Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Sunday, August 24, 2014
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
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
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
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.”
“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.