away from home and lived with the Cherokees. Claud W. Garner’s biography of the legendary frontiersman explains that Houston had a lot of trouble with his older brother at their Tennessee homestead after their father left. The difficulties became so intense that, in his teens, Sam walked away and more or less became Native American. In “Sam Houston: Texas Giant,” Garner explains that the chief of the Cherokee nation adopted Houston as a son and gave him the name of “The Raven,” a moniker by which he was known among all the Cherokees and many of the other tribes. He became fluent in the Cherokee language and way of life.

When he rejoined Anglo-Saxon life, he became friends with General Andrew Jackson and remained his friend when the latter became president. Old Hickory used his friend in many negotiations with the Native American tribes and, on at least one occasion, The Raven brought chiefs to Washington, D.C., himself in full regalia. In fact, he made a gift of his royal Cherokee clothing to the president.

As I started out to write, Houston didn’t know that his sojourn among the Cherokees would bear fruit. But it certainly did. Even when he was in the great Texas conflicts, he was often called upon to negotiate with tribes north of the Red River, mainly Choctaw, which were raiding settlers in Texas. The Raven proved he was able to think in tribal terms and give them what they wanted while preserving the interests of Texas and the U.S. Thus, the training he received as a teenager prepared him to be independent, sly, perseverant and determined. Without these qualities, his small army would never have defeated Santa Anna’s huge army at San Jacinto and won Texas.

One interesting feature that Garner points out in his book is that Houston learned from his mistakes. At one point in his life, when he was living in Arkansas, he gave himself over to alcohol, so much so that the Native Americans began to call him not The Raven but The Big Drunk. After he actually hit his adoptive father, the Cherokee chief, in a drunken rage, he felt so disgraced that he gave up fire water altogether. Later, Garner reports, he learned to drink like a gentleman. So, what I take away from this is that we are constantly being prepared in some way for destiny. As you think back on your life, you can doubtless see many episodes that seemed inconsequential at the time, but that taught you a great deal and prepared you for later endeavors. We should always learn from our mistakes and roll with the punches.

Author Claud Garner lived next door to the old Methodist church in Washington, Arkansas for a while back in the 1940’s. In fact he inscribed the book on Sam Houston to the late Mary Margaret Haynes, a dedicated scholar and award-winning teacher of Washington, Arkansas, a dear friend of ours. (The book referenced was published in 1969 by The Naylor Company of San Antonio. I found it at the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives in Washington.)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reverend Mr. Hobo


My step-cousin Billy and I used to play hobo for hours at a time and enjoyed making up simple pretend means of survival.

“Let’s hide this biscuit in a jar and bury it by the ditch so we can come back for it when we are hungrier,” one of us would say. Or, “Let’s go get some dry salt meat from the refrigerator and catch us some crawdads to eat.” Or, “Let’s build a tree house up in the gum tree so we can have a secure place to spend the night away from the hobo cops.”

We did all those things, but Pop would never let us sleep up in the tree house. Mother seemed to be fine with it after I told her we would tie safety ropes to our belts, but Pop never bought it. The tree house was way up there, and, to my carpenter step father at least, it was shabbily built. He was well aware of my somnambulism, too.

We were, however, allowed to sleep outside and we found many unusual places to do so. My favorite natural bedroom was way back up in a nearby culvert. Even though it was concrete and often a bit damp, we found ways to pad the surface to make it if not hugely comfortable, at least slumber-ready after a long day of tramping. The only problem was the campfire. We couldn’t stand the smoke if we built it up in the culvert and we would be too conspicuous if we built it nearby. So we did without fire those nights.

Why did my step-cousin and I enjoy playing hobo so much? I think that even back then we were skeptical of the way society was getting so comfortable and convenient. We had the urge to rough it. I found out many years later that the term hobo came from hoe boy, men and boys who carried all their possessions tied to a hoe and went from farm to farm to work.

Many of us still have the urge to simplify our lives. Few of us want to sell out and hit the road, be we do see that possessions do not satisfy and often have a way of possessing us.

My step-cousin didn’t remain interested in hoboing, though. Billy’s father owned a successful store and he and his family lived very well indeed. They nurtured every aspect of Billy’s aspirations. At first they had Pop build him a little soda stand on the street and he did a lucrative business after school. When his father learned of his interest in preaching, he had Pop build him a mock church with pulpit in the storage room. Billy would preach moving sermons at the drop of a hat. I remember him arguing passionately and persuasively from the pulpit that Hitler was the Antichrist.

My step-cousin became a very fine minister of the gospel and has had enormous influence as a Christian witness internationally. Perhaps it took a little inner hobo to make him what he became.