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?”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Small Town Journalism

Garrison Keillor quit the radio business for a while until he realized that since he was not doing it any more, he had great ideas for his show. Similarly, now that I am not a reporter any more, I think a lot about the job and some aspects of small town reporting. I thought some of my observations may be interesting to the public and perhaps useful.
Journalists are forced into specializing at the big city papers, but those in the smaller towns such as De Queen cannot specialize, but deal with a great range and mixture of newsworthy happenings. For example, on Monday, the reporter may be scribbling painstaking notes at a major trial, hoping to get all the details right for an article. On Tuesday, the small-town journalist’s assignment may be as mundane as a minor fender-bender on Collin Raye Drive. Because of the variety of issues the reporter confronts, the individual remains mentally and physically flexible in running around, and telephoning around, and e-mailing around, getting the varied articles shaped up for publication.
The best reporters become their own editors, putting themselves into the shoes of their readers. By doing so, they are meticulous in at least three areas. First, they insist on Standard English in Associated Press style, using simple and direct sentences. Second, they unambiguously nail down the who-what-when-where-why of a story. Third, they remain objective, not letting their own points of view leak through the language. In short, the good reporter’s preoccupation is constantly with clarity, accuracy and economy of expression.
Further, the small-town reporter nurtures positive relationships with such people as the mayor, the sheriff, the police chief, the civic clubs, the school administrators, the Chamber president, ministers and certain societal elements that are in the know about cultural and other matters. I am not saying that the reporter must have an outgoing or attractive personality. The person must, however, be interested in forming and maintaining positive relationships with a variety of people in the community. And, just as the reporter must put together information from a variety of different personalities, the person must also be able to assemble stories from diverse and sometimes divergent materials.
For example, when I was reporting full time for The Bee, one of the most challenging weekly stories to construct was the Circuit Court report, even though the research required was right down my alley. As a research scholar, I learned to synthesize data from multiple sources and present meaningful conclusions based upon that data. As a journalist, however, my reporting materials were the Circuit Court Docket along with my varied files from the police and sheriff incidents. Because the people involved in litigation read the paper carefully, accuracy was foremost. I believe it took me longer to write those reports than any other, unless it would be actual court trials.

The main skill I learned as a newspaper man was that of objectivity. This lesson can be summarized by the phrase, “It’s not about me.” In fact, that simple phrase can help us through many complex tasks, not just in reporting. In a sense, just about any endeavor requires reporting and that part of the job must be done with the integrity demonstrated by small-town reporters.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sentimental Journey

While I was in Amarillo at Air Force technical school, the sergeant called me out to say, “Ford, your flyboy brother is at the flight line and wants to see you.” The sergeant excused me from duty for an hour or so and actually drove me up to the flight line to meet Curtis. I wasn’t sure whether to expect him or my other flyboy brother, Stanley. I was glad it was Curtis since we were closer in age. We visited a few minutes and said encouraging words to each other. Then he invited me to do the pre-flight inspection with him on the T-33 he had flown there from a south Texas base. I watched him take off in the sleek little plane and then sauntered back to the mundanities of learning how to be a supply clerk.
Of course, I had no way of knowing that would be the last time I would see him. The Air Force sent me to Germany and Curtis went on to B-47 training. He was a First Lieutenant B-47 co-pilot the next time I talked with him by telephone. He and the crew had flown the airplane to England and he gave me a call at my barracks in Germany. He was only there overnight, so we did not have a chance for a face-to-face visit, but it was good to share witticisms and news of where our lives had taken us. Not long after that phone visit, I got word that the B-47 he was in crashed on takeoff in Ohio and that all five crew members perished.
The Air Force was prompt in cutting my orders for emergency leave so I could go to the states for his funeral. When I arrived at the base in New Jersey, I called my other flyboy brother who was stationed in Dayton, near where Curtis and his family (a 3-year-old son and a pregnant wife) lived. This brother told me I should fly to Dayton so I could drive Curtis’ car on down to El Dorado, Ark. where the funeral would be. I did so and have a most vivid memory of the service at the City Cemetery, complete with 21-gun salute and a missing aircraft flyby. My Army sister, other brother (an Air Force officer) and I were all in uniform at the ceremony. I also remember thinking that his wife had put a great deal of thought into the monument. It had a flight insignia engraved on it along with the inscription, “He gave his today for our tomorrows.”

Well, recently I revisited that monument as my wife and I were doing what we call a sentimental journey. That funeral was 55 years ago and yet there at the grave I felt the same emotion I had felt way back then. It was a complicated feeling of remorse balanced by pride in my brother’s sacrifice. Life went on for his widow and his son and daughter. The widow called us last night and we did some major reminiscing about growing up in our era. She said one never gets over a tragedy such as the one she suffered in 1960. And yet, life continues and we find meaning and significance despite deep loss.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Payoff

A bunch of Civil War reenactors are camped in Washington, Ark. Horses and mules abound, along with wagons of every description, driven by authentic looking teamsters who could have stepped out of the 1860’s. They rendezvoused here from Texas, Minnesota, Wyoming, Alabama--all over the place, really.
I was on my side porch Saturday conversing with the lady we buy eggs from and several mule skinners were in a lot nearby staking out their big old animals. When the egg lady departed, she said, “Thank you, Doctor Ford,” and one of the skinners, an extravagantly bearded fellow named Nathan, said in my direction, “Doctor, what kind of Doctor are you?” I wanted to say, “The kind that does not do anyone any good,” but that seemed too self-effacing to use on a stranger, so I said simply, “Ph. D.” He lit up and replied, “I know what one of those is since I work with surveyors.” I did not really understand that, but let it pass.
Then Nathan came over to my porch and said, “Doctor, we do not have any water nearby for our animals; may we borrow some of yours?” Of course, wanting to be a good neighbor, however temporary that may be, I hooked the hose up for him. He filled a rather large plastic container and his “boys” came over and filled their regulation canteens from the hose, each one drinking some intermittently. However, when they brought the mules over to drink, they would not do so. Nathan tried to explain to them that it was water, but they were not interested and wanted to get back to the sweet grass next door. Later in the day when they brought the long-ears back over, they did drink with gusto. As you recall, it was mighty hot Saturday.
About the middle of Sunday afternoon, a knock came on the door and it was one of the reenactors of about 35 holding the tether of a very nervous and athletic horse. He said, “Are you the Doctor?” I confessed that I was, musing to myself how soon one becomes known in a small community. “Sir,” he said, “is there a barber in town? I need to buzz my hair down.” I told him we had no barber in Washington, but that I had an electric hair-cutting device that would suffice.” I brought it out along with a hand-held mirror. He tied the nervous horse to my pear tree and started buzzing away.
As he worked, he told me he was born and raised in Hawaii, but worked in Japan for eight years as a young man. He said he was fluent in Japanese. He told me the Japanese man he worked for there was the most honorable person he has ever met and that after he had moved back to the states he got a call from the Japanese man’s family. The former employer was dying of cancer and he was sending him a plane ticket because he wanted to see him before he died. He teared up when he told the story of the man’s last breaths in the Japanese hospital.

So, I was paid off for water and tonsorial equipment by a great and moving story and the spectacle of a variety of sometimes thirsty equines.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Power of the Pen

No Union troops had been in Washington, Arkansas for the entire war. It was only after the surrender to the United States that Union troops arrived from Michigan to keep the order and offer the opportunity for local citizens to sign and abide by an oath of loyalty to the United States. Some of Washington’s citizens were understandably reluctant to take the oath, being perhaps somewhat xenophobic as the blue uniforms arrived in droves.
But the mayor of the town, one John Eakin, highly educated and rhetorically gifted editor of the local newspaper, published a highly persuasive editorial in the paper on June 7, 1865 that held great sway, both among the Southerners. Reading it, many were persuaded to sign the oath of loyalty, thereby receiving amnesty, as provided by the President of the United States of America. The editorial was printed as follows:
“TO SOUTHERN MEN—The duties of conscience are so peculiar and appropriate for each man’s own decision, that we cannot presume to advise regarding them in any manner whatever. We are free, however, to express our own opinion, that others may consider of it.
“With the capture of President Davis and his cabinet, the dispersion of congress without intention or hope of re-assembling, the impossibility of new elections or conventions of the people, and the final surrender of the last army of the South under General Smith, the Southern Confederacy dies, and becomes extinct.
“With it dies all obligations of allegiance—Nothing remains to which allegiance may attach.
“Each man is free in conscience, without loss of dignity or self-respect, to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, provided he means honorably to abide by it, live peaceably under its government, and claim its protection. It is a fair bargain, and he will not be justified in any mental reservations to the contrary. If he cannot take it honestly, he had better not take it at all, but transfer his allegiance, with his person, family and property to some other government, so far as he may be able to do so.
“We are satisfied that our single devotion to the cause of the Confederacy, during its existence, has fulfilled all the obligations of patriotism. With a conscience clear of offence, we are willing to transfer that allegiance, so left in abeyance, to the government of the United States, and hope to observe it quite as faithfully.”
The loyalty oath read as follows: “I do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will, in like manner abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

No matter how strongly I felt about my homeland as a Southerner, I do believe Eakin’s logic and rhetorical skill would have convinced me to sign the oath and to abide by it with a clear conscience.