Friday, June 28, 2013

Good Fourth


It is so easy to get mad at those we have chosen to run our government. We often doubt that “representatives” actually “represent” our interests. Or, we may question their judgment or their wisdom or their experience. So many aspects of submitting to the government we ourselves set in place are troubling. We ask ourselves, “Have we created a giant monster with an enormous appetite that just keeps growing and growing and growing?”

Century-before-last, the cantankerous American Henry David Thoreau wrote that the best kind of government is the kind that governs least. He was committed to individual liberty in the same way Jefferson, Franklin, Hancock and the others were as they signed the Declaration of Independence 237 years ago. These men wanted a government that would protect our fledgling country from tyranny and dictatorship, from taxation without representation and from the kind of leaders who thought they knew what citizens needed better than the citizens themselves did.

Since those early days, Americans have fought and died for a government formed on the principle of individual liberty, a government of, for and by the governed. So far, such a government has not perished from the earth thanks to those brave fighting men and women who have been committed to our brand of freedom.

Fifty-four years ago down at the Shreveport induction center, I took the oath that I would defend my country to the death if necessary. It was a moving moment for an 18-year-old with my life in front of me because I had lost close family members, an uncle and a cousin, in World War II, kinsmen who gave the last full measure of themselves to protect others from tyranny and dictatorship and other thieves of freedom. To paraphrase scripture, no one has greater love than the one who gives his life for others.

While I was in the service, my just-older brother gave his life as a B-47 pilot. He was only 25 with a pregnant wife and a three-year-old son. I knew from conversations with him that he would not hesitate to die for our country. Another brother, quite a bit older than I, flew 50 missions in a B-17 in World War II. He is 93 years old now and it is a joy to sit in his living room in Wetumpka, Ala. and peruse his plaques, certificates, wings, photographs and other honors he received in his career as an Air Force officer. My late sister, who was also quite a bit older than I, served in the Women’s Army Corps during the war but later transferred to the Army Reserve, where she served honorably as a sergeant.

As I was reflecting on my family’s patriotism, I recognized that almost everyone I know exhibits a similar kind of loyalty to our country. Perhaps it is not the overt, flag-waving kind, but more of a deep love and appreciation for our country and our countrymen who do not hesitate to step up to the plate for freedom, no matter what the cost.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Hattie


Old Pierre Mulberry had bought the adjacent 10 acres even before the sprawling plantation was established. Soon after he paid cash for the acreage, Pierre brought Hattie up from Lafayette, Louisiana and together they cleared two of the acres, built a sturdy log shelter and established a subsistence farm. They killed a hog every fall and Pierre was a skilled hunter and trapper. There was always plenty of smoked meat and jerky on the Mulberry place. Also, Hattie’s fertile sunny garden yielded an abundance of potatoes, tomatoes, corn, squash and various root plants and greens. And, of course, the place was dotted with young mulberry trees.

No one around those parts knew exactly when old Pierre died, whether it was when so many were away during the war or after. In fact, some of the hands who stayed on for wages after the war believed Pierre was still alive and that he had just become more and more reclusive as he grew older. Many claimed to have seen Pierre out trapping well after the war was over. Several of the superstitious old folks said his ghost roamed the property line nightly.

The strange couple never put up a fence around the 10 acres, but Hattie erected talismans—bones, clay figures, tied-down saplings—every 30 paces around the place. The plantation hands referred to these odd structures as goophers and they wouldn’t risk crossing over onto the Mulberry property. The most prominent talisman, clearly visible from the plantation cotton field, was a scarecrow-like figure, the spitting image of Pierre, with what appeared to be actual human eyes, one blue and one brown, just like old Pierre’s. They were the kind of eyes that seemed to follow passersby no matter where they were, like some paintings with haunting, seemingly inescapable stares.

Long after people assumed Hattie was past child-bearing age, she showed up at the general store in town with a baby, proclaiming that it was hers and Pierre’s child. She had named her Easter Morning Mulberry. Easter was a happy baby and no one could look at her without smiling. She had one blue eye and one brown eye that sparkled with joy. Easter grew up on the Mulberry acreage as Hattie’s reason for living, happy, well-nourished and content.

. Easter was 13 when Hattie died of congestive heart failure and when the wife of the plantation owner got the news, she crossed the goopher line and, at length, convinced the youngster to move to the big house where she lived and worked until she got married.

(The preceding is some exposition from something I am working on. It is not exactly a true story—I have filled in a lot of gaps from imagination—but it is based on historical events that culminate in Easter’s untimely death in 1879. Also, for regular readers of this column, I want to report that my old shaggy friend got the job at the carwash in Oil City and, aside from olfactory issues, everything is copacetic down there.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Early Times


My wife received her college degree in Magnolia in 1966 and immediately got a good teaching job in Willisville. I finished in 1967 and received an NDEA Fellowship to Auburn. That was a three-year fellowship designed to take recipients from B. A. to Ph. D. in a hurry. It took me a little longer than three years, though. We went out there pulling a small U-Haul, I called it our y’all haul, since we were going to Alabama. We moved into student apartments there shortly after May graduation and I enrolled in summer quarter. The move took what little reserve money we had saved, next to nothing, and my first payday was on up into the summer, so pickings were mighty slim for a while.

We ate a lot of cornbread, peanut butter and popcorn. That was before the Lord delivered me from nicotine, so I rolled my own with cheap tobacco during that period. I got some odd looks while sitting on the steps of the Caroline Brown Draughan Library rolling a cigarette in 1967. I suppose people were wondering what kind of substance I was fooling with, even though I don’t think I looked much like a hippie.

Payday finally came, though, and we went out for dinner at a drive-in restaurant that specialized in seafood dinners, you know, fried fish, crab cakes, an oyster or two, shrimp, some fried clams, hushpuppies, French fries and slaw. I felt that $2.10 a plate was highway robbery, but we were splurging and it sure was good. I think that is when we became recreational eaters and seafood, a.k.a. catfish, is still our celebrative mainstay—when we can find good catfish.

Well, once the income kicked in, we lived a little more comfortably, though the graduate program in English literature was deeply challenging. I became acquainted with true eccentricity on the part of several of my professors and later in my career I saw that many of my students doubtless considered me just as unusual.

During my second year of graduate school at Auburn, my wife became pregnant and we were ecstatic. When the labor pains started rather late one night, we were prepared. We put the packed suitcase in the car, called the doctor who contacted the hospital, got in the 1966 Dodge Dart and headed out to Lee County Hospital in nearby Opelika, Alabama. At a little after 8 a.m., Alicia Dawn Ford arrived and she didn’t seem too impressed when I introduced myself. The only person less impressed with my introduction was our second daughter, Ann Elizabeth Ford, a decade later. When I said, “Hello, I’m your father, Dan Ford,” Ann shrugged and said, “Yeeeh.” My girls love me but they are not easily impressed.

I think Alicia liked it, though, when a day or two later I walked her up the stairs to our apartment there in Auburn. My main memory of her early life is that only two creatures could hear her very high-pitched distress signal: bats and her mother. My wife and I would be watching television or reading and she would suddenly bolt from the room and return tending to the baby. “I didn’t hear a thing,” I would say and my wife would reply incredulously, “Really?” I think I must have had trouble with the upper register sounds even way back then.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sign Here


People have always named places, haven’t they? I know in the Bible, there are many instances of naming places such as Jacob’s Well or the Mount of Olives, based upon some historical or geographical feature. In our state Little Rock, is an example, as is Prairie Grove, Lone Oak and Junction City. Bald Knob, Caddo Gap and Pike’s Peak are other examples that come to mind. De Queen, of course, is an exception, the town having been named for a Dutchman whose name was simplified to “De Queen” so locals could pronounce it, sort of.

In the old days before we started paving streets and numbering houses down here in the glorious Southland, people would tell you how to get to someone’s domicile by saying something like, “You know where that twisted Catawba tree is down past the courthouse? Well turn right up that lane and go to the house with all that English ivy climbing up the porch. That’s where they live. Southerners still give directions similar to that: “Go down yonder to Derwood’s chicken houses and take the first right and go up the hill to them rocks and turn on that driveway back over that way.”

Here in Washington, Arkansas, where we make our home, most houses have distinctive signs in front of them. The signage of Historic Washington State Park is of one consistent style, white framed in white with black lettering. The Pioneer Washington Foundation houses have a different kind of sign out front: white signs with black frames and black lettering. Other buildings, churches and some private homes have their own unique signs distinct from the Park and the Foundation. The Old Washing Jail Bed and Breakfast behind us, for example, sports a large sign with unique lettering that could not be confused with other signs. The old Methodist Church next door to us has its own unique signage as well.

The previous owner of our house had a sign post and a large distinctive sign up when we bought the place. So, since we already had the post and hanger up, we pondered what kind of sign we should display, if any. We certainly did not want tourists to mistake our place for one of the Park houses open for tours. So, we finally came up with this:

A gray sign and frame (same hue of gray as our home) with white lettering: The Ford Home “Jubilee” c. 1918, with red molding around the inside of the frame. It should set our house apart from the other kinds of houses in our town. This whole city is on the National Register of Historic Places, and private citizens are sprinkled all around throughout the village.

Now, if it ever comes to the point of our not wanting people to know where we live, I’ll simply take the sign down. That will do it, right? Then we will be hard to find, right? Next to the Methodist Church, across from the 1874 Courthouse, next door to the Pioneer Washington Foundation and in front of the Jail. Even as conspicuous as it is, though, this still feels like a private place.