Sunday, February 23, 2014

American Idle

I developed a talent for idleness early. My widowed mother had to work so she left me with an aunt who had a son, my cousin, a little older than I. He was a late sleeper. Mother would drop me off at my aunt’s house and most mornings I sat an hour or so under the Chinaberry tree out back waiting for Tom Alfred to wake up. During this time, I would pick up sticks and lay them straight, peel twigs, pet French Harp, the yellow cat, draw in the sand, climb the Chinaberry tree, re-straighten my sticks, check the tadpoles in a number two washtub, check my sticks again and peel me some more twigs.

It took a while to merge back into a life of activity after Tom Alfred awakened. Where I was introverted and laid back, he was extroverted and hyper. He always had a plan that did not include sitting in the shade, no matter how many sticks needed picking up and laying straight. He liked to pester his daddy’s chickens with pea gravel, stick bubble gum to French Harp’s feet to watch her antics, call out the names of cars as they went by. (Before there was such a variety of automobiles out there, this activity was fairly common: 1939 Chevy, new Packard or Hudson, 1947 Crosley, 1938 Nash, and the most common, late model Ford coupe.)

The one activity he liked that matched my proclivities was swimming. We had two favorite places to engage in this refreshing summer activity. First, because Tom Alfred’s daddy was well positioned in the oil business, we had permission to swim in Charlie Murphy’s private swimming pool behind his house. (That is the Murphy Oil Mr. Murphy, you know, as in Wal-Mart gas?) Sometimes as we swam there, Charlie Murphy himself would come sit on the pool furniture and watch. He was missing his left hand. When I asked Mother about this affliction, she said he wore his hand off counting his money. This revelation struck me as kind of odd until I figured out that there is no way he could have done so. The truth came out when Pop told me that the man had lost his hand in a sawmill accident when he was young.

The other favorite place to swim was Dokie’s Pool, a public facility to which admission was a quarter. I did not like the name of the place, but it was fine if you liked screaming and horseplay. I did not, but Tom Alfred did, and I had strategies to find places to surface dive away from the moiling “fun.” After swimming at Dokie’s, Tom Alfred always said the same thing, “I wish it would rain cherry phosphates and candy bars.” That statement would herald a stop at the drug store for these refreshments. I was on a budget, but he would sometimes share.

Today I find that I still have that talent for idleness, but I know in my heart that I must move around, breathe hard and get fresh air every day. And, here in Washington, Arkansas, there are plenty of places to do that. I have not had a cherry phosphate since I was nine.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Integrity Trumps Defilement

Generally speaking, the Book of Daniel is about defilement and its remedy, integrity. For example, the title character does not want to defile himself by eating foods forbidden in the law so he figures out a way to save his coterie from having to do so. They get vegetables and water only and consequently look better than their colleagues who are pigging out on the king’s fare. Integrity prevailed and the defilement turned into advancement—Daniel interpreted the king’s prophetic dream and was placed over a third of the kingdom.

Similarly, Daniel’s three fellow captives, whom he himself had promoted to high position, did not want to defile themselves by bowing to foreign gods, and were consequently sentenced to the worst punishment the king could dish out—the fiery furnace. With characteristic integrity, the boys stood firm against the kings edict and were thrown into the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual. As the old king was watching the show, of course, he noticed a fourth man in the fire with the unscathed Hebrews that looked to him like the Son of God. This theophany blew old Nebuchadnezzar away, not to mention the fact that when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire they did not even smell like smoke. Integrity prevailed and the intended defilement became a strong witness for the God of the Hebrews.

Daniel’s reputation for integrity was so strong that he was called upon in his old age to interpret the handwriting on the wall for Nebuchadnezzar’s offspring. Belshazzar was mocking God by drinking from the cups stolen from the temple in Jerusalem in a riotous party with his wives and concubines. The supernatural hand appeared and wrote a foreign language on the wall, a language no one at the party could understand. As one might expect, Belshazzar’s knees smote one against the other and he knew not what to do. The Queen Mother came on the scene and told the mindless playboy about old Daniel, who could interpret dreams, visions and all kinds of weird stuff.

Belshazzar called for the old Hebrew wise man and told him he would put a royal robe on him, give him a gold medallion and give him a third of the kingdom if he would interpret the strange writing. Daniel told the upstart he could keep his medallion, his robe and his promotion, but that he would tell him what the writing meant. It meant Belshazzar had been weighed in the scales of God and found wanting—he had not learned humility as the old king had in a season of lycanthropy. Consequently, his kingdom would be turned over to Darius. And, that interpretation came true that very evening. Thus, in the midst of defilement, Daniel’s integrity once again saved the day for himself, the Lord’s treasures and, as history confirms, his own people.

Finally, in the Lion’s Den story, we find that Daniel, with characteristic integrity, kept praying even though his prayers were forbidden by law. Consequently, he escaped the defilement intended. His accusers, not Daniel, became breakfast for the beasts.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Amarillo Toothache

Both of my older brothers knew how to manage educational pursuits. I didn’t. Those two were able to get interested in subjects and pursue them with gusto. I wasn’t. They both tried to encourage me to do better in school. The oldest one subscribed me to a hotrod magazine hoping I would become a mechanical engineer and, Curtis, the one just older than I, encouraged me to write down some of the witticisms I came up with. I could always make him laugh. He recommended a career in journalism or comedy.

I tried to do as they did and go on to college, but I was sick of school and I knew college would intensify what I already detested. Thus, an Air Force recruiting brochure that miraculously appeared in my closet had a glow on it, offering an honorable escape from the halls of learning, which, for me had become the halls of yearning.

When I told Mother and Pop about my intentions, she said, “Oh, son, no.” But he said, “Let him go.” Pop, I think, understood my state of mind based upon his own experience—he had joined the Seabees when he was young. So, I talked to the recruiter and signed up. There was a month or two waiting period, so I watched a lot of Popeye cartoons, read silly books like No Time for Sergeants, fantasized about the upcoming venture and, of course, second-guessed my decision daily: What have I done?

The great day of departure came all too quickly. Another guy from my town with whom I was barely acquainted accompanied me to the induction center in Shreveport and then to Lackland Air Force Base, where the life-changing adventure began. If nothing else, basic at Lackland gave me more self-confidence than I had before. I felt more mature after running through a burning simulated airplane crash, going into the tear gas chamber and crawling under what they said was live fire.

After a few weeks of that kind of activity and getting yelled at, I was sent to technical school in Amarillo, where two memorable things happened, one bad and one good. First, the bad one. About the third block of my tech course, I developed a terrible toothache that kept me in agony all night. I didn’t have Mother to tell me what to do, so I went to the sergeant at morning formation, holding my swollen jaw. He sent me to sick bay and the doctor sent me to the dentist, who yanked out a big back tooth and authorized a day off from tech school. The good thing that happened was that my brother Curtis flew there to Amarillo from Harlingen, Texas in a T-33 with his flight instructor and got in touch with me. I loved that brief mirthful visit on the flight line, not knowing at the time it would be our last one. He was killed a year later in a B-47 crash.

The Air Force made me realize that the halls of learning would be superior to the life of an airman. After my tour of duty and honorable discharge, I went to college, enduring it until it actually became interesting. There, I found that other grown men made a living telling stories about storytellers and the stories they tell, so I got a Doctor of Philosophy degree in English literature and joined them.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Best Advertisement

Watching those expensive commercials during the Super Bowl, I reflected on the advertising I can remember from my youth. There was an old man in my town that had a flourishing repair business. His only advertisement aside from word-of-mouth was a converted filling station sign. He had painted it white and awkwardly lettered “I Fix Victrolas and Bicycles” on it in black. Regardless of this meager advertising, he always had a backlog and he was always finished with an assignment when he said he would be.

Some other advertising I recall is that as a Western Union messenger, I was sometimes called upon to pass out complimentary samples of an anti-acid to citizens. The company provided a cardboard box top for these distributions with a cotton strap. Messengers passed out little rolls of the product all over town until they were gone. I am sure that “advertisement” did not cost the company much, because messengers worked cheap. But I imagine it was effective. What better way to get acquainted with an anti-acid than to try it?

Further, I used to see homemade advertisements that were somewhat amusing, signs such as, “Far Wude 4 Sell,” or “Try Are Buger Baskits,” or “Cold Ice Water Inside.” I always wondered if some people had ice water that was not cold. I could just hear a customer complaining, “Hey, this ice water is hot.” If I have a choice, I want my ice water cold, how about you? I also used to wonder what a foreigner would understand from signs on the highway that read, “Rest Area No Rest Room.” That would probably seem a bit contradictory to someone who was not familiar with our jargon.

What about those television commercials that keep saying, “But wait, we are not done yet,” and go on doubling the offer and adding other stuff “absolutely free.” I only bit at one of these years ago and called the toll free number. The sales person kept me on the line for a half an hour trying to sell me an improved version of what I had seen on television as well as other products that she thought every American should own.

In my humble opinion, the best advertisement is the one that says, “If you do not like our product, tell us. If you do, tell others.” The bottom line is that reputation spread by word of mouth is the best advertisement possible. That can be a problem in college teaching though, where popularity of a teacher is often equated with easiness. On the contrary, as a dean, I found that often teachers were popular because the students found learning fun in their classes. I, for one, always learn better in a relaxed and playful atmosphere.

That old man with his sign, “I Fix Victrolas and Bicycles,” was highly skilled, honest and dependable. The poor quality of his sign had no bearing on the advertising that his reputation bought for him. So, why spend millions advertising at the Super Bowl? Companies should focus upon skill, honesty, and dependability and let the chips fall where they may.