Monday, December 29, 2014

Wilderness Fishing

I got a job immediately upon returning home from the service to avoid the temptation, slight as it was, to re-up. It was a grunt job, minimum wage at a shoe sole factory that had just moved to my town from up north. Why they moved further away from their shoe markets, I do not know. Anyway, that job played out in about four months because the company was having financial trouble, so I decided to take a long-deferred vacation.
An old man named Randolph had a boat rental place on the Champagnolle Creek close to where it empties into the Ouachita. Another recently discharged vet and I packed some camping and fishing gear and rented a boat from Randolph, who was most assuredly a free spirit. From the looks of his feet, he had never worn shoes and a pedicure, even a self-inflicted one, was apparently never an option. All his boats were identical: 14 foot aluminum boats that looked as if they had been in a war. Nevertheless, he asked, “What kind of a boat are y’all a-looking fer?” My friend replied, “One of these will do,” sweeping a gesture over the dozen boats docked there.” Randolph spit a stream of Red Man and pondered his boats for a little while. “Well, sir, I can rent y’all this here 14-footer fer eight bucks a day.”
We got him down to five dollars, loaded our stuff, and took off paddling up the murky creek. The woods were thick and seemed to get thicker, so when we saw an open place and a little sandy “beach” we pulled in, set up our tarps and built a fire. At first, we started fishing in the creek, but only encountered little bait-stealers. I got bored and took a little walk back through the woods between the creek and the Ouachita. Behold, I found a nice little lake or pond back in there and my first cast rendered a fat bulge-headed blue-gill. I called for my friend and we mopped up. We cleaned a nice stringer full of bream and cat and fried up the best camp supper I remember eating.
That evening we set out a trotline in the creek and caught mainly trash fish: grindle (slap-jack), mud cat and turtles, but a few pubescent channel cat barely big enough to eat. I slept pretty well after figuring out that the shuffling noise at the edge of camp was a rooting armadillo and woke up bright and early for another go at the newly discovered lake. We dragged the 14-foot Randolph boat over to it and found some really great fishing spots. We harvested a lot of goggle-eye that day and encountered several water snakes, sunning on logs, acting like they were beautiful.

We stayed three nights, the best $15 we ever spent. When we got home, Mother told me the shoe sole factory had called two days ago and wanted me back. When I phoned the boss, he said it was too late—they had hired a replacement for me. Then I got a job as clean-out crew for the American Oil refinery, hard work rewarded only by sweet memories of camping and fishing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Wise Old Man Comes to Washington (Arkansas)

The sun came out for a little while Sunday afternoon as I made my way down to Pioneer Cemetery, an isolated place to sit and think. I was deep in thought, gazing at the glistening pines, when I heard a voice behind me: “Is that you, Dan?”
It was the wise old man dressed in olive drab from head to toe, carrying a modern hiking pack, fully loaded. “Where did you come from, sir?”
“I spent the night down behind Goodlet Gin. There is a whole little abandoned town down there, Dan. I found a place with a good bed in it and set up camp.”
“So, you have been traveling for a while, then.”
“All my life, Dan. But yes, I have been hiking around since I saw you in August. As soon as the weather cooled, I bought this rig here on my back and started out. I was in Kutawa, Kentucky at that time and I have covered a lot of ground since. I don’t walk all the time. Sometimes I spend a day or two around truck stops and get rides on down the road. I am trying to stay in the South.”
“Well, sir,” I replied, “What do you think of current events?”
“Media-driven, Dan. I am interested in the way opinions are formed nowadays, aren’t you? Logic seems to have gone by the boards along with appreciation for our country’s constitution and laws. Without abiding by these, we are lost.”
“Do you think we are lost?”
“No, Dan, I don’t.  There are still plenty of people who rely on their own ability to read, think, analyze and ponder. You are one of these, Dan; otherwise why are you down here in this lonely place sitting on a tombstone?”
“Well, I try to form my own opinions, but I do listen to those I admire. The pundits I admire are those who have a Christian worldview, universalizing the experience of mankind on the planet.”
“That’s heavy stuff, Dan,” the wise old man said as he shuffled out of his pack and found a place to sit and lean back against a gnarled pine. “One disease of modern man is complexity, in my view. Ponder this proposition, Dan, ‘Man is complex—God is simple’.”
“What does that mean, sir?”
“To me, it means that it is human nature to major on the minors, forgetting the old verities, the old simple truths of the heart: love, honor, pride, willingness to sacrifice for others, the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes…you know the drill.”
“What about dehumanizing?”
“Exactly, Dan, exactly. When someone hates another because of the uniform he or she wears or because of his or her religious views, that is dehumanizing. The value of human life is put aside when people live by prejudice and stereotype, which is another name for cowardice.”
“Where are you headed, sir?”
“May I spend Christmas with y’all?”

“Absolutely, sir, absolutely.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

Travels With Birdie

Every time I smell oil based paint or turpentine, I have an involuntary remembrance of my frequent visits to Birdie’s art studio back in the woods behind my childhood home. Because of naiveté concerning the larger world, I did not consider her eccentric, which, in retrospect, she certainly must have been. She had decided to follow her heart, her talents and her reclusive nature and thus became a non-conformist in the truest sense of the word. Birdie lived life her way and it showed.
By her example, she taught me to respect individual perceptions of reality and appreciate the artistic ways these perceptions were depicted, whether in painting, sculpture, music or writing. She was a big fan of Rudyard Kipling and she quoted him a lot. I do not know who her favorite artists were, but she won awards for her own landscapes and portraits down in Sarasota, Florida where she drove herself and her art supplies in a pickup truck every year to paint and associate with other artists.
Birdie liked to draw and paint my portrait because, in her words, “You have ruddy features. I like to capture ruddy features on canvas.” I did not know what ruddy features were, but I was glad I had them because I could sit and listen to her talk, watch her smoke the ever-present cigarette dangling between her and the canvas, and even draw pictures myself with the charcoal she provided. She would sometimes compliment my drawings by saying, “You can draw.” She did not say I could draw well, she just said I could draw. But the way she said it gave me the impression she thought my efforts were satisfactory.
As far as I know, she did not have many close friends, but she was on good terms with a Miss Dyer, the elementary school music teacher who lived way across town. She asked me to hike over to Miss Dyer’s house one day in the wintertime. It must have been during Christmas break. I was probably a first-grader, and I had seen Miss Dyer at the school often. Birdie talked the whole way over there about the way people lived. She was satirical and commented on the smugness or ostentation of various homes and yards. Nothing pleased her about the way people lived until we got to Miss Dyer’s unusual neighborhood. Unpretentious is the way I would describe it now. Back then, I just thought it was unusual to see such a conglomeration of houses and yards so unsymmetrically arranged.
We sat on the porch at Miss Dyer’s, drank Kool Aid and ate cookies. The two women talked non-stop and laughed a lot. I was really surprised when I asked to go to the bathroom and they sent me to a little house out back. I had not seen an outhouse since Mother moved us to town from the country. It brought back memories, such as they were.

I don’t remember much about our jaunt back to the studio. I do recall, however, that Birdie didn’t talk much. Perhaps she had said it all to her like-minded friend.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Grits

It was not a cold morning in Memphis, fifty-five degrees with a little breeze, so when I followed the couple I had seen leaving the hotel into the bus depot, the hot smoky air was almost overwhelming. It was in the late 1950s and everyone smoked back then: cigarettes, pipes, cigars. I learned in my teen years when I traveled a lot by bus that bus stations were always full of smoke and too warm or too cold. This one in the heart of Memphis was at that time the largest bus depot in Tennessee, even larger than the busy one full of cowboys and guitar cases in Nashville. It smelled of restroom deodorant, pine disinfectant, stale tobacco and frying bacon. I had decided that the couple I followed must have been related, perhaps father and daughter, as they sat side-by-side on stools at the breakfast counter. A blonde waitress with the wrong makeup and a big wad of gum placed glasses of water in front of them and yodeled, “The menu’s up there on the wall. I’ll be back to take y’all’s order in a minute.”
When gum-popper returned, the attractive young woman ordered dry wheat toast and black coffee and the old fellow, perhaps 80, ordered a bowl of grits and a glass of orange juice. Just as the “daughter” was initiating conversation, a middle-aged fellow with a Midwestern accent  interrupted to ask the man, “Hey old-timer, what’s good in this joint?”
“Sir, I’m not trying to make any point,” the old man replied innocently and with great dignity, as he adjusted his jumbo hearing aids.
“I didn’t say nothing about no point. I said what’s good to eat here.”
The old man replied, “This is the first time in my life I have ever been called an old-timer. Old timers are in the western movies, like Gabby Hayes and Fuzzy St. John.”
The Northerner was slick bald and he had on a silk shirt open down the front with chest hair like steel wool leaking out and he wore several gold chain necklaces. His right arm had a devil tattooed on it over the caption, “Born to Raise Hell.” Probably something he had done as a kid in the Navy, I surmised, resolving right then and there never to get a tattoo. “Well, sir,” The old man said meditatively after a pause, “I have never eaten here before but I ordered grits. It’s hard for any cook to ruin grits. I generally put a little butter and honey in them and they make a fine breakfast.”
“Grits?” the bald head queried with contempt, “What’s grits?”
“Hog tallow,” the old guy drawled instantly and with a straight face.
The young woman turned her face away and spewed a sip of coffee into a napkin with an explosion of mirth. She tried, somewhat credibly, to make it seem as if it had been a sneeze.

When their food came, the bald one turned away but kept glancing curiously over his shoulder as the old man made a show of deep pleasure in the delicacy. I didn’t laugh until I was on the bus to Shreveport and when I did, people looked at me funny.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas and Candlelight

Recently, we were talking to an old friend in El Dorado. Knowing us to have been somewhat nomadic in the past few decades, he asked, “Where are y’all living now.” When we replied, Washington, he thought, of course, D.C. or Washington State. We clarified, “Washington, Arkansas.” He said, “Why in the world? There is nothing over there.” We didn’t have time to explain his mistaken impression of our village, so I said, “We are just 30 miles from  Texarkana.” He was satisfied with that. Apparently he saw no virtue in the rural and the small.
There is plenty to see and do in Washington, Arkansas. A historic state park encompasses the entire town and the Southwest Arkansas Archives are located in Washington. It is a repository of entertaining and enlightening artifacts, especially old photographs, letters and legal documents. The city also hosts the Pioneer Washington Foundation, a group dedicated to restoring and maintaining old buildings. The Foundation’s Woodlawn House, the Trimble House and the fancifully structured Presbyterian Church are worth the visit.
But this time of year many people favor the two night event, Christmas and Candlelight. This year, the State Park in association with the Archives Board will host the events on the first two Saturdays in December—the 6th and the 13th. The town will be decorated with 19th Century style greenery and candlelight and musical groups will perform in the churches, the WPA Gymnasium and the 1874 Courthouse. The Melody Boys will also perform on the Tavern Restaurant porch in the afternoon. The event opens at 1 p.m. on both Saturdays and the musical programs begin at 5 p.m. Performances range from individual instrumentalists to very large choirs. Most of the large groups are scheduled for the WPA Gym and the Presbyterian Church. The Historic Washington State Park Website posts a schedule of events and printed programs will be available at the Park Gift Shop.
So, there is a lot to look forward to for the next two weekends. But one thing we like to do in Washington is walk, not just for exercise, but for the beauty of the seasons and the historic feel of the town. There is very little traffic and one can find multiple walking routes around town. We like to walk on the old Southwest Trail, which has some significant hills, leg-burners if you keep a good pace. We also enjoy going down to the Pioneer Cemetery. One cannot find a more peaceful place to sit, reflect and enjoy the ambience of history. Our daily walk, though, is a square mile, literally, through the erstwhile residential area. And there is no such thing as going for a walk in Washington. You are always going for a visit, because you run into people out for the same purpose, summer, winter, spring or fall. This is a friendly community, welcoming to all and full of interesting places to see and visit.

So, if someone tells you, “There is nothing over there in Washington,” just say, “Come and see for yourself.” And we are quite close to Texarkana.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Deer Me

A friend was glad she shot a deer and shared her excitement and exuberant joy all over town. First the antlers appeared on Facebook and then she shared the photos in person as well as the detailed tale. Every move she made to harvest meat was epic and every episode shone clear from her adrenaline-soaked memory to my staid antique composure. I tried to be uncharacteristically demonstrative, but doubtless failed. At any rate, she said, “You want a haunch?” The query was answered in the affirmative and so it came in white paper with her presence to instruct the not-so-sharp wielder of sharpness, me.
I have cut up venison before. Venison is a name for deer we got from the French. We do not like to say we are having dead deer for supper so we say venison, just like when we don’t want to use the Anglo-Saxon “sweat” we use the French, “perspiration.” I got two nice roasts, a few good steaks and a bunch of stew meat from the generous gift. What was left of the meat, gristled, undesirable, useless, hanging onto the bone like moss on cypress, became late night repast for whatever roamed the nearby woods. I served it quietly and with great humility, hurrying away before some imagined spot-lighter could illumine me and take me for a sylvan ungulate, and I mean take me in both senses of the word take. We expressed our gratitude to our marksman, that is, markswoman friend and she departed gleeful to have shared the meat she herself had acquired through skill and hardihood and endurance in the deep woods she called, as is common around here, the deer woods.
Wouldn’t it make the prolific squirrels a bit indignant if they knew we were designating their woods as deer woods? I never heard a soul say squirrel woods, and no one ever uttered crow woods or armadillo woods. And, I doubt the deer have sense enough to be proud of the undeserved nomenclature. Why not call them animal woods, or game woods or just plain woods. I would.
Speaking of armadillos, if they would just learn to keep their cool and not jump they would live a lot longer. We see so many armadillos sleeping with their fathers, to use a biblical euphemism, in the middle of the road because they jump up and get clobbered. If they would stay low, they would survive. (Staying low may be good advice for many of us). I like armadillos even though they carry leprosy. They are armored possums and resemble them on the underside. The armadillo sow always has four young at a time and they are always of the same gender, because, I’m told, they come from a single four-chambered egg. I also read that these primitive creatures cannot swim. When they cross a stream, they walk turtle-like on the bottom, having the ability to hold their breath for a long time. Maybe that’s why you don’t see many of them in Mississippi.

I heard a man in Drew County say the best hamburger he ever had was in Amarillo and the best barbecued armadillo he ever had was in Hamburg. Go figure.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fake

A friend of mine asked me to consult my Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on the word “fake.” He did not tell me why. The OED is a magnificent 13 volume work of English scholarship that gives the first known usage of a word and then traces the changes in meaning. For example, the first usage of the word “Lord” was “Hlafweard” which meant loaf-warden or loaf-guardian. The OED traces the way the meaning changed as well as the pronunciation evolution.
So, I looked up the word “fake” for my friend. Even though there is a Germanic word, “fegen” that meant to sweep or thrash, the OED claims an obscure origin for “fake.” The work speculates that it may be Native American, as Captain John Smith used the word in 1607 to mean a fold or coil of rope. It was not until the middle of the 19th Century that the word was used in the sense in which we use it, as in “theatrical fake.”
How could a word that meant fold become something that meant being false or hypocritical? Well, maybe we can be faked out by folds because one is just like the other. Or, similarly, maybe coils of rope all look alike and one can be a false version of the other. Or, and this is admittedly a wild speculation, maybe the fold in a theater curtain came to represent theatrical fakes, or actors as we would call them.
Anyway, I started thinking about fakes and hypocrites. What is it to be one? I suppose it is looking one way on the outside and being another way on the inside. When I was learning to drive the big military trucks in Germany, one of my shotgun riders, Thornton, noticed that I was being extremely cautious and nervous. He said, “Ford, just fake it. Act like you know what you are doing and you will be able to drive this thing like a pro.” I took his advice, and the fake became the real. So, at least in that case, I suppose being a kind of hypocrite was more or less non-blameworthy.
In the same way, when I started teaching college classes at Auburn, I really did not know what I was doing. I had obviously observed a lot of college teachers, so I had a variety of role models to imitate, but I did not really know how to teach. So, I thought back to what Thornton told me about driving a truck. I acted like I had been teaching classes for years on end and the students seemed to believe it. I mean, I didn’t lie verbally, but my behavior misrepresented my inner insecurity. I gained confidence after I realized that the students did not know what was going on in my inner man.

It makes me think of Samuel of old. He was supposed to anoint a new king for Israel, because old King Saul had been disobedient. He was sent to Jesse’s house in Bethlehem, a man with eight sons. He knew one of them was to be king but he didn’t know which one. When the first one came out, he looked every inch a king, so Samuel wanted to anoint him. But the Lord let him know that He looked on the inside, not like men who look on the outside. At length, Samuel anointed little David, a ruddy shepherd boy who looked nothing like a king at that point. You can’t tell a book by its cover. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Shepherds

I was fascinated by the shepherd and his flock that was allowed onto Hahn Air Base in Germany. When the rugged man and his ruddy son led the flock through the main gate, I could hear the bleats from the sheep and murmurs from both guys. I think they must have been calling the sheep by name, carefully giving instructions to the wooly mass as it spread hungrily through the grass just inside the base.
It was incongruous to witness such an archaic scene where ordinarily one could only see complex military equipment roaring about. But, according to the base commander, letting the sheep in from time to time was cheaper than mowing and the fertilizer was free. Thus, the military leadership saved the taxpayers money while beautifying the base as well as providing a very peaceful pastoral scene for the GIs.
The shepherd and his boy both wielded staffs with crooks on the end. I saw the elder shepherd use his a time or two for something other than a walking stick. Occasionally, he would reach out with the crook and gather some of the younger and dumber lambs in closer to the flock. Sometimes he would encourage the dilatory with the other end of his staff. The lad used his on an unruly puppy that was slowly learning the trade so I was satisfied that the staff could serve as a weapon. After all, David of old was said to have killed wild animals to keep them off his sheep.
The symbol of a Christian bishop is a shepherd’s staff. The word “bishop” means “overseer” and, as such, his job is to reach out and gather people in, encourage them with the other end and perhaps even to do what Christians call spiritual warfare. So, the shepherd’s staff is a great symbol for what the bishop does. Most of us have witnessed processionals either in person or on television with the bishop in the lead carrying an elaborate silvered and bejeweled staff. What the scene says is that this person is a shepherd of the flock, ready to gather, encourage and protect.
Once when I was working on a military project near an open area on the base, I got an up close look at lunchtime for the shepherd and his lad. They spread a large rough cloth at the edge of a hardwood draw and reclined on their sides to eat some strong-smelling cheese and each drank a little beer from a “snap-cap” bottle. The dogs reclined nearby, casting lustful looks towards the cheese and bread, but they never got a bite. Occasionally the ever-alert shepherds would call out something and the designated sheep would react obediently. If there was any rebellion, they would send the dogs on a mission the animals relished. I had learned to say “it is a nice day” in German, so I said it to the shepherds. The younger replied in slightly accented English that they did not speak much German. They were Dutch.

Oh well. Whatever their nationality, I enjoyed watching them ply their ancient trade and learned something about why Christian bishops carry a staff.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Good and Bad of Somnambulism

Somnambulism could have cost my life when I was a kid. Now that I am old, it could have saved my life. Let me explain by telling you a story. Ice-laden trees beat my house and truck and outbuildings up in the 2000 ice storm so I have been wary of looming limbs ever since. There is a tall pine with some kind of non-healing wound right outside my bedroom. I called the tree cutting man to come take it down and to trim an oak on my yard that is nudging the steeple of the church next door.
This action takes care of two problems borne in upon me by nature: one, I hope I will quit worrying about that pine pinning my wife and me to eternity in the middle of the night; two, maybe the church people will stop looking at the steeple, then me and shaking their heads. Thus, I will preserve my life and that of my wife and return to the good graces of the congregation. It was an expensive process, but well worth it. I can remain in the land of the living with my reputation as a problem-solver, such as it was, relatively unblemished.
Now, here is the problem that could have saved my life a long time ago. When I was a kid, a friend and I built an extravagant treehouse in a sweet gum. I wanted to take up residence there, even sleep there in that primordial nest. My parents would not allow sleeping up there because they were familiar with my tendency to sleep-walk. So, somnambulism may have killed me as a kid and saved me more recently. For example, what if I had been sleep-walking when the pine outside my bedroom finally collapsed. I would have lived! I just hope my wife would have been up as well, trying to convince me I was dreaming, thus escaping the calamity.
Actually, I have not ambled in my sleeping state in quite a few years. I am very glad that I sleep more soundly now. One night when I was a teenager, I had a car that I parked on the street on a hill. I was always careful to turn the wheel so that it was lodged against the curb. But, somehow in my sleep I thought the car was rolling off down the hill and I was on the floorboard looking for the brake. In the real world, I was on the floor working the shuttle of an old sewing machine, making a lot of racket. Pop came into the room to see what the matter was. I said, in my sleep, “My car is rolling off down the hill.” He looked out the window and said, “Boy, that car ain’t going nowhere. Get back in the bed.”

I obeyed, but it took some five minutes for me to figure out that I had been dreaming. In summary, as an erstwhile sleepwalker, I could have been in danger. But as an old man, a little sleep walking may have saved me. And my wife.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Foreign Family

After my technical training, the Air Force asked for my three top choices for permanent assignment. I marked Barkesdale, North Little Rock and some base in Mississippi on a pro forma form. But when my orders came out, I was assigned to APO 109. I came to understand that the needs of the Air Force far outweighed personal preference.
Having no idea what APO 109 meant, I asked an airman first class in the office that issued the orders. He said, “Man, you are going to love Hahn Air Base!” He went on to explain that it was in Germany. Growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood played war and Germans were always the enemy. Even though in 1959 we were well beyond occupation, I thought going to Germany was probably a bad thing.
When I told Mother on the phone that I was coming home for 30 days and then shipping out for Germany, she was somewhat alarmed, but ended the conversation by saying, “Well, son, John Henry is over there and he likes it.” He was a master sergeant and my first cousin, an older and wiser member of the family, who was married with two children, living in base housing at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, a compound some 50 miles from my future home at Hahn. I did not know John Henry very well, having only seen him at annual family reunions two or three times when this “career man” was home on leave. But, somehow it gave me comfort to know that someone in my family would be relatively close.
I arrived at the olive drab and quite remote air base in Germany on a dank and foggy autumn evening. Everything about the place was colorless. I felt as if I were in a black-and-white film set in the 30’s. I had been there about a month, learning my job of moving stuff around on paper and on a truck, when someone came into the barracks one Saturday morning looking for Danny Ford. I went by Dan in the service, so I figured it was John Henry and it was. I was glad to see him, a casually rotund smiling man in slacks and a cashmere sweater.
John Henry and his little family were in a 1951 Mercedes. The kids let me in the back door that opened opposite of the way American doors opened, front to back, and we were off to a quaint German restaurant where I experienced my first wiener schnitzel. It was love at first bite, having grown weary of the mess hall fare. I ordered an orange drink to go with my meal. John Henry said, “You can order beer if you want to. I won’t tell Aunt Pearl.” Not having developed a taste for hops, I declined, and that did not bother him.

That family was very good to me for as long as they were stationed there. I visited often, both when they came and got me and when I managed to get a ride to Bitburg. We played Monopoly, Crazy Eight, flew kites and even went camping in the beautiful countryside around the Mosel River. Family is important everywhere, but especially in a foreign land.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Magazine Article

http://www.aaajourneys.com/content.cfm?a=3791

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wise Old Man on Ebola

“What do you think of the Ebola crisis, Sir?” I asked the wise old man this morning. Interestingly, he said he had just been thinking, along with the Historic Washington State Park Interpreter, about the yellow fever scare of the 1870’s. He replied, “It does not seem to be a crisis as serious as the yellow fever outbreak of the 19th Century.”
“This thing is deadly, Sir.”
“I know,” said the wise old man. “It is a very dangerous disease, but people around here were just as nervous, if not more so, about yellow fever in the mid-to late 1870’s. They did not have all the media attention about the disease, but when a Washington, Arkansas resident arrived on the train in Hope with the disease, people in his town were justifiably terrified. Their confidence level in the doctors was not as high as ours is today.”
“Sir, surely you don’t think our confidence level is high concerning the CDC and the country’s medical professional’s ability to protect us from Ebola?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. But, in a way, I think we understand precautions against disease better than our forebears. When that man that arrived ill in Hope died, citizens were careful to purify everything he touched, even though they knew very little of how such a disease was transmitted. The local Board of Health met regularly, blaming the railways and the river boats for not screening their passengers. So, there is nothing new there.”
“If I may say so, Sir, you sound like that commentator on Fox, what’s his name, Shepard Smith, who claims the Ebola crisis is trumped up.”
“No, I don’t think it is trumped up, but there is a lot of suspicion that the government is ineffective on any number of issues and people do not feel very protected these days, do they? Competence is in doubt perhaps. For example, I had occasion to be in an emergency room in another state one day last week and, while people were there wanting help, some seemed skeptical of the process or even the possibility of receiving it.”
“Don’t you go to the VA for your health care needs?”
“Yes,” the wise old man replied. “I was at the emergency with another person. I have been very satisfied with my care at the VA, even though they have really received some bad press recently. That’s what I mean. For whatever reason, there is a lot of suspicion that government cannot sufficiently care for people medically. But I have found the VA quite effective, courteous, kind, respectful and diligent.”
“Back to this Ebola thing, Sir, are you of the opinion that it is not a serious issue?”
“No, it is serious, no doubt about that. But, I don’t think it should be characterized as an outbreak, do you? People should be more concerned about the flu and get the shot protecting them from that right away. And, if you suspect someone has Ebola, stay away from any of their fluids.”
“I sure hope you are right, Sir,” I said. “We will see how this thing plays out. My own fear is that it will become widespread here in our country. We should learn now how to take the right precautions.”

“Yellow fever it is not,” the wise old man said as he walked away.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gratitude is Golden

I went on a long walk through the woods this week after a good rain. The woods were cool, aromatic and quite fresh. I offered the trees a little carbon dioxide as I exhaled and they accepted it, giving me abundant oxygen in return as they swayed under clearing skies. As the fellow says in Dances With Wolves, “Good trade!” I would trade breathing out waste air for breathing in the wonders of fresh air any day.
And I traded other things on the walk as well. I swapped some stress and tightness for relaxation and refreshing. I offered exertion and received a moving panorama of fecundity as I reflected upon the great generosity of nature. Farmers and foresters are very well acquainted with the tendency of nature to be extravagantly generous. The forest floor was strewn with hickory nuts, more than scores of squirrels could gather. And even though it is only early October, the color show has begun. Some leaves are bright red, others bright yellow and there is a lemony cast to several low bushes. Sassafras and sweet gum trees are always unpredictable, but I saw a few purples and oranges among them along the edge of the pines.
I paused and reflected on the annual change of color for quite a while. A scientist friend of mine explained to me once that those beautiful fall colors are the “true” colors of the leaves and these amazing colors show up when chlorophyll breaks down in the coolness and allows this hidden vibrancy to burst forth. Perhaps in some ways we human beings are like the leaves. In hardship, our true colors come through, don’t they? Each of us responds a little differently to the problems and challenges of life but all of us show glimpses of our character in our responses. Often the difficulties we go through result in strength and resolution so that we grow. It is a bit like exercise advocates say: “If it does not kill you it will make you stronger.”
Problems notwithstanding, there is something about a walk in the woods that clears the mind and allows thoughts and ideas that may have been below the conscious level to break forth. Many of us have experienced going into the woods confused and coming out with clarity. Perhaps that is what makes hunting so popular—it is an activity that helps us work things out more or less passively, or at least in ways that seem passive.

On my long woods walk this week, the best thing that happened was a new awareness of all I have to be thankful for, such as simple things like good health, food, family and friends. I cannot lie to myself in the woods. There is something about nature that makes us face ourselves for who we actually are, without pretense, without posturing, without smoothing anything over. This radical honesty of the woods carries over into life and shows us the great value of gratitude. Gratitude is riches of the greatest kind. Gratitude makes our true colors golden.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Keep Moving

Sedentary lifestyles account for a lot of health problems, especially in urban areas where people make their living in buildings. Our bodies are made for motion. One reason our leg muscles are large is that self locomotion has been a requirement since the beginning of time. Even after equines were domesticated, we continued to hone our lower extremities in catching, taming and riding the animals. Yes, it takes leg power to ride a horse, donkey, camel, elephant or mule. When the internal combustion engine came along, many of our lifestyles changed from active to sedentary almost overnight. But savvy people still understood that we must use our muscle power or lose it, so healthful activities such as walking, cycling, running and climbing became lifesavers. No, we don’t have to be devoted to exercise regimens to get the healthful benefits of leg motion. We can take the stairs, park further away from our workplace and participate in recreational activities that require movement.
The elevator and escalator have their place in very tall buildings and airports, but it does not take much more time to take the stairs. And the time lost is balanced by the benefit of climbing to our hearts and respiratory systems. If you are not accustomed to taking the stairs, you should start slow, maybe just one flight the first week, adding additional flights as time goes by. Gradually increasing the number of flights of stairs you take will result in more stamina and more endorphins, those little chemicals that make for a happier work day. Have you noticed that people who are more physically active seem happier and better adjusted?
Parking further away from work or getting off the bus or subway at a distance and walking will result in similar benefits. This adjustment in lifestyle will result in the need for walking shoes and raingear that you can stow at the workplace, keeping a good pair of work-appropriate shoes on hand there. Often, when city people walk further to work, they discover neat little shops or cafes that they did not know existed. Some even make new friends and look forward to morning and evening conversations along the way. There is something about the rhythm of walking that enhances conversation and makes us more voluble.
Finally, there are many recreational activities that require leg use. My personal favorite is bicycling, though I do not enjoy that activity in traffic. Thus, I look for peaceful bike routes. Most cities have well lighted trails with scenic stops that are seldom congested. If you look for them, you will find them. Otherwise, investing in a mountain bike and riding off-road where there is no motorized traffic can be a relaxing and muscle-building hobby.

So, since modern American urban society is skewed against use of our leg muscles, we have to find ways to keep them active and operating the way they were designed. Finding venues such as climbing stairs, walking further and having fun outside, will have positive benefits upon our physical health as well as our mental well-being.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bad Deal

I paid the exact same amount for a bass fiddle and a 1946 Dodge when I was in high school: $96. The bass fiddle was in good shape, but I painted it black and white and put sparklers on it so it would look cool in the Hi Fis, our dance band. The Dodge, however, was in bad shape. I should have known that the clanking and slow acceleration were signs something was not right when I test drove it. But I liked the looks of it—like a giant dung beetle. It was maroon and it looked as if someone had painted it that color with a brush.
The guys in the Hi Fis loved that car. It was a four-door and we could all fit into it, five of us, even with the bass fiddle looming in the middle, with the neck almost hitting the front windshield and the pike against the back one. We could get the drum set in what we used to call the turtle-hull and the other instruments graced the floorboard. My musician friends looked like sardines in a tin as we took off to our gigs around Union County and Lincoln Parish.
One of my favorite events we entertained for was a big birthday bash for some executives of an oil company in my town. The daddy of our trumpet player was the big honcho, so we got the gig. There was a huge buffet involved, so we growing boys got plenty of caloric in-take that evening as we took musical requests. The trumpeter could play anything by ear and he would call out the key to the others in the band. We would find it, sort of, and join in. One good thing about the bass fiddle was that I could fake it if I got lost. I would just deaden the vibrations with my left hand instead of actually playing notes. Thus, I became part of the percussion section at those moments and no one seemed to notice, even my Hi Fi colleagues.

But, as to that Dodge, it threw a rod on one of our outings and we towed it to a vacant lot near my house. My admired adult mentors thought it would be good for me to fix the car, so I set to work. When I dropped the oil pan, lo, pieces of the cam shaft and cylinder wall floated in a shallow pool of black. I told my big brother, an adult I assumed had good sense, and he advised me to save up some money and order a rebuilt engine from a catalog he loaned me. I did so, paying considerably more for the motor than I had paid for the car itself. A taciturn friend named Lamar, who was a natural mechanic, helped me drop the engine in there. I drove it two weeks before the rear-end fell out and then all my mentors, including my big brother, said, “You ought to sell that hunk of junk.” That advice would have been more apropos before I bought the dumb engine. Anyway, I was able to recoup some money, but overall, it was a bad deal.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Here is an article I wrote for a magazine on Creative Teaching

http://thoughtcatalog.com/dan-ford/2014/09/the-two-essential-practices-of-creative-teachers/

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Nuns Fret Not

Young children love structure in their games. Don’t you think that structure is the main reason games such as “Mother May I” and “Hide and Seek” have been so popular with young people for so long? Kids in my family want rules and they want them enforced. My children were that way and so are my grandchildren. Games reinforce their sense of justice and fair play. Later in life, when it is time for baseball, sportsmanship is in place and they insist on abiding by the rules. Playing by the rules enhances self-esteem, in that, even in defeat, a player can take pride in an honest loss.
As a child, I played baseball with insufficient equipment in vacant lots, with bases made of rags or ply-board or even rocks. The younger or less athletic kids would volunteer to be umpires and what they said went, not without some controversy. But we loved the structure and abided by the way the game was supposed to be played. We might throw a fit, but the rules ruled!
Free-form games like “Sling-the-Statue” were not nearly as popular because of the infinite variations possible. Win or lose, we wanted anticipated outcomes. Our sense of security and community demanded it.
Likewise, more sedentary adults like games with a similar form of structure with well-defined rules. Consider the crossword puzzle page, Sudoku or Cryptoquotes. These mental games require considerable conformity so that honest completion brings a kind of catharsis.
In literature, game rules such as formulae and forms have been ever popular, all the way from the limerick to the sonnet. Even Shakespeare had a formula for all his great tragedies: there was always a war in the background; there were always conflicted lovers; there was always great disorder culminating in a terrific sword-fight in the last act; and some important official always restored order at the end.
The famous romantic poet, William Wordsworth, even wrote a sonnet about writing sonnets in which he observed that “Nuns fret not in their convent’s narrow room.” The analogy was to the “narrow room” of the sonnet form, 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a set rhyme scheme, not an easy form to manage.
The villanelle is perhaps the most intricate poetic form and the most difficult to write with its restrictive rhyme scheme and strategically placed repetitions. Two of my favorite villanelles are Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Roethke’s “The Waking.” The form of these poems plays a huge role in the overall effect.

Even this column has a kind of form and formula. I try to keep it to 500 words more or less and I strive to give it a little twist at the end. So, all the way from “Mother May I” to newspaper columns, there is a form upon which thought rides. The writer hopes that his art will hide the formula and that the thought will shine. After all, there is something satisfying about baseball well played.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

New Novel Just Published

I have just published a new novel on Amazon.com and Kindle.com. The title is Bois d'Arc. It is by me, Dan Ford. I hope you will have a look.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Bike Wrecks


I have had a lot of bicycle wrecks in my life. My two big brothers “taught” me how to ride by pushing me off down a steep hill on a bicycle that was much too large for me. Gravity won repeatedly until I got mad and kept my balance to ruin their joy.

One of my most memorable wrecks was when I tried to Evel Knieval across a ditch. It was a wonderfully smooth flight, but I undershot the clay bank and ended up imbedded or actually becoming one with the damp earth. Digging myself out, I knew pretty much how Adam must have felt on that first primordial day. I probably looked a lot like our old progenitor, except I had a navel and Adam probably did not, though Michelangelo painted him with one. Who is to say? If necessity is the mother of invention, he did not need one—a mother I mean, or a navel.

My second big wreck was when I was a messenger boy for Western Union. I had just gotten off work at dusk and was on my way home, riding down a high-traffic street. The light was green and I kept peddling at an intersection, but a driver coming from the other direction did not see me and made a left turn, broadsiding me. He knocked me over, gravity once again being the victor. I skidded and twirled across a service station entry and ended up wrapped around a gas pump. A bunch of cars stopped and people were hollering, “Are you hurt?” Even the guy who hit me pulled over and said, “I’m sorry, I did not see you. You need to get some lights on that thing.” Well, that “thing” was pretty much totaled, and would never need lights. Then the offending driver said something I shall never forget: “You can thank your lucky stars.” I had never heard of lucky stars, being a Baptist, but I did not have any interest at that moment in asking questions about these sidereal good luck charms. I pushed my wounded and wobbly vehicle homeward, nursing bloody elbows and knees. When I got home, Pop said, “What is the matter with you, boy?” “Bike wreck,” I replied.

It was a long time before I had my third wreck. I was in my thirties and bought a really good lightweight bicycle to get in shape, which is a lifelong preoccupation with the likes of me. It had multiple gears and derailleurs and I was riding along looking down to figure out how these devices worked. I hit a curb. Back in the old balloon-tired days, I could go up and down curbs with ease, but those little high-pressure tires just slid right off the curb and I went over the handlebars and landed on my shoulder, breaking my collarbone. My new bike’s wheels were warped and I was disabled for six weeks.

I had a wreck on my mountain bike standing dead still the other day. I was down at the bottom of a hill at the cemetery, and when I mounted to go up the hill, the bicycle lodged and down I went. Well, I thought, they wouldn’t have far to carry me. . .

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Technology Then and Now


Having spent the first few years of my life on a farm with no “facilities,” no running water and no electricity, I realize what a great influence technology has had on our lives. Reading about the rugged lives of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, for example, reminds me of how soft we can get in the modern world. These giants of American history, these champions of freedom and independence, would swim their horses across the Red River in the dead of winter, wring their clothes out and ride on undaunted.

The greatest bit of technology Jim Bowie possessed was his famous knife, one of which was made by James Black of Washington, Arkansas. Of the finest steel, it had a handle ominously designed to resemble a coffin. Davy Crockett’s favorite piece of technology was his famous rifle he called Betsy. He was such a good shot he never worried about having meat to eat. Houston, having been adopted as a teenager by a Cherokee chief, was conversant with all kinds of Native American technology, including the bow and arrow. He was known as The Raven by the tribes in Arkansas when he worked for the government and ran a trading post and he often went public in Cherokee chieftain garb from head to toe. (He later presented a similar costume to his friend, President Jackson).

Those frontiersmen did not have to think about physical fitness. Their lives were hard enough to keep their muscles active. For example, one burns a lot of calories just catching, bridling and saddling a horse. And the act of riding a horse is a vigorous physical exercise itself, especially if you ride through forests, mountains and swamps as they did. We turn the ignition and off we go; their travel was much more difficult and adventurous. In the winter, we flip a switch to turn the heat on. These fellows gathered wood and often struggled to get a fire going.

Communication was quite different back then, as well. We are often on information overload with our computers, phones, televisions and other devices. Frontiersmen wrote letters and spread news by word of mouth. Newspapers came out regularly from towns of any size, but if one is on the road as they often were, news came slowly. Even so, patriots like Bowie, Crockett and Houston were legends in their own time. And, the legends grew with each telling. Modern day historians have quite a task raking away the myths to get to the men.

All in all, the greatest difference between the lives of frontiersmen and the lives of modern Americans seems to be the convenience factor. We take so many things for granted that were true problems for our forebears. I am very grateful for conveniences, but we would all be better off if we were more active, more outdoorsy, more determined and more deeply committed to the cause of independence and freedom. I am grateful for the great advances in medicine in my lifetime, but with more vigorous lifestyles, we probably would not need the medicines developed to deal with symptoms brought on by inactivity.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hospitality


It is so much easier to travel long distances today than it used to be. Even in my lifetime, travel has become much more convenient. In the 19th Century, a slightly cleared road cut the state of Arkansas in half diagonally from northeast to southwest. Known as the Southwest Trail, this route presented multiple challenges to the rugged travelers who braved it. Because it ran through lonely and remote places, it was sometimes a haven for thieves and cutthroats of every stripe.

Fortunately, though, some of those who had established homes along the trail were hospitable and, after mid-century a few taverns sprang up near villages like the one at the place where five trails met, today’s Washington, Arkansas. The restaurant at the Historic Washington State Park known as Williams Tavern was one of these, though that building was moved to its present site from the trail.

A friend of mine was looking through back issues of the Arkansas Gazette on microfilm the other day and found an interesting story about such places. I was imagining some “back-story” as he told it, so I hope I can stick to the facts as I recount what he said. In 1875 a man had established a large farm with a good sized house near Washington. Though his house was not technically a tavern, he was known for his hospitality to travelers. Well, one time a rowdy group had gotten ahold of some whiskey down on the Red River and was traveling through his part of the country. They stopped at his house one evening and asked, or rather, according to the tone of the newspaper story, demanded a place to stay the night.

Because the men were very drunk, the ordinarily hospitable home owner told them they couldn’t stay inside, but could camp in his yard. He said his boy would bring them some coals from their fireplace and give them some wood to burn. Despite this good faith generosity, the drunks were not satisfied. They wanted to stay inside and made their demands more violent. Then guns came out. As I recall, when the smoke cleared, some of the drunks were down and the home owner was back inside with the door bolted.

This event made the friends of the drunks mad and they came with revengeful intent. They were not counting on any opposition, though. A large group of hands that worked the place rode up and told those friends of the drunks to leave. In fact, they told them to leave the county or there would be deep trouble. The hands prevailed and the men left, never to return.

So, looking back through the years, we see that people found a way to travel and they found a way to keep their homes safe as well. Every time I eat at the Williams Tavern Restaurant in Washington, Arkansas, I think of the difficulties travelers had not many years ago. And I am thankful for the conveniences we now enjoy.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Not About Me


Last Tuesday I decided to have lunch west of here at the Chinese buffet and as soon as I walked in I saw the wise old man seated in a corner. He motioned for me to come join him. I did and ordered a pot of hot tea and asked, “Sir, do you want anything else from the buffet.” He said he was good with his plate of mushrooms, broccoli and fruit, so I went on through the line.

When I returned, I saw that he was eating slowly and meditatively, with chopsticks. “Were you ever in the Orient,” I asked. “Oh, yes, Dan. You can’t name many places on the globe where I have not been. This feast before us is not Oriental food. It bears little resemblance to the fine dishes one finds over there.”

“How long have you been out of Hillsboro Manor, sir?”

“I walked out a couple of months ago. Juanita and another nurse or CNA were trying to find a vein and couldn’t and they left the room to get help so I grabbed up some stuff and left through the window. Didn’t they call you?”

“No, sir. I assumed you were still over there. I know they had my number.”

“They probably called the law, or the social workers. Anyway, I got to feeling a lot better once I left that place. I had a buck or two, so I caught the bus to Dallas and I was staying in the homeless shelter over there. I think you showed up there once, huh?”

“Yes, during the tornado. That’s a nice place.”

“If that’s what you want to call nice. Anyway, Dan, I am doing a lot better and I am on my way to see Keats and Shelley down at the old home place. They are looking after things for me down there.”

“The twins?”

“Yes. Oh, yeah, you met them. Nice boys and they are good hands on the place.” As the wise old man finished up his mushrooms, he said, “Now Dan, what I have learned in the past six months is a reconfirmation of something I already knew but denied: It is not about me. I mean every situation you are in that you think is about you—think again, it isn’t. That knowledge takes a load off, son.”

“What if it is something about reputation? What if people say things about you that are untrue?”

“Well, son, if it is a lie, it is about the liar, not about him or her who is lied about.”

“What if it hurts you financially, socially, relationally and so forth?”

“If a man takes your shirt, give him your jacket, too. If he damages your reputation, tell him to just keep talking. Turn the other cheek, you know. Dan, I don’t want to hear any more ‘what-ifs’ today. Just remember it is not about you. You are not the target. Can you give me a ride to the fairgrounds? I’m meeting a lady at the pavilion.”

I gave him a ride.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Paul Green's Stories


I met Paul Green in Chapel Hill, North Carolina a year before he died. He was 86 at the time and his mind was crisp. This witty, gifted and highly intelligent playwright was a guest of our UNC seminar on Southern Literature in the summer of 1980.

He came to our gathering as the great founder of American outdoor drama, though he had been quite successful in other forms of theater both at home and abroad. In fact, he helped Richard Wright bring his novel Native Son to the stage. He said they did a lot of their work on the play in North Carolina, but some of it sitting in the back of vacant theaters in New York City, envisioning the scenes. He told our group that Richard Wright much preferred working in North Carolina where, as Wright put it, “we have some freedom.”

Of course, I was more interested in Green’s friendship with William Faulkner. He said he met the great Mississippian there in Chapel Hill at a conference for up-and-coming as well as established writers. Green was on the drama faculty at UNC at the time and he was “assigned” to be in charge of Faulkner during the conference. When he went to the hotel to meet him at the arranged time, he said Faulkner came down the stairs into the lobby wearing scuffed-up brogans, very casual clothing and an aviator’s leather cap with goggles. After Green introduced himself, Faulkner said in his high-pitched Mississippi drawl, “Hi, I’m William Faulkner. I am an aviator.” Green said the author wore that cap throughout the conference.

Dos Passos, another great American writer at the conference, complained to Green that Faulkner kept showing up in his room. Apparently, Faulkner often got his room number confused with that of Dos Passos, especially when he was in his cups, which was frequently. Green went up to Dos Passos’ room and, sure enough, protruding from the blanket he found Faulkner’s brogans. When Green shook him, he said, “Get out of my room.”

But, the most interesting thing he told about Faulkner was that he asked Green if he could accompany him to the opening of Green’s new play in New York. Though skeptical, Green allowed him to ride up there with him from Chapel Hill and to sit in the author’s box with him. Green said that during the play, Faulkner took notes and drew an elaborate paradigm on the back of the program. After the show, which was very well-received by the huge audience, with shouts of “Author! Author!” Faulkner showed him his scribbling and said, “Paul, here is the outline of your play. You are never going to amount to anything.”

Even though he had achieved considerable success and is still highly regarded, Green never had the success and acclaim that Faulkner later achieved. And, Green said there in Chapel Hill a year before his death, “I have often thought about that moment in New York when Bill Faulkner told me I would never amount to anything.” He said that with some remorse.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Picket Fence


Robert Frost has the narrator of “Mending Wall” say that before one builds a fence, he should determine what he is walling in or walling out. I think that is true, don’t you? There has to be a purpose for a wall or a fence, right? Otherwise, why put one up?

Well, the historic town I live in is full of picket fences and a friend of mine who lives behind me just gave me a bunch of picket fence panels he had acquired somehow. My wife and I had been talking about building some kind of enclosure out back to hide unsightly stuff we have accumulated. A fence would be cheaper than a storage building and the city council is particular about what kind of structures you can put up here. So, we decided a little picket fence enclosure would be attractive and in line with the overall décor of our neighborhood.

So, I asked myself the question from Robert Frost’s poem: what am I walling in or walling out? An honest answer is that the fence is merely cosmetic. We want to hide a pile of seldom-used junk too valuable to throw away. But would a picket fence hide it? Probably not, but it would camouflage it somewhat. So, I am leaning toward getting started on the project. Right now, I just have the panels and posts laid out on the yard back there.

I have had some experience in fence building. My Gillham born and bred son-in-law is a highly skilled fence builder and I have watched him work. While my barbed wire fences never measured up to his creations, I did get the basic principles down. The trouble was, at that time I lived in a wooded area and trees and limbs had a tendency to fall on my handiwork.

My donkeys would show up in our neighbor’s yard and I would go fetch them with a feed bucket, secure them in the pasture and think my job was done. Then the phone would ring and the neighbor’s somewhat irritated voice would say, “They’re back.” After a time or two of this, I would walk the fence line back through the woods and, inevitably, I would find a tree or a limb down on the fence. I got pretty good and mending fences in more ways than one.

So, in answer to Robert Frost’s admonition to ask what we are walling in or walling out, I guess I was walling in wandering equines. But at this place there are no animals to consider. I don’t think my garbage can will get out and go to a neighbor’s yard. Thus, I am not walling anything in. But I am walling out eyes that would fall on a pile of junk. Oh, you can see through the picket fence, but the eye falls on the fence itself, not the spaces between the stakes. I hope.

A repeated refrain in Frost’s poem is, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” I don’t think we will love our little picket fence. I do think our back yard will be a little more attractive.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rufus


When I arrived in Germany for my three-year tour of duty, I did not realize their electric system was 220 instead of 110. All I had to shave with was an electric razor Mother gave me for high school graduation. When I noticed the wall socket had holes instead of slits, I asked a soldier nearby who had also newly arrived what the deal was. He said, “I guess you will need an adapter.” So, I went to the base store and bought an adapter. When I plugged in, there was a pop and a lot of black smoke. The razor never worked again. Later I learned that what I needed was not an adapter but a transformer.

Another difficulty was that my squadron did not have a mail room yet when I arrived, so they had “mail call.” It was quite a while before I got mail and I was homesick. Well, the day arrived for mail call and one of the first people the sergeant called out was a Rufus. Because he thought the place name on the return address was funny, he called out, “Rufus got one from Smackover, Arkansas.” There were a few snickers, but mostly people wanted Sarge to get on with mail call. I got a pretty good handful of mail that day and edged over to Rufus. I said, “Hey, Rufus, I am from El Dorado.” We shook hands and became really good friends for the duration.

Both of us missed state-side stuff you could not get over there, delicacies such as our favorite sodas and peanut wheels. Rufus went back to the states a year before my tour of duty was over and in the mail shortly after he got home came a box from him with two sodas and a half-dozen peanut wheels. He also visited my parents and my sister in El Dorado and sent me photographs of him in my living room. He was a good friend, but, of course, I lost touch with him.

When I got out of the service, I worked at various jobs and eventually went to college and graduate school and landed a teaching job at the college in Magnolia. Rufus showed up at my office one day. His daughter was enrolled there. We had quite a reunion. He had been hurt on the flight line and was on disability, so he had a lot of free time. We saw quite a bit of each other at ball games and such. Eventually, I moved on to other universities and lost touch again. When my sister died years later, Rufus showed up at the visitation. We had a great time reminiscing about our experiences in Europe. We both observed how southerners seem to seek each other out and stick together.

I learned a lot from Rufus about friendship, altruism and little deeds of kindness that mean so much, especially far from home. He made me want to be the kind of friend he was. Every time I see an electric razor, I smell electrical smoldering. Every time I pass through Smackover, I think of a gift from home: Rufus, a true friend.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mr. Faulkner, What Do You Do?


One of my favorite stories about William Faulkner is about his time as a screen writer in Hollywood. Apparently he had to go to work in a studio where he had little privacy and for that and other reasons he wanted to go home to Oxford, Mississippi. The main reason was that he was just plain homesick. So, he asked the producer if he could go home to work on the scripts and, thinking he meant back to his apartment, the producer said yes. Well, he got on the train and went to Oxford, much to the chagrin of his bosses. Faulkner later said Hollywood was the only place he knew of where you could get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder. I never understood what he meant by that statement.

Another story is about his friendship with the famous director, Howard Hawks. Faulkner loved hunting and they had been hunting together a few times, so Hawks invited him to go bird hunting in the valley again, this time with him and Clark Gable. On the journey to the hunting location, Faulkner asked Hawks if Hemingway was a better shot than he was. Hawks told him Hemingway shot more birds than he did. That made Faulkner mad because he was very competitive, especially with the other great writer of the time. So, to change the subject and calm the fiery Faulkner down, he said, “Bill, if I wanted to read the greatest living writers, who should I read?” Faulkner mentioned a few, you know, writers like Dos Passos and Thomas Mann, and then concluded, “and, of course my work.” At that, Clark Gable perked up in the back seat and said, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” And, Faulkner replied, “Why yes, Mr. Gable, what do you to?” The funny part of that story is that they were both serious. Gable did not read and Faulkner did not go to the movies. These two great artists had no idea about the other’s gifts.

When I was doing my work of Faulkner back in the early 1970s, I went out to Oxford and talked to several people. A man named Motee Daniels said, “Will Faulkner was different from just about anybody. I have seen him in town in his pajamas. People used to call him Count No-Count around Oxford. I saw him one day just staring at the statue of the Confederate soldier, standing in the road transfixed, just staring up at the statue.” Shelby Foote said that in Oxford at the time of Faulkner’s greatest popularity, if you asked a citizen if he knew William Faulkner, the person would not reply but turn his head and spit. They felt that because of novels like Sanctuary, he was sullying the atmosphere around there.

However, all that changed after he won the Nobel Prize in 1949. Then he was considered a kind of elder statesman. I saw a video of his return to Oxford from Stockholm where he had received the coveted award. Someone sitting on the bench in front of the drug store said, “Where you been, Bill?” He replied, “Sweden.” Then the man asked, “Had a good trip, I guess?” Faulkner said, yes, good trip and then changed the subject to deer hunting. He said, “Tell you what we are going to do this year. Corral them up out there by the Yocona Creek and you can whip them to death with collard greens.” Both Faulkner and his companion had a good laugh.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Which is Better?


In the city of Philippi some 2,000 years ago, Paul, Silas, Timothy, Luke and others were walking the busy streets spreading the Gospel. They had established headquarters at Lydia’s house. She was a new convert, a successful business woman, and so she wanted to take care of these bold missionaries with the astonishing message. Actually, a church was established in her home.

Well, as Paul and his colleagues were preaching and teaching in the street, a servant girl who brought in a lot of money by fortune-telling, latched onto their ministry. To make herself look good and to tap into the large crowds, she cried out repeatedly, “These are servants of God who can tell you how to be saved.” Paul was irritated but let the woman go on like this for a while—after all, she was speaking the truth. But, when he and the others had enough of this constant diatribe, Paul turned to her and cast out the demon motivating her, thereby losing a lot of money for her handlers.

So, they told the city magistrates Paul and Silas were stirring up people with talk not legal for Romans to hear. Without a trial, the officials had them publically whipped and thrown into the innermost part of jail, shackling their legs. The stalwart pair was undaunted. About midnight, they were praying aloud and singing hymns (in harmony, no doubt) and an earthquake came, knocking down the prison gates and making the leg chains of no effect. The Roman guard was so alarmed he would have fallen on his sword if Paul had not stopped him. “We are all here. Do not harm yourself,” he said. Seeing the power, the jailer said, “What do I have to do to be saved?” So Paul witnessed to him, he accepted the message, took the twosome home with him, washed their wounds and gave them an early breakfast. The jail birds ended up baptizing everyone in the house and scripture tells us the jailer was filled with joy.

The magistrates realized they had made a mistake and sent word to release them. But Paul said, let them come personally escort us away. “We are Roman citizens and we were mistreated without a trial.” Well, the officials came running and apologetically escorted them out, telling them to leave town. They did not leave town right away, but went to Lydia’s house and strengthened the brothers there.

A lot of points could be drawn out of the story from Acts 16, but what stands out to me today is the fact that Paul and Silas went by a Higher Law than provincial rules and regulations. They did not fear what man could do to them. It reminded me of Peter and John after they were told by authorities not to teach in the name of Jesus. They kept on doing so and remarked, “Which should we do, obey man or God?” How do we answer that one?