Monday, December 28, 2015

Correct Time?

What do we mean by saying “Happy New Year”? Do we really believe there is something new about the condition of starting a fresh calendar? Or, do we mean that we hope life will improve as we continue to measure something we cannot define with clocks and calendars? I usually think of this season of the year as a time to reflect upon the trial and error called life. What should I correct in my life from past experience and what areas of life should I encourage?
Some writers go a little deeper. William Faulkner, the great Mississippi novelist, for example, wrote that there is no such thing as “was.” He explained that if “was” existed, there would be no sadness or sorrow. I guess he meant that since the past is gone forever, we must be sad or sorrowful. I can see that would be true if there were some idyllic past that we wish we could live in, like the many anachronistic Civil War reenactors who wish those days were back. I can also see that, for them at least, the past is not really gone—“was” exists.
Along those lines, the French philosopher Bergson and the French writer Proust posited the proposition that everything we ever experience stays with us. For them, there is no such thing as forgetting. We have all had involuntary remembrances of the sort that a smell or sound or other sensation suddenly brings back a whole experience from our past, a whole hunk of time that does not seem momentary. Every time I smell watermelon, I am taken back to my childhood and Aunt Sarah’s front porch where we feasted on cold melons in the hot summer time. Whiskey breath brings back some not-so-pleasant memories in the same involuntary way. So the French thinkers must have been onto something.
Don’t shrinks say something along those lines as well? You know, that all our experiences are filed away somewhere in our grey matter. Perhaps that would explain the phenomenon of our whole lives flashing before our eyes in a moment of eminent danger. I have often wondered where it stops. When the flashing show gets to the moment of the flashing show, does the flashing show replay and if so for how long? This has implications of eternity. (I am only kidding, of course).
But on a serious note, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, having been influenced by Aristotle, that time is the number of motion. He meant that our clocks and calendars measure the movements of the cosmos, nothing more. A clock or calendar has nothing at all to do with my state of consciousness at, say, 3:00 p.m. We are simply measuring the revolutions and rotations of our terrestrial orb, are we not? So, time is manmade, our way of dealing with the immensity of God’s eternity. There are no clocks in Heaven because there is nothing to measure there.

I am glad for our measurements, however. It gives us the means of celebrating Christmas and of saying “Happy New Year” without even thinking of what we mean by that.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Shepherd King

The city was so crowded people were camping wherever they could find a space. Her labor pains started just before they hit the city limits coming in for the census. Because of the urgency of their situation, one would think some kind innkeeper would find a place for them and one apparently did: the barn. At least there was a roof over it and hay for bedding and a little warmth from the animals. There were cows, goats, sheep, a few donkeys and a noisy tribe of sore-footed camels in there. It was not a quiet place. The concerned couple found a stall that separated them from the lowing occupants of the barn and set up housekeeping. When the baby was born healthy and loud, the animals nearby got quiet and at least two cows and a camel knelt down in the hay.
A rather large flock of sheep were bedded down just outside of town and when the birth took place the heavens appeared to open and great angelic beings appeared in much light and began to sing praises. One of them spoke to the shepherds, saying, “Something good for you has happened in town, an event for you to be joyful about—a savior, the Messiah has been born.” When the vision closed, the eldest shepherd said, “Come on. Let’s leave a couple with the sheep and head into town to see if we can find our savior that the angels said was born for us.” So they went in and were guided directly to the stall in the barn where the baby was asleep in a trough converted into a baby bed. They told about the vision and what the angels had said, but the young couple did not seem surprised. They allowed the shepherds to get a good look and kiss the sleeping child.
So, these humble shepherds were the first to hear about the great event but it did not take long for the wise and sophisticated to learn of the birth. Kings from the Babylonian region had been studying prophecy and other phenomena that led them to understand that the Messiah, the king of kings, would be born in Bethlehem and now they had an exciting heavenly apparition to encourage them to seek Him out. They packed up their animals with rich treasures and followed the newly-appeared star through rough country until they dropped down into Bethlehem to find the child, just as they had anticipated. They brought gifts and worshipped the youngster, fully awed by this wonderful culmination of their long quest.

Shepherds found the one who would call Himself the great shepherd and kings found the One who would be known as the King of Kings. We have the privilege of being shepherded by this one born in a barn and we have the joy of being ruled over by this eternal king. He was born in the humblest of circumstances and now sits at the right hand of all power. His kingdom will have no end.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Don't Make Santa Claus Mad

Among the characters I portray for Historic Washington State Park are Dr. Purdom, Judges Conway and Royston and a Confederate codger named Danny. The park wardrobe department provides an authentic wool suit, complete with top hat. Because of the pretty vest, that outfit accentuates a part of my anatomy I am trying unsuccessfully to control, namely my belly. Sporting that feature along with my little round period glasses, I suppose I looked a bit like Santa Claus at last Saturday’s Christmas and Candlelight event at the park.
Maybe that’s why the mayor’s wife called me aside and told me she and the mayor were part of a progressive dinner soon and they wanted me to portray Father Christmas for it. You see, the park has a very beautiful bishop’s costume, as well as extravagantly realistic whiskers, worn by the person designated as Father Christmas as he roams around the park greeting people and handing out peppermint during the two evenings of Christmas and Candlelight. I have never been asked to perform that role until the First Lady of Washington approached me about it.
So, I have been studying the real St. Nicholas whom I shall portray at the dinner in a couple of weeks. I found out some interesting things about this historical figure, including the report that he was a signer of the Nicene Creed, having been a prime mover in that Council. Here is as far as I have gotten in my preparation for my portrayal.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I have come to you here in Washington from the third century. My home is in the village of Patara in what is now Turkey. My folks were quite wealthy, but they died while I was young, leaving me a considerable inheritance, which I used to help the sick and the poor in Patara. Because of my zeal and deep belief in Our Lord, I was eventually made bishop of Myra.
“That is why I carry this shepherd’s staff. Bishops traditionally use this curved stick as a symbol of their office and as a depiction of what they do. They reach out with the crook to rescue and bring in; they urge the recalcitrant along with the other end; they use it to fight off any entity that would attack their sheep.
“Once I rescued three sisters from a poor family who had no dowry. They were unable to marry and would have doubtless been sold into slavery. So I tossed three bags of gold into their stockings as they dried above the fireplace, so that the next morning they found themselves saved. Another time, a ship full of wheat was docked in my town and I convinced the sailors to give me half the wheat for the poor, assuring them that it would be restored as they sailed to their destination. They gave me the wheat and later reported that it had been miraculously restored when they arrived in Constantinople.

“And, I hesitate to relate this, but Roman Bishop Arius was close to apostate at the Nicene Council and I smacked him in his heresy spewing mouth. Yes, Santa Claus can get mad.” 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Balance of Power

The wise old man came to my house Thanksgiving eve and asked if “the little building” was available for him to crash in for a while. “Of course, sir, any time,” I told him. I fetched him the key to our converted garage and he unloaded his pack in there and came on back into our house for some strong coffee.
“What are y’all doing for Thanksgiving, Dan?”
“Sir, we are going up to my daughter’s in De Queen. I am sure she would welcome you, too. Our granddaughter is just back from a semester in Zambia, so there will be interesting conversation.”
“No, Dan, I will just stay here. The Tavern Restaurant will be open tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, but let me call her on my cell and let you talk with her.” I called my daughter and made a brief explanation. She had met the wise old man once before when she was just a little girl and she had spoken of him often. His face brightened up when I put him on the line. I don’t know what our daughter said to him, but he was glowing when the call was over and he said, “Looks like I’m going with y’all, Dan. She remembers me!”
It was a great day there in De Queen. We had a veritable feast and great fellowship. The  wise old man was fascinated with the talk of Africa. He had traveled extensively in the countries of South America, but had never been to Africa. When everyone was talked out and drowsy, the old fellow told this story:
“I lived among the Yanomamo in the Oronoco jungle for three years. Missionaries had told me how to approach the people, mainly with non-threatening poise. I found my way into Mishi Mishi Mabouiteri and stood dead still in a benign pose and eight fierce warriors surrounded me, feeling of my arms, hair and beard. They pushed me a little bit, but I kept my balance and my poise. At length, the head man, Daddy Haywire (an approximation of what they called him) urged me to recline in a crocheted hammock. I pretended to go to sleep and I could tell that pleased the warriors. After about an hour, Daddy Haywire invited me to squat and enjoy some squashed up plantains with the men, which I did. They offered me a couple of worms to eat and I did so for fear of offending. They tasted like a Studebaker floor mat smells.
“Anyway,” he went on, “that night there was a planned visitation from another village and they came in chanting and dotted with charcoal with feathers stuck all over them. Daddy Haywire enjoyed the show and they all sat down to a trough of plantain soup. A warrior from the visitors was offended at something and one of Daddy Haywire’s chief men faced off with him. They slapped each other’s sides with resounding blows that left red blotches on the skin. But they were still mad, so they started taking turns hitting each other in the chest. Luckily, that episode ended the conflict, for, I learned that the next steps in this ritualized fighting could be fatal.

“I remember thinking, this is designed to preserve life by restraint. It is sort of like a balance of power. Thank y’all for treating me like royalty. May I have that turkey wing?”

Monday, November 23, 2015

Zane Grey Formula

We should not have anything against “formula” writing, the kind in which the writer follows a plan or outline that has been successful in the past. Even the great Shakespeare was a formula writer in a sense. All his tragedies contain a war in the background, highly placed people in deep guacamole, conflicted lovers, a sword fight in the last act and the arrival of a noble person to restore order. He hung muscular stories on those organized bones.
Because of a friend, I have run into another formula writer in recent days. I was out on my daily constitutional walk in Washington, Ark. when I heard a voice above me. It was my friend working on the roof of the historic Presbyterian Church. He yelled, “Hey Danny, do you want some books?” I asked him what kind of books and he said look in my pickup truck there. I found in his front seat a whole box full of hard-bound Zane Grey novels. “Yes, thank you, I’d love to have them,” I yelled back. He told me he would bring them by my house, which he did.
The collection, maybe the complete works, is in very good shape. I made room for the volumes in a bookcase and pulled one out, “The 30,000 Head,” about a pioneer who wrests a big ranch from the wilderness out west. The formula had to do with overcoming hardships—wolves, cougars, rustlers, bad weather and discouragement—adjusting to married life (the original title was to be “The Pioneer Wife) and losing and regaining material possessions. Though Zane Grey was a commercial rather than a literary writer, I found he could string his episodes expertly and offer intermittent effusions of great description. Even though the dialogue seemed stilted in places, one could attribute that to the period, you know, Victorian sensibilities trying to hang on out West.
I saw that formula at work in the second novel I selected as well, “The Thundering Herd.” There were hardships to overcome on many levels in that book and a love relationship that culminated in marriage on the last few pages. The theme of overcoming loss was evident in the novel and descriptions were abundant, even with onomatopoetic utterances like “raaaa” for the buffalo cries, “haw haw” for laughter and “boom boom boom” for the guns of buffalo hunters.
The next novel I grabbed arbitrarily from the shelf was “Robbers Roost” and I find the same formula at work amongst a bevy of bad men. Their hardships on the lam, their female relationships and their blasé attitude towards ill-gotten gain are presented in splendidly colorful language and description. Zane Grey obviously had a good thing going.

I conclude that whether you are Shakespeare, John Grisham or Zane Grey, there is a tendency to form a system, perhaps based upon your personality and interests, that becomes a vehicle for developing your plot. “Hunger Games” is an example of this phenomenon. Charles Shultz mastered that art, as did Norman Rockwell. Can you name an artist in any genre that did not develop a formula for his or her work?

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Old School" Conversion--Roll On

Natural, intuitive teachers are the easiest ones to learn from. They seem to watch for feedback from their students and clarify topics as they go, based upon facial expressions. In other words, they want their students to learn. They do not say, “How am I going to fill up this hour with talk?” Rather, they say, “What do I want my students to learn this hour?”
I came through the “old school” ranks as I prepared for my career as college English professor. What I mean by that is not hard to explain. The scholars I admired both as an undergraduate and in graduate school opined that the best preparation was immersion into the subject matter with no thought for how to teach it. My undergraduate advisors explained it further: “If you love your subject and truly care for students, you will do well in college teaching.” As one who deeply admired and wanted to emulate my mentors, I bought that ostensible truism hook, line and sinker, readily adopting the English professors’ disdain for the practices over in the School of Education.
So, I had to figure out the teaching gig for myself, usually modeling my presentations on what I had experienced in the classroom—often unorganized banter about the reading for the day. (That banter is not always bad, of course). I had never heard of student evaluations of teaching until around my 10th year in the profession. May I humbly and modestly report that I did quite well on the forms the students turned in, often all fives with five being the highest, but there was one persistent four, sometimes even as low as three. That was in the area of “makes assignments clear.” So, with stung and bruised ego, I started reading books on teaching: God on the Quad and The Courage to Teach were two of the best. As a result, I started writing out assignments on the board in great detail, burning up about 15 minutes of class time in the process. If the project was complex, I would provide and go over a handout with detailed steps in completing it, with due dates, research guidelines and so on.
Later, when I was teaching History of English Language and Grammar at Texas A&M in Texarkana, I added another step to the practice of clearly stating the assignment: the enumeration of topics for the current class session on the board. I checked off each topic as we covered it. The education department there at A&M required that course I was teaching of their students preparing to teach and I had a passel of those in there.

One such student stayed behind after class one day and asked me how long I had been “utilizing” the goals and outcome based method of teaching. I confessed I was not familiar with the term, but that student evaluations had led me to modifying my “old school” style of English teaching to one more systematic in nature. To my surprise, the education student told me mine was a textbook example of current education practices. My conclusion is that I could have saved myself a lot of trial and error by having an education course or two back in my undergraduate years. Listen…I think I hear some “old school” English professors rolling in their graves.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Service

As I pumped $1.88 a gallon gas on State Line in Texarkana recently, pleased that I was getting a bargain, I had an involuntary remembrance that flooded in from many years ago. I was a kid just beginning to drive a car, pausing at the Spur station on North West Avenue in El Dorado, Ark. I asked the uniformed, bow-tied attendant for a dollar’s worth of gas. It was 12 cents a gallon. The man pumped the gas, washed my windshield, front and back, evaluated things under the hood and checked all the tires, asking if he should check the spare. Then, in my recollection, he gave me a handful of little coupons to save up for a table service for Mother. They were giving away really pretty cups, saucers and plates for a collection of the coupons. So I could come close to filling the old Chevy up for that dollar while making substantial progress towards a nice gift for Mother.
Because of that memory, I started thinking about the word “service” as in “service station” and “table service.” That word goes way back, with versions in Old English, Old French and Latin. In some cases, it had the connotation of “slave” and in some, “ceremony,” as in serving some entity through ritual. I remember signing up for my tour of duty in the service, not thinking much about whom or what I would serve. I had no high, altruistic ideas about what I was doing; I just did not know at that point what else to do. When I was sworn in down in Shreveport, however, I suddenly understood what it meant: I was agreeing to serve with all that is within me, even my life itself.
As to serving with one’s whole being, the New International Version of the Bible uses the word “service” in Romans 12, where Paul explains that giving our bodies as a living sacrifice to God is our spiritual service. The King James Version calls it our reasonable service. It amounts to the same thing, though, doesn’t it? Giving all that is within us (our spirits as well as our reason) is the Christian’s true service.
We call what happens in a church building a service because it is there we make such a commitment: a promise to be doers and not hearers only. Plus the word “service” has to do with ceremony, as I observed above—serving through ritual or liturgy. In what way is singing hymns or praise songs in a church building an act of service? Scripture teaches that the Lord inhabits the praises of his people. The word “praise” is related to the word “prize.” Thus, we show how much we prize our God by singing about and to Him—that is one aspect of service. I cannot imagine why God likes to hear me sing. Neither can I understand why he likes the music of many Christian meetings I have attended. Nevertheless, scripture teaches that He does like it enough to be in attendance. So we should try to sing as beautifully as possible with the equipment we have been given.
True service, though, happens outside the four walls of the church building, doesn’t it? We could ask Mother Teresa, the Good Samaritan or Jesus Himself about that.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Gratitude Trumps Disappointment

Back in the 1950s when Hollywood still made westerns with good fistfights, one movie outshines them all: The Big Country. In it, Gregory Peck plays a ship’s captain who has won the heart of a prosperous Texas rancher’s daughter. The ranch foreman, played by Charlton Heston, is in love with the girl, too, and always thought he would be the heir apparent and get her hand in marriage. He was led to believe such would be the case. The conflict between these two men over the rancher’s daughter culminates in the longest fistfight in the history of western movies. They slug it out in cinemascope with the big austere country of Texas spread out all around them. And the fight goes on and on, with neither man prevailing. It is excruciating to watch the action go on for so long. When they are too exhausted to continue, Gregory Peck asks the salient question, “Now, what did we prove?”
The answer is obvious—nothing. But I think there is a deeper point to the story: how should we deal with disappointment? The energies of the script lead us to understand that Heston’s character deals with his disappointment in all the wrong ways. In short, he needed a plan B if his plan to win the heart and hand of the fair maiden failed. He had no plan B and there was the rub.
An earlier American story is also about dealing with disappointment, this one with a better, though somewhat odd, outcome. Hawthorne’s story, The Minister’s Black Veil, is set in Puritan New England. A young pastor named Hooper has just taken over the community church and everyone loves him. He starts dating a sweet and beautiful parishioner named Elizabeth and they soon become engaged. However, one Sunday he comes to preach with a black veil draped about his face, obscuring all but his sardonic smile. Everyone tries to get him to shed the veil, but he is persistent. Of course, Elizabeth is disappointed with his eccentricity and breaks the engagement. Unlike Heston’s character, though, she has a plan B, in that she becomes a celibate nurse who spends her life in such service and ends up nursing old Hooper himself, still wearing the tattered veil on his deathbed.
On a somewhat similar note, one would think David of old would have been disappointed when he learned from God that his long term dream of building a temple would not come to pass after all—his son would get that job. Instead of being disappointed, though, David had a plan B. He expressed great gratitude to God for his faithfulness in the past, his nurture in the present and his promise to bless his descendants. Gratitude trumps disappointment every time.

So, if this were an advice column, I would say punching someone, as in The Big Country, to soothe disappointment solves nothing—what’s the point? One effective plan B, as in The Minister’s Black Veil, would be to find an area of service to give significance to your life. Finally, a perpetual attitude of gratitude won’t even allow disappointment’s ugly foot in the door. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Washington (Arkansas) Feud

The Historic Washington State Park chief interpreter has shared with me some information the park is working on for a possible reenactment. The pages of the Arkansas Gazette for the month of April in 1872 they showed me reveal that there were serious factions amongst those in high position during Reconstruction in Washington, Ark. For example, Judge Page and his son, attorney Tom Page, belonged to a radical faction called the Brindle Tails, while Sheriff Vance belonged to another called the Minstrel Faction.
A serious conflict arose concerning the escape of a criminal: Tom Page alleged that Sheriff Vance had put it out that he, Tom Page, had helped the criminal escape. The disagreement became so heated that the black militia was assembled with abundant guns and ammunition and placed under the command of Sheriff Vance. The problem culminated at the 1836 courthouse on April 19, 1872. Sheriff Vance, having been sworn in, sat in the witness chair, being questioned by Tom Page. Tom’s father, Judge Page, was at the bench. Tom Page began by asking, “Sheriff Vance, did you ever say that I had helped the prisoner escape and that you had made me admit to it? For that is what people are saying.” Vance replied sullenly, “I have no recollection of saying anything of the kind.” Tom Page countered, “Sheriff, you are under oath; are you certain your answer is the truth, the whole truth in this matter?” Vance replied, “Do not doubt my veracity, sir. Everyone in this courtroom, nay, everyone in this town is aware that you Brindle Tails are out to disrupt my authority as sheriff at every opportunity.”
“That is a ridiculous statement, Vance,” Tom Page argued. “It is also irrelevant to the present inquiry. Your mindless association with the soon-to-be extinct Minstrels is for you to remain in office. Your Honor, I wish to dismiss this witness and call the prisoner himself to the stand.” The Judge allowed it and the prisoner was sworn in and seated as Sheriff Vance stood threateningly nearby. Tom Page asked the prisoner if anyone had told him that he had admitted to helping in the escape. The prisoner looked fearful as Vance leaned towards him and, at length, said softly, “Sheriff Vance said that to me.” Tom Page asked him to say it louder and he did so. Tom Page pointed at Vance and asked, “Is this the man who said that about me?”
Vance stepped towards Tom Page and said, “Yes! I am the man and, by thunder, whatever I have said, I will stand up to.” Tom Page drew a pistol and fired at Vance, missing him. Vance pulled his pistol as he retreated towards his office nearby, firing as he went. The elder Judge Page went to the courthouse door, shooting two pistols repeatedly towards Vance’s office, while Tom Page went upstairs in the courthouse and returned with a double-barreled shotgun and fired it towards the Sheriff’s office. A dozen shots were fired and no one was wounded or killed. A score of black militia arrived and backed up to Vance’s office, weapons on the ready.

Such were some of the local fruits of Reconstruction. One of the correspondents on this matter from Washington to the Gazette signed himself as Know Knothen. I have taken only a minimum of liberties for the sake of readability, for I know much less than the original correspondent about this event the Historic Washington State Park folks are researching.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Nesting

I like mockingbirds. Some nest in the holly trees in our front yard. I also noticed that they nest in the trifoliate orange trees in the park. I think they like the thorns on those trees for protection. I have wanted to plant some of these wild orange trees, also known as flying dragon trees, in my back yard. I found some sprouts down by the woods where people around here burn stuff. I decided to walk down there to dig a few up for transplant late one starry night. As soon as I forced the shovel into the earth, I felt a presence behind me and heard, “Hello, Dan.”
It was the wise old man. He was camping in the shed behind the Brunson House and grew curious about my strange activity so late at night. I told him what I was doing and he said, “I grew up on my great uncle’s great big ranch 14 miles out from Dime Box, Texas. From the time I was four, my job was to ride my half Welch, half mustang pony into Dime Box twice a week to get whatever mail was there and any needed supplies. There were only five books at Uncle Derrell’s ranch: a Bible, a dictionary, a Hazlitt, an Emerson and a slim volume of poems by Sara Teasdale. By age 10, I knew the Bible, the poems and you could not stump me on spelling or definition of any word in Webster. I had a little tougher time with Emerson and Hazlitt.”
“Well, sir,” I said, “That accounts for your rich vocabulary.”
“I suppose so,” he said meditatively, looking up at the Milky Way “Dan, I know what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said stargazing made him feel alone, but I also identify with Teasdale’s feeling of personal honor in observing the stars. When I look up on a night like this I feel both alone like Emerson and special like Teasdale. I feel solitary because I am looking into the infinite otherness of the universe and I feel special because I was somehow chosen to be a part of it.”
I joined his philosophical tone by observing that our galaxy was just a speck in the infinite reaches of interstellar space. “Yes,” he said, “hurling through a universe full of similarly unfathomable systems. It is a miracle that we can reflect and comment upon what we see. Trying to explain the star spangled heavens is like trying to talk about time itself. The future, for example, is merely a present expectation based on the observed regularity of nature. The past is just a present memory and when you say “present” it is in the past. Time has nothing to do with clocks and calendars, which just measure the motions of our solar system.”
“Wow,” I said, “I just came to dig wild orange trees but I got something even better. “Yes, Dan,” he replied, “The bird of truth has flown through your tree. Let her make a nest there.”
“You are so cool,” I said.

“Good thing I brought my Army blanket,” he replied with a wink.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Jack's Idols

Everything in Jack’s life had an aura of idolatry. A staff sergeant, he was at the tail end of his second enlistment, quite ready to re-up for a third because he thought he had a beautiful life.
About a year remained of Jack’s assignment at a German military base when I arrived there. He was about 27 and I was 18. There was little appealing to me about my new assignment with its olive drab buildings and somber soldiers trudging through the early winter snow. There was a cinema on base, a delicatessen, a dayroom in the barracks with a pool table and an enlisted men’s “club” but there did not appear to be much else to occupy one’s hours away from the job. (That is before I discovered the library, the darkroom and the bowling alley).
But I saw right away that Jack occupied his time well. First, he had a well-coifed mustache that went way beyond regulation. It even curled up on the ends, except on inspection days when he trimmed it down or tucked it in somehow. The rule was that your mustache must be well groomed and half way between your nose and upper lip, not extending beyond the corners of your mouth. Jack consistently and easily got by with his extravagant “stache.” He was a friend of the officers in our unit. I think they considered him a charming eccentric that could do no harm, not to mention the fact that he wrote a weekly column for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. He did report abuses in that article, so maybe that is why he was treated with such privilege.
Jack drove a second-hand Jaguar that he kept immaculate and sparkling. He even cleaned under the hood and painted the tires with that black stuff. I helped him wash his car one Saturday and he invited me to play chess in the dayroom. He allowed me to accompany him to his lavishly decorated suite in the barracks—how he rated such a big private apartment, I never knew. There, he retrieved a carved meerschaum pipe from a rack of some 20 such works of art, filled it with aromatic tobacco from a small painted Grecian urn, grabbed an embossed leather case full of a hand-crafted chess board and wonderfully carved chess pieces, and we settled at a table in the dayroom. The conversation was sparse but congenial as he puffed on his Nordic-headed pipe and beat the socks off me two times in a row.
The dude had a temper, too. Once just outside the chow hall, he was taking the bowl out of his calabash pipe and it cracked. I never heard such bad language from a civilized person. He hurled the whole shebang into a trash can as he ranted on and on. Another time, I don’t know if someone keyed the trunk of his Jag or if he had driven under a limb or something, but when he discovered the scratch, he was apoplectic. His countenance fell, his visage reddened and his breathing quickened as he began to defy Heaven itself with his insane invective. To put it succinctly, Jack was an idolater and when anything went wrong with his idols, his whole universe was spoiled.

I learned that it was fine to like your possessions, but not to the extreme of mustachioed Jack the pipe-smoking, chess-playing Jaguar man. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Gaited Hinny

Cooksie had a gaited hinny named Dan that was easy to catch and unusually cooperative. That animal would do anything asked of him if he knew it would not hurt him or his rider. When neighbor Cooksie said I could ride him, I don’t think he knew just how much and how often I would do so. I liked him and I had the sense that he liked me. He showed it by acting glad to see me and readily accepting the bit. I would catch him in the pasture and ride him bareback up to the tack shed for saddling. It seemed to me he was careful with me when I was mounted bareback.
I was not an easily offended lad, but I have to confess I was offended when, on one our jaunts, an older bully-type boy said, “Where did you get that broken down mule.” Since I was mounted, I was bold enough to respond, “He ain’t a mule, he’s a hinny, and he ain’t broken down.” I think the other Dan knew he was being derided, for I saw his floppy ears stiffen and go back to his neck. When bully boy started towards us, Dan took a step in his direction and the dude stopped still. There was a look in Dan’s eye that told him to back off, which he eventually did. We trotted away, both feeling triumphant.
As you probably know, a mule is the offspring of a male donkey, known as a jack and a mare horse. They can be of either gender, but are sterile because the chromosomes do not line up for reproduction. In appearance, a mule is the perfect blend of both parents. A hinny is the offspring of a stallion horse, known as a stud, and a female donkey, known as a jenny. They can be of either gender, but are sterile for the same reason a mule is sterile. A hinny is seldom a blend of both parents, but looks very much like a large donkey or sometimes like a long-eared horse, as Dan did. Both the mule and the hinny inherit the cautious nature of the donkey and the strength of the horse. That is not to say donkeys are not strong. They definitely are. Those old mining donkeys could carry half their weight all day long like it was nothing.
The donkey probably got that cautious nature from having developed in the mountains of northern Africa, where they could not flee if predators approached. Instead, they had to figure out a strategy of escape or a strategy for fighting. When we think a donkey is balking, he is simply pausing to figure out what to do to get out of a situation that seems threatening. Horses, on the other hoof, developed in the plains. Their only strategy for dealing with danger was to run away.

Old Dan had enough donkey in him to figure things out and enough horse to be able to split the wind. And he did so comfortably. It is a rare thing to have a gaited hinny, but if you do, it is a treasure. I mean, you could hold a full cup of coffee without spilling a drop when Dan got into that fast four-footed walk. He bounced his head just like a Tennessee walker and went forward at a slight angle, favoring his right front. The only thing that kept him from looking downright elegant was floppy ears. And boy did they flop! Cooksie did not know what a wonderful gift he gave to my childhood. If he were still alive, I would call him to say thanks.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Lovely on a Bicycle

I bought a lightweight bicycle when I was in my mid-thirties to help control my weight. While out on an early morning ride, I came upon another fellow about my age on a bicycle, clad helmet to toe like a pro biker on the cover of Bicycling Magazine. He stopped so I stopped. Through the dawn’s early light, I discovered that I knew him, an archeology professor at my college. We talked about the cycling sport a bit as we rode on together and discovered that we had a lot in common. It was as if Tom Sawyer had discovered his Huckleberry Finn.
He was a veteran as I was and we had been reading some of the same books and articles. Before our conversation was over, we had ridden about 12 miles and agreed to meet the next morning for another ride. He brought me some copies of Bicycling and American Wheelman and we were off on what became our customary route, a large rural loop of around 15 miles. I started looking a little more trim in no time and, surprisingly, my appetite was under control. I bought a helmet and all the other bright garb of a bicyclist, joined the Arkansas Bicycle Club with my new friend and accompanied him to some of their rides.
Two of these were most interesting. They were late summer or fall rides that required participants to condition beforehand to endure the events. One was the century ride, a 100-mile loop starting at Brinkley, you know, the flat farm country. On this ride, the only enemy was the wind, as there were no hills whatsoever. The other interesting ride was the Rich Mountain tour, an 80-plus mile loop that started at the Mena School and went up the mountain and circled over through eastern Oklahoma. We did this ride in the fall of the year when the colors were vibrantly beautiful. Biologists tell us that those colors are there all year, but that the green of chlorophyll breaks down in the autumn, revealing the true colors underneath. That ride certainly showed the riders’ true colors. It was hard pumping going up the hills and a little scary going down them, especially when the brake pads smoked and spit little bits of rubber. The first time I ever cycled around a speeding car was on this ride.

My bicycle companion retired and moved to New York, where he still rides the upstate backroads. I, of course, make my home in Southwest Arkansas, where I meander around on a mountain bike. Although I don’t have the energy and drive to ride long distances, I still enjoy experiencing the countryside from my bike. You can see so much more on a bike ride than you can from a car. Here is a list of some of the things I recently saw on the backroads out towards Grandview Prairie: big snake skeleton, several sail armadillos (flat enough to sail away), a perfectly good, new-looking radio aerial, a sign that said “Far Would,” (a joke, I think), an althea bush in full bloom that gave a new meaning to the word violet, skid marks that told me someone tried to stop before driving into the woods, but went on in there anyway. Huckleberry Finn said, “It’s lovely on a raft.” I say, “On a bike, too, Huck.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

I, Political Columnist

I do not talk on our home telephone very much because of a worsening hearing problem. The VA furnished me with some nice and often quite effective hearing aids, but I seldom put them in if I am just puttering around the house. So, without my ear pieces in, for example, when someone calls to ask if I live in a brick home, I respond that it is plenty big for the two of us, having mistaken the word “brick” for “big.” Similarly, if someone calls to tell me I have won a share in a condo, I might respond that I don’t want to go to the Congo. You know, the telephone distorts what the caller says. So, I wait for my wife to answer the device. But she was out shopping yesterday and I was in the back yard when the thing rang, so I hustled to grab it before the answering machine could start its robotic spiel. It was the wise old man, calling from Mexico City.
“Dan, I read your column on the way down here to the largest plarp in the plarp. If you don’t stop writing about conversations with a female Sasquatch concerning the latest plarp-plarp scientific theories, your sparse readership is going to plarp your elevator does not go all the way plarp. I, myself, wondered whether your cheese may have slipped off your cracker a little bit. Why don’t you write about current plarp? That is what columnists do. As it is, you are a few plarp short of a plarpy meal.”
I understood almost every word the wise old man said, except for the distortions I reported above as “plarps.” Mostly, his highly articulate presentation came through loud and clear. I promised him I would take his comments under advisement, so here goes.
The grand and longstanding dichotomy in American life between capitalism and socialism is currently played out with “you know who” as the capitalist and the brother of the Kentucky Colonel (isn’t he?) as the socialist. The one is trumping the other candidates on his side of the equation and Colonel’s brother is rising fast as someone special disappoints on the other side. The capitalist is interesting because he is perceived as an outsider, at least politically speaking. On the other hand, the brother is noted as a socialist who does not hide his proclivities but celebrates them.
The “throw-the-bums-out” sentiment on the one side is balanced by the “double-down-on-government-control” side. Because of these extremes, other candidates will emerge, and I predict that a misspeaker will be the Democrat nominee and that a plain-spoken Rino (Republican in name only) from the Midwest will be the Republican one. The Buckeye’s running mate will be a former communications executive and the misspeaker’s will be a Pino (Pugilistic in name only).

I called the wise old man and read that just previous paragraph to him and he replied, “Dan, perhaps you should get plarp plarp plarp out of the newspaper business altogether plarp plarp plarp.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

Spotta Tea

My childhood friend, a Sasquatch, a.k.a., The Fouke Monster, now operates a car wash in Texarkana. I went to take her a little gift and visit her at quitting time on her birthday last week. She insisted that I come to her place for tea. She had personally imported some English green tea called “Spotta,” as in “spot of tea,” that she wanted me to try. As the water was heating, I handed her the gift I had brought, an autographed copy of Robert Lanza’s book “Biocentrism.”
“Thanks, Danny. I have been reading about Lanza’s theory of everything and have wanted to get the book. How did you get an autographed copy?”
“I was at a conference in Boston where he spoke recently and he was very gracious to sign a couple of copies for me. I knew you would like it because I know you like Hawking and all.”
“Well, Hawking’s theory of everything is over, man. Physics can’t bring fruition to the quest but continues to overcomplicate it. But maybe biology can if it explains consciousness. Biology does not worry about planned versus random, unlike Forrest Gump. My meditations in nature have shown me that Wordsworth was right. We half create what we see. Poets are always ahead of scientists. You know, nature has always been my home. Remember when you were a kid and you used to come visit me on Boggy Creek? I had that cool tree house back then and a cave way down on the river. This little place here on Arkansas Boulevard is just temporary. I have found an apartment at the movie.”
“You mean the movie has apartments?”
“For the price of a ticket.”
 “This tea is very tasty. It has a kind of Earl Grey ambience to it, no?
“You certainly have acute taste. Yes, I add a little of the same kind of oil they use in Earl Grey. The Queen Mother taught me that trick. She is the most elegant person I ever met.”
“How did you meet the Queen Mother?”
“Quite by chance. We were dining at the same fish and chips place, a quaint inn called “Swan to Goodness” in the Warwickshire countryside.”
“How did you get way over there?”
“Danny, surely you know that the big foot myth spans every continent. Why do you think that is? It is because as a mythic creature I have the gift of transportation.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that the theory of everything is, at least mythologically, biological. Physicists reach a dead end, but Lanza the Great has shown that we may mentally spawn reality, and I choose to create it in multiple locales. I can’t wait to read this book. Thank you for remembering my birthday.”
“You are most welcome. Multiple locales simultaneously? That’s too heavy for me, dear friend.”
“You create multiple worlds in your dreams all the time. Stop doubting your creative ability.”
“I did not know I was doing that.”

“Just remember how the book of John opens. Without the Word, we could create nothing. We would have no consciousness. Or as the divine Emily puts it, we could not see to see.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hidden Treasure

The hunting instinct is probably what makes us want to strike it rich in some fashion. Deer season puts us squarely into that instinct as if no time has passed since our forebears roamed the forest looking for a feast. During the fall months, a lot of my acquaintances begin to look like our ancestors must have looked, scraggly, unkempt and, well, content.
But this desire to strike it rich somehow infiltrates other areas of our lives as well. I have mentioned before that I used to work for a rough old carpenter. He was a rugged fellow, sun-darkened, tough-skinned and plain spoken. Being quite hard of hearing, he used to call me Swilley, because he knew that my step-father (he took him for my father) was Loy Swilley, a fine carpenter that he apparently admired. So, I was not Danny Ford to him; I was just Swilley. Instead of trying to explain to him my true name, I just went along with it. When he said, “Swilley,” I jumped.
One Saturday afternoon when my co-worker and I were sitting on the old guy’s front porch he was more than usually talkative. Perhaps he was just relaxed from a day away from the grind.
“Swilley,” he said, “I know where there is some treasure buried up on the Little Missouri River. I know right where it’s at. I need a young fellow like you to go camping up there with me to help me dig. I don’t need no map. I know right where it’s at. We could get us a tent at the Army Surplus and take off up there. I done got all the picks and shovels we would need. We can fish a right smart, too. I know where we can catch us some fish on the Little Missouri. We can fry them right out there on the bank and all.”
I glanced at my co-worker, the old guy’s nephew, there on the porch as the rugged man waxed more and more voluble. He shook his head clandestinely, as if to say, “Let my uncle talk; he ain’t never going to go on that treasure hunt. I have heard it all before.”
“What do you think, Swilley? When do you want to go?”
“I guess we can go when we finish the chicken house.” We were on the tail end of a job of erecting a 400 by 40 foot chicken house the way we used to build them—sinking a lot of four-by-fours and latching a tin roof onto them.
“Well, let’s see about stopping by the Army Surplus after work Monday.”

After work Monday, the boss said, “Swilley, if I had a Big Gulp, I believe I could drink every bit of it.” We stopped at the Grab-N-Go and he was as good as his word. Monday came and went with no mention of the Little Missouri River. Perhaps the treasure he was looking for was a little closer to home than he thought.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Danke for the Memories

When I stepped off the flying boxcar into the alien air of Frankfurt, I was just a kid a long way from home. Things were different over there, even on the military places. The electrical current was 220 and most of the vehicles were VW’s, Opels or Mercedes Benz’s. Americans and Germans alike said danke for thank you, bitte for you are welcome and Auf Wiedersehen for goodbye. I realized right away that I was in a different world, a culture that seemed simultaneously strange and familiar.
It took a month or two for me to make German friends. By lucky accident I met and played soccer with some German guys down by the beautiful Mosel River. They spoke a little of my language and I learned a bit of theirs and we became good friends. I was not very good at soccer, having played only football, basketball and baseball as a child, but the principles of the game were familiar, with boundaries, penalties, goals and so forth. The activity required dexterous footwork, which was unfamiliar to me, but they were quite tolerant, even though they enjoyed several guffaws at my expense.
One of the guys, Erich, had a very plain, though wholesome sister about my age named Rose Marie. She took it upon herself to tutor me in German. My vocabulary increased along with my affection for this dutiful maiden. Just as I was getting proficient, well, tolerably understandable, in the language, nay, just as I was beginning to feel that we were boyfriend-girlfriend, she told me in perfect German which, regrettably I understood, that she was moving to Austria to live with an uncle. She admonished me to keep up with my language study and forget about her. She was spoken for there in Austria.
That was just as well. The only thing we had in common, really, was our love for circus peanuts, you know, that orange-yellow super sweet candy that is shaped like a biggo peanut. That treat was available to me in the Post Exchange but was unheard of on the German economy, so it was an exotic treat for my language tutor…and her brethren.
After she was out of the picture, I visited my friends down there less and less and spent more time with my own kind there on the military establishment. It was strange to me that I started my time over there immersed in the Germanic culture and gradually gravitated to my own kind, even to the point of choosing most of my friends from the Deep South. My best friend over there was from Smackover, some 12 miles from where I grew up.

I tried to keep my German language up and later when I went to college I took a couple of years of French and second year German. I skipped first year of the latter because the instructor judged that my skills were somewhat advanced. Ironically, I later had to pass the ETS examination for the doctor of philosophy degree in both French and German. I passed the French handily the first time through, but had to take the German test a second time and barely squeaked through. My Austrian friend, Rose Marie, would have lifted her eyebrow.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Crumbs from Home

“Weren’t you a pilot in World War II, sir?”
The wise old man squeezed a quarter of a lemon into his tall iced tea at the Mexican place where we were dipping into delicious Guacamole Mexicana and replied, “50 missions out of Italy in a B-17.”
“That was a lot of missions, sir. Did your plane get shot up and all?”
“Oh, yes, Dan. Flak, you know. I made three belly landings and feathered a lot of engines. One time I forgot to turn on the de-icer and that almost spelled our doom at my own careless hands. The oldest dude on my crew was 23. We were all just kids doing OJT.”
“Does that stand for on-the-job-training?”
“You got it. Oh, we had fast track training down in Texas, but we flew those crates by the seat of our pants. The B-17 was quite an airplane…a real airplane with wires and pulleys. It took a lot of strength just to get those ships off the ground.”
“Did you feel that people back home were supporting the war effort?”
“Didn’t think about that much. I was sending a lot of my pay back to the farm. My dad had died and Mother needed the support. She sent me cookies and such, but usually they were just a box of crumbs by the time they got to me. I shared a lot of crumbs in Italy. It was the thought that counted. In her letters and the letters I got from a special girl and an elderly uncle, they always wanted news of the war. There was a lot of interest.”
“Were your letters to them censored?”
“Heck, Dan, I never said anything about what I was doing. I would just report on the weather and tell little stories about my crew members, funny ones, you know. One thing we all had in common was our faith. When I would receive a box of crumbs, I would think of Jesse sending David with goodies to the front lines against the Philistines. In exchange for the cheeses and grain and bread he sent, he wanted David to bring news of how his brothers were doing on the front lines. Same situation as we were in, you know. They sent us goodies hoping for news from the war. And, we were facing our own kind of Goliath. Our sling was the B-17 and our river rocks were our bombs. We killed the giant and cut his head off.”
“Did you fly airplanes after the war?”
“No, Dan, I had enough altitude to do me. I worked in a rock quarry in Missouri, driving and excavator and dump trucks. I liked being close to the ground. I married one of the girls who had written me so faithfully and we built a two-bedroom, one-bath home in the mountains. My life turned out really well…for a while at least.”
“I appreciate your service, sir. Want some more guacamole?”

“No, thanks. I did not know what else to do, son.”

Monday, August 3, 2015

Tony

The wise old man was reclining comfortably in my porch swing this morning when I stepped out to check the weather. I thought he was back in Hillsboro Manor but he explained to me that he had been living with his cousin in Hope, a Mike Huckaby (no relation to the famous one who spells his name differently) for the past month.
“How did you get over here,” I queried.
“I caught a ride with an interesting fellow who runs the horse surrey here in your town. That is one tall dude!”
“Yes, Algie is six feet, eight inches tall. We were born exactly two months apart.”
The wise one pondered that for a moment as we walked into the house to the coffee pot. I poured him a cup “barefooted” as he called black coffee and he made this comment: “Well, Dan, that must have been a time for tall fellows to be born. Maybe gravity was a little less demanding as you grew. Or, maybe the turnip greens were richer.”
“I am not sure, sir, but that man is certainly good with the horses. We have two Percheron mares that alternate with a mother-daughter team of half draft horse, half ordinary horse. Algie can talk to those horses like people and they seem to understand him.”
The wise old man said he believed animals could follow the drift of human language on an intuitive level. He put it like this, “Dan, a horse feels what the hippies used to call vibrations from people. If you are nervous or upset, horses sense it. If you are calm and friendly, they ordinarily respond in kind. That is the secret of so-called horse whispering.”
“Are you a horseman, sir?”
“Fooled with them when I was young back before those internal combustion engines fouled everything up. When I was young the horse, the mule and even the donkey and ox were mainstays in the city as well as the country. I had a stocky little horse named Tony that did it all—plowed, pulled, rode and helped train other horses. Tony could read my mind. I have had relationships with humans that were less communicative. When he was about 20, that pony caught some kind of lung disease and after a hot day breaking new ground he told me about it without a sound. It was something about his eyes and the way he held his head. I lifted his lip and saw a thin line of blood clinging to his gums. When he saw that I saw, he nodded and went to his knees.”
“Did you get help for him?”

“There was a Parnell fellow, not a vet, that doctored animals, was good at it, lived about a mile away. I hollered what was wrong and my neighbor responded with that holler, conveying it you know, and about an hour later, Parnell’s teenage boy showed up with some kind of foul liquid. We used up a gallon rubbing it on his breast, but it did no good. Tony lasted another week. I stayed up with him that last night and told him how much I appreciated his help all those years and how much I loved him. That fuzzy eyeball of his looked real relaxed when he quit breathing.”

Monday, July 27, 2015

Storms

Usually it is when a loved one dies that I feel the storms of life bearing down upon me. Sometimes, though, I feel those storms when someone ascribes motives to me that I did not have or when someone misunderstands my words. “That’s not what I meant at all, not at all!” At other times, those unhappy winds blow when I have trouble forgiving myself. It always gets stormy when you realize you cannot go back and undo what has been done. With the guidance of Christian writer Timothy Keller, I took a look at some literal storms in scripture and discovered some metaphorical things.
Jonah knew he was the cause of the great storm at sea as he napped below deck. You can run from God but you can’t hide. I suppose we can assume that he was self-sacrificial when he told his shipmates to quell the storm by throwing him overboard, but we can also read it as a death wish. At any rate, when the sailors threw Jonah into the moiling deep, the waters suddenly settled down and they were then scared sure enough: killing a prophet of a God that powerful was dangerous stuff.  What would the consequences be?
There is a parallel to that Old Testament story in Mark. Jesus was dosing in his companions’ boat in a wild windstorm. The frantic disciples got him up saying, “Don’t you care if we perish?” Questioning their faith, Jesus simply rebuked the wind and everything suddenly settled down. Then the disciples were scared sure enough: what kind of man is this that can command the wind and the waves? They thought he had gone to sleep on them in the hour of their great need when it is they who, a little later, went to sleep in the garden during the hour of his great need.
Both of those stories give me a bit of comfort as I look back at the storms of my life. They pale by comparison to the great one at the cross. I have tried to run away from God a time or two in my life. He never sent a big fish to the rescue, but he did find ways to get me where he wanted me. It reminds me of a conversation between Hamlet and Horatio. The former said something like this: Horatio, there is a plan for our life, rough hew it how we will; to which his companion replies, something like, Hamlet, you got that right! There are many detours but one destination.

I do not know whether or not the Gospel writer had Jonah in mind when presenting the story of Jesus calming the storm. He does use similar language. I do know that many figures in the Old Testament prefigure, represent, or typify Christ. Jonah was thrown into the storm and “resurrected” out of the big fish just where God wanted him to preach repentance. Jesus was thrown into the storm and resurrected so that all who turn to him in repentance can be counted as children of the Most High.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Watchman

I just finished reading the newly released novel by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, and the cultural differences between regions of our country were borne in upon me once again. While “Watchman” is not as intricately plot-driven as Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a carefully compiled string of intellectual and emotional growth spurts Jean Louise Finch, a.k.a. Scout, experiences. In “Watchman” she is a twenty-something lady returning to her Alabama hometown for a visit after a long stint in New York. Like Southerners we have known who have moved away and returned she has a bit of a judgmental attitude and an expectation of stasis. But nothing remains the same and you can’t go home again.
Since I don’t want to ruin the novel for you, I won’t go into a lot of detail about Scout’s expanding understanding of herself and her region, but I will say that bigotry wears many disguises and Lee shows us how subtly our judgment of others saps moral powers in so many ways. One of these ways includes the beautifully drawn contrast in the novel between the Calpurnia, sweet and stern maid of her childhood memories, and the stoically isolated and somewhat embittered Calpurnia of Scout’s return from up north. But her confusion concerning Calpurnia is dwarfed by what she discovers about her boyfriend and her own sainted father.
Perhaps the most interesting way she comes to understand the ugliness in her own heart is through her playful-yet-serious relationship with her uncle, Atticus’ brother Jack. He is a physician, esoterically in love with Victorian literature, especially the obscure or little-known authors. Apparently he had led Scout into studying and even appreciating some of these when she was a child, and he forms arguments based upon literary allusions and what he knows of Scout’s dual “citizenship” in New York and Alabama. He makes her face the fact that her attitude towards the South is as corrupt as what she loathes about the region. The culminating scenes of the novel when Uncle Jack forces the issue are not pretty.
The dialogue between Scout and her uncle reminds me of a conversation in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which a northerner asks his roommate, a Mississippi native, why he hates the South. “I don’t hate it,” he replies, “I don’t hate it…I don’t!” In a way, I see that same love-hate relationship in Scout in this newly released novel. “Watchman” was said to have been written before “Mockingbird,” but I believe it was wise to save its issue until now.

I say that because we are currently embroiled in yet another regional misunderstanding. And it is not just about the folks way up yonder being dead wrong about the South. It is not about Confederate flags. It is about many of our best Southern people misunderstanding each other and even themselves. The ugliness of our past is inescapable. History is history and we have to live with it because aspects of it will not go away. The modern way to deal with such issues seems to be through slogans and bumper-stickers and shallow Pinterest aphorisms. So, I will here offer a slogan dedicated to Harper Lee. It is as old as the Lord God Himself: “Love one another.” That is a tough one, but it is the only solution.

Friday, July 10, 2015

THAT GULF INFLUENCE

I was seven when I first visited Alabama. I rode over there with my half-uncle Ward. We left El Dorado so early that we were easing eastward on 82 before I woke up good. There were four or five donuts in a grease-stained sack between us. When I reached for one, Uncle Ward said, “There is some coffee in the thermos there if you want a cup.” I poured myself some in the silver lid and dipped the donut into it. That helped me wake up. I did not care for coffee unless it saturated a donut.
It was a bright blue morning and the traffic was light. I loved the Burma-Shave signs along the road, but seldom got the jokes. Ward tried his best to explain this one to me, “If these signs--blur and bounce around--you’d better park--and walk to town,” but he couldn’t. He never understood my questions. Ward’s Dodge was Fluid Drive, a nearly new ’46 model, maroon with maroon seat covers. He taught me how to shift gears in that Dodge. You didn’t have to keep the clutch in when you were stopped at a light but you did have to clutch it to change gears. It had a good radio in it, too, and a clock. Ward was going along at about 60. He said that was a mile a minute! My hair was blowing back and Ward wore his straw hat with the feather in the band pulled down tight, bending his ears out. He looked like a leprechaun. He asked me to roll him a cigarette. I tried to do so but made a big mess of it, so he waited to smoke until we pulled into a place with an EAT sign and rolled his own in the lot under a Chinaberry. He took pains to brush the tobacco out of the car. Since it was new he wanted to keep it clean. We went into the Eat place and Ward asked a rosy-cheeked lady to fill his thermos and he bought us a couple of bags of peanuts. Card tables circled the pot-bellied stove with people eating hamburgers and drinking Cokes and RCs at each. One lady complained that the pickles in her hamburger were store-bought. She said she would bring the proprietor, a plump man in too-small coveralls, some good pickles she had put up last year.
When we drove away from the Eat place, Ward said, “Danny, now my brother Futrell is rich and famous. An author, you know.  Use manners at the table and don’t talk unless they ask you something. And don’t complain about the heat. It’s that gulf influence.”

“I have seen stuff about manners and all in the movies, Uncle Ward. I know how to act. Am I kin to him?” He mumbled some words about avuncular genetics breaking down because Futrell was his half-brother on his daddy’s side and he himself was my half-uncle on the distaff, but I lost the explanation. It was worse than trying to figure out a Burma-Shave joke. I was so hungry when we got to Catalpa Place, Futrell’s ostentatious home in Pell City, I did not want to talk at the table anyway. All “Uncle” Futrell wanted to do the whole time we were out there was sit on a quilt in the back yard and read to us from scribbling on a yellow pad. A week of that was enough. He read dramatically from a novel he was writing about gangsters that talked like college professors. I lost the story every time he got going on descriptions. I now know, after having grown up and read as much of his stuff as I could stand, that he was afflicted with chronic digressivitus, a condition probably brought on by 100 degree heat, horse flies and that gulf influence. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Servant and Witness

Paul simply could not stop talking about his supernatural appointment as an apostle. If you have a Bible with the words of Christ in red, look at the red print in the book of Acts. In almost every case it is Paul reporting the awesome experience that knocked him off his horse, blinded him and changed him from Saul to Paul, from a persecutor of Christians to a powerful leader of the so-called sect. (As you recall, lots of people got their names changed in scripture,
Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, etc.)
Paul’s most complete report of the experience comes in Acts 26 where he tells King Agrippa all about it. There are five main parts to the story. Jesus appears and tells him to get up and stand on his feet; he appoints Paul to be a servant and a witness; this witness includes what he has seen (the vision itself) and what he will show him; Jesus guarantees protection from his own people and from the Gentiles; and he gives the underlying purpose of the appointment, that is, to bring people to forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus.
Jesus himself demonstrates being a servant and a witness. We see in the second chapter of Philippians that he gave up the privileges of absolute royalty and emptied himself to be born as a servant. And, his ultimate service was death on the cross to offer salvation to any who would believe in him. That foot washing episode in John’s Gospel further attests to his servant nature and he performed the act as a witness of how his followers should relate to others, in a meek and lowly fashion. In that way, the service Jesus offered became a witness to all.
Isn’t that true of all our service—that it becomes a witness to others? I heard Garrison Keillor say on the radio that nothing you ever do for a child is ever wasted or forgotten. I think that may be true for adults as well. One thanksgiving when my family and I were camping, the electric system went out on our camper so we could not prepare supper. Total strangers from south Louisiana, who just happened to be electrical engineers, came by and fixed the problem within minutes, and brought us a big mess of delicious gumbo. When we went to thank them and take the container back, they had left the park. We remember the service they offered that evening as a strong witness of generosity and unselfishness.

The way Paul’s story ends in Acts 26 is by asserting the underlying purpose of his appointment: to show people how to get forgiveness and gain a place among those sanctified by faith in Jesus. As Paul writes at the beginning of Romans 8 (NIV), “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sail Armadillo

The armadillos met in plenary session at Frog Level, Arkansas. During an exclusive interview in his tasteful Dorcheat arbor, Governor Rusty Armor told this reporter that his main agenda concerned local government as opposed to the great armadocracy headquartered at Stinkbottom Swamp. Although I was not invited to the meeting itself, being human as I almost certainly am, I was allowed a spot in a dilapidated deer stand near enough to hear most of the proceedings. I dropped my camera, cracking the lens, so I did not get any photographs for the paper.
After an improvisational tuba solo by Wally Womble, the rough-hewn clan aligned themselves in a huge semi-circular congregation around Governor Armor. From my lofty perch, the spectacle was not unlike a Greek theater as it unfolded below me. Rotsy Smellcroft got the P.A. system working after a long delay full of obnoxious squeals and squeaks. When the Governor (they call him GOTAS—Governor Of The Armadillo State) began to speak, his words seemed constrained by his beak-like oral orifice. He seemed to say, “Parp parp perparp parp parpy.” However, after Citizen Rotsy got the amp feed right, I heard GOTAS say, “Y’all quit jumping when y’all are on the highway. Stay low. Every DOR (Dead On Road) brother or sister jumped. It is very infrequent for the tires to hit our kind, because the tires admire us, seeing in our hide a portrait of their own. So do not jump. Friends, do not become a sail armadillo, one so flattened by traffic that the highway folks sail you off into the woods.”
The Governor continued, “You will not hear this directive from those Dillocrats in Stinkbottom. They want you to jump at every provocation, even if it means your loss of individuality. They want you to sail away with your ideas of individual liberty if you will not conform to the Stinkbottom way. But, my fellow armadillos, there is a Higher Law, an ancient set of principles set forth in stone. It is the same law that created your probing snout to gather sustenance from crawling things. It is the same law that allows you to walk undaunted on the bottom of streams until you reach the other side. It is the same law, brothers and sisters, that shows you how to keep low and stay below the tow trucks and semis, your foes of the road. Jump not, y’all, for in remaining obedient to gravity, you defy the dictates of Stinkbottom. What I am uttering here today is the best of local government. Make a ball, y’all, and stay low. The Stinkbottom group has placed deadly turbulence above you---they want you to fail and sail.”
Those congregated there at Frog Level broke into “Joyful, Joyful” then as GOTAS wiped something from his eyes. When the song was over, the governor said gently with a quaver, “Thank you. Make a ball, y’all, stay low.”

The opposition, represented by Daisy Dillard, gave a radio address that evening on Frog Level Trader. She said, “There is no malevolence at Stinkbottom. National government simply wants us armadillos to stay off the roadway. I mean, local government means staying put in every sense. No?”