Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Idol


My wife and I are used to going on long walks every day. During the holidays, however, with family and friends at our house we neglected our habit. What is more, we increased our caloric intake which is what people do on holidays, right? You know: ham, turkey, pies, cake—a familiar drill. So, today when our beloved family and friends went to their own homes, we set out on a nice walk down the hill to the railroad tracks.

A welcome sun made a valiant effort after a soggy Christmas weekend, but it did not do very much to warm us on the way down the hill. On the jaunt back up, however, lo, was that perspiration leaking through my shirt? My wife had said on the way down the hill that I may have to pull her back up. The opposite was true, though, as I trailed her about 10 yards until we got to the top. I confess I was more winded than she was but we were both rosy cheeked and happy with the effort.

Shortly after we arrived back home, a neighbor came to bring me an Episcopal Church Calendar. I love to keep up with where we are in the church year and the churches I am associated with these days do not put much stock in that. Did you know, for example, that January 20 (inauguration day) Fabian, Bishop of Rome and Martyr of Rome is honored? Per internet sources, with the advent of Decius the emperor, the Roman government's toleration of Christianity stopped for a while. Decius ordered leading Christians to prove loyalty to Rome by honoring Roman deities. Christians were obviously against such idolatry. Fabian himself was one of the earliest Christian victims of Decius, being martyred for not honoring Roman deities on January 20, 250. He would not burn incense to them.

I bring that up because I am concerned about idolatry on every level. A cell phone can be as much as an idol as the almighty dollar, nay, even an addiction. I have seen people escape into the electronic universe so deeply that normal conversation cannot occur. The phenomenon recalls Jonathon Swift’s “flappers” in Gulliver’s Travels, those dutiful servants whose job it was to flap their abstracted intellectuals on the ears when someone wanted to converse with them. Similarly, people can get so deeply involved in politics and the reporting thereof that all things political most assuredly become idols. And, heaven forbid that a citizen in our republic would venerate a political figure so highly as to make him or her an idol!

Anyway, a walk down and back up a hill can put us in touch with what is real about life. Seeking health and peace requires considerable work—work that can be rewarded not only with a spurt of endorphins, but with a culminating awareness of historical fact: refusing to bend the knee to the idol of state can bring martyrdom, but it can also bring freedom.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Journalism


The “scop” or “bard” in Germanic culture (including Anglo-Saxon) went about entertaining and enlightening with voice and lute. The stories they sang were often based on truth, but embellished to flatter the head of the clan or some high-ranking hero. They were professionals, receiving gifts from the nobility in direct proportion to the entertainment quality of their songs. The singer of Beowulf was an early such entertainer-enlightener and Chaucer was a later medieval version. I believe Chaucer lost the lute. They were early “journalists” who most assuredly had a point of view. As a one-time journalist myself, I know what it means to strive for objectivity. When I first started, I wanted to present, as Joe Friday used to say, just the facts and nothing but the facts. But I soon discovered that objectivity is next to impossible for me because I have a firm point of view, namely, that of holding to certain immutable absolutes. So, as I look back on some of my longer news stories, I find a distinct bias towards the Christian worldview. I got by with it because I lived and wrote in an area where many shared that worldview.

Today, journalism is changing rapidly, so we must strive to be particularly astute in discerning the worldview behind what is being written or said. Without looking at the television, I can guess what network or cable brand is behind the “reporting.” Blatant bias is becoming the norm. Thus, social media! But even these outlets bring non-objective bias and sometimes downright phony stories. Twitter can capture utterances straight from the horse’s mouth, but there are worldview issues in play in such cases as well. I have noticed that people tweet and retweet elements from cyberspace that suit their own often narrow take on the news.

It is easy to find things you agree with but not easy to examine why you agree with them. Lazy “research” is the kind that leads to the fore-imagined outcome. For me, the best way to draw a conclusion about news is to evaluate it in the light of absolutes. If a story is wishy-washy, it is often designed for a political purpose. If it is rigid, it is likely to be dogma. If the story has an angry tone it is probably condemnatory rather than persuasive, saying, in effect, “You make me mad, therefore you are wrong.”

There are real reasons and “good” reasons. Often, journalists with a strong non-objective point of view give you an abundance of “good” reasons for their conclusions while striving to hide the real reasons. People do that kind of thing in relationships all the time. “I went fishing because I wanted to bring home some fish for supper.” That is a good reason. The real reason may be something else altogether. “I go to church because I want to serve the Lord.” That is a good reason. The real reason may be something else altogether. Journalists should be up front and open, giving real reasons and sticking to the facts.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Acquire


People think I love books. I do appreciate what is in some of them but with a few exceptions the physical book means little or nothing to me. You would call me a liar if you saw my book-laden dwelling place. I don’t love the things, though, I just don’t want to get rid of them because I may want to go back to facts, stories and beautiful ideas some of them contain.

Everyone does not understand that. One time when I was an academic dean at Southern Arkansas University, a well-tanned, outdoorsy type man with his hair slicked down sauntered into my office with a box of books under each arm. “Dean Ford?” he queried. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Sir, them people over there in that building yonder told me you knew everything there was to know about books. I acquired these books at an estate sale in Hot Springs. I was wanting you to tell me how much they are worth.”

“I’m sorry; I am not an expert on the value of books. I won’t be able to help you.”

“Well, them people over there said you was a real genius when it come to books and I was just wanting you to give me some ballpark figure as to the worth of these here books I acquired up yonder in Hot Springs.”

“The people in the administration building are mistaken. I do not know anything about the value of old books. I’m sorry.” Then the man put the boxes down on my desk and pulled a few copies out. Flakes of yellow paper flew and I could see that bugs had feasted on some of the volumes and that some had years-old mucus tracks decorating the cover. “Lookee here at these here ones I acquired up there in Hot Springs. They are over a hundred years old. Reckon what a feller could get for books like this. I ain’t going to tell you what I paid for them. I just want you to give me a figure so I can see if I come out alright on the deal.”

“Well, I, I, I don’t have any way of knowing the value of those books. I doubt that they have much value, since the authors are not major names.”

“Well, Dean Ford, if you yourself was going to buy these here books I acquired up there in Hot Springs, how much would you give me for them.”

“Nothing. I do not want the books. As you see, I have plenty of books. Perhaps you could take them over to the library—that building right over there. Ask for Mr._____________, the head librarian. He may be able to give you some estimate of their worth.”

The persistent acquirer of books finally left and soon I got a call from Mr._____________ at the library. I cannot write here what he said to me. Suffice it to say that he did not wish to acquire the books for the library. Especially since he adjudged them worthless. I found myself using the word “acquire” a lot the rest of the day.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Let Him Go


“Swilley, you can’t march,” said the Seabee drill instructor.

“I know it,” he replied, but got by without that difficult skill, because he was a great craftsman, taking carpentry to the level of art. The Seabees were lucky to have him and they knew it. After World War II, Loy Swilley told many stories of wartime activities down in “them islands,” off New Zealand, where he and his crew built many needful structures for airfields. He told of narrow scrapes with enemy bombs and strafing.

When the war was over, he heard from a fellow El Dorado Seabee that his old girlfriend’s husband had died. Loy was an older Seabee, having gone into the service at almost 40 after a painful divorce. That old girlfriend was my mother, Pearl. I was six when he came courting. Mother was pregnant with me when my father died. My brother Curtis was 5 when our father died and 11 when Loy came courting. Mother thought Loy was a door-to-door salesman. Not realizing he had come courting, after about an hour, she asked what he did for a living. “I drive nails,” he replied and Mother realized he intended to rekindle what had started in high school. Rekindle it did.

When Mother told us of her intent to marry him, Curtis was not happy, having known his real father. I was tickled because I felt uncomfortable explaining the absence of a father to my friends. I said, “I am going to call him Daddy.” Curtis said he was going to call him Pop and that I had better use that name for him as well. He said it firmly. So, Pop it was. Later we found out that he did not care for that designation since the younger Seabees in his unit called him that, but he never complained about it.

Curtis kept his distance but I developed a jocular relationship with him. I outgrew Pop very rapidly. Once when we went to the barbershop together, the barber said, “You did good on that one, Swilley.” Pop merely replied, “Yep, he is a big one.” I liked that response very much. I passed for anomalous blood kin from then on.

As to the jocularity we developed, it started when his fellow carpenters would call the house asking for Bug. That was his nickname because of the rapid way he traversed the job sites. I would yell out, “Telephone, Bug!” And soon I started calling him that on a regular basis. He grinned at it, so I continued the appellation. In response, he called me Kid. Soon, I began to return that to him, referring to him as Kid. So, he answered, whether I called him Bug or Kid.

Another name he had for me was Wart, and sometimes You Bloomin’ Blasted Wart. I guess I earned that designation by being more present in his and Mother’s lives that he preferred. When I told them I was going into the service, Mother did not want me to do that and got emotional. Pop said three words that settled it and made all the difference in my life, “Let him go.” He meant that in more than one sense.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thankful for the Three D's


Life is like paddling a canoe through rapids, still water, crooks and eddies on a winding river like the Cossatot. We only see a piece of the river at a time; but above it, say in a forestry helicopter, the whole trip is apparent. In my canoe journey, I am thankful for the pilot in the helicopter and the three “D’s”—namely, dovetailing, direction and destination.

You have noticed, I am sure, that many circumstances of life dovetail in the most intricate ways. It is as if some great intelligent designer arranged well-positioned points of intersection in often unlikely ways. For example, think back to the moments you met and developed relationships with people who have turned out to be essential companions in your earthly journey. Was there something odd or unusual about the meetings? Could you just as easily have not been there when the individuals emerged? That’s what I mean—we see an enigmatic and well-timed event planner behind our relationships. The same is true of significant events of our lives. Ponder the way you came into your profession, your livelihood, your avocations and, yes, even your tastes. There is, in short, a clandestine purpose that gets clarified systematically in a universal system of dovetailing that often seems random but, upon reflection, is methodical. Forrest Gump pointed out at Jenny’s grave that life seems both random and planned and Hamlet of Denmark contended that there is method in this madness. Pondering the ostensibly arbitrary motions of the weirdly spiraling DNA ladder, our gratitude is so great that we want to hug the Danish prince and the Alabama shrimper.

As to direction in life, that same intelligent design seems to be at work. Like everyone I know, I have gone through many periods of “what ifs” and “if onlys.” Not many days pass that don’t contain some speculation of, “Wish I’d said that,” or “What if I had just walked away.” But there is a North Star pull that we recognize only in retrospect, a road sign that was not there as we passed it, but clearly there in the rear-view mirror. Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out that all things take on a pleasing form in the eyes of memory—maybe that is why, we feel aimless in the moment but see the design looking back, that is, after we get to where we were going—you know, destination.

Does anyone ever arrive? Are we not continually striving rather than arriving? I remember Peggy Lee’s haunting song, “Is that all there is?” It is a song about this very thing. When we achieve some goal, be in graduation or retirement, there is something that compels us to move on to other goals. The phrase “You’ve got it made” is meaningless. In the Christian worldview, for example, some believe that the salvation experience is all there is to the Christian walk. Nope. Because Christians recognize the great cost paid for salvation, we are compelled to live a life motivated by awareness of the price paid, thus becoming self-sacrificial as well.

So, I am deeply grateful for the three “D’s” of life, for all the enigmatic but wondrous dovetailing that continues to offer new adventures, for the direction that was dim as I walked the road but crystal clear in retrospect and for the destination planned for me, a greater place than ever entered the mind of man. There is a river. There is also a pilot above it who understands and influences the whole trip.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Belly Landing


I called the paper in Atlanta and asked to speak to the wise old man on Veteran’s Day. I went through several employees and finally spoke to a copy editor who said, “He left a note for Charles telling him the paper was tending towards propaganda and he quit.” I then called Bright Leaf to see if he had returned there but he had not. I tried a couple of other numbers from the past with no luck and just as I was calling my last number, he drove up in an Elio test car he got from the founder down in Shreveport.

“I have been looking for you, sir.”

“I quit the paper. Journalism is not my gig any more. I have my pension, you know. How do you like my ride?”

“That is so cool. How did you get one so early?”

“Connections, Dan, connections. Listen, Dan, I know we differ deeply on political matters but I just want to say three things and then we can go on to other topics. First, it is what it is. Second, it is not what it is not. And, finally, it will not be what you anticipate.”

My instinct was to go for more specifics and detail, but I remembered what a rhetorically powerful contender the wise old man is, so I kept my peace (such as it was). I invited my old friend in and my wife greeted him warmly and offered a bowl of chili, which he accepted. We had a leisurely lunch and, since it was Veteran’s Day, I brought up our gratitude for his valiant service as a B-17 pilot in World War II.

“Dan, did I ever tell you about how we got shot up and I was wounded in both arms and couldn’t fly?”

“I do not recall that story.”

“Well, flak had already taken out one of our engines and the ship took a bad one in the landing gear. Then the fighters came when we lost altitude and I caught shrapnel in both shoulders and could not fly her. Freddy, my co-pilot was unconscious and everyone else was busy, so I had Barry the bombardier come take the controls. He was a brooding boy from Milwaukee and he was terrified. I was in and out of consciousness but managed to talk him to within sight of our base in Italy. He freaked out when I had him power down. He thought we were going to fall out of the sky. I said, ‘No, Barry, we are fine. It just feels like we are too slow. Nose her down, come on, boy.’ Just as I feared, the landing gear was blown. A belly landing is never easy, even for an experienced pilot, but I talked Barry down until he just froze up. I leaned way back and took the controls with my feet and plopped her down. We skidded and blew sparks all the way to beyond the asphalt. I put Barry in for a medal, but he never received it. They patched me up and sent me out in another airplane not long after that wreck.”

“Wow,” I said, stirring shredded cheddar into my chili. “What an experience.”

“Yep. If you went on a mission as an atheist, you came back believing, or wanting to anyway. If you went as a hawk you came back a dove. If you went an ideologue, you came back practical. If you went feeling coerced, you came back proud to be an American. So many did not come back, Dan. So many.”

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Crook at the Head of the Staff


Ridest thou life out? Art thou filled with ennui? Dost thou wish to drop out of the race? Hopest thou all will be well if thou withdraweth in quietness and rest? Nay. Many are tired but few are utterly exhausted. What hast thou in thy hand? Is it not a weak and malformed shepherd’s staff? Thou knowest thou art being conformed to the image of thy great shepherd. Thou hast read it in the 13th chapter of Hebrews and the eighth chapter of Romans. Turnest thou that staff bottom-side-uppards. There. It is a “J”. It standeth not for Jay-Z. Nor standeth it for J-Lo. Yea, thou knowest the initial of thy great shepherd. Therefore, useth thou that staff as the shepherd doth: he rescueth, he urgest along and he protecteth the sheep withal.

Verily, when thy great shepherd seest a lamb feebly trying to arise from having fallen over the rim of a cliff, the shepherd reachest down with the crooked end of his staff to lift the lamb back into the fold. In like manner, thou, when thou seest a fellow human going over the cliff of strong drink, ground-up potions, or substances never intended for such abuse, or falling out of a relationship because of poor communication, reachest thou out with thy staff of friendship, compassion, understanding, gentleness and sobriety to bring the wanderer back into the fold where there will be joy unspeakable amongst the sheep.

Likewise, observe how thy great shepherd urgest lambs and sheep along with the other end of the staff. He encourageth the recalcitrant and dilatory to rejoin the journey. So thou, as thou are being conformed to the image of thy great shepherd, urge thou those who giveth up not to do so, but to press on toward the high calling wherewith they are called. Yea, the shepherd resteth while the sheep rest, but moveth forward at his will. Encourage those who wish to drop out to continue. Rest only when thy shepherd resteth.

Hast thou not noted how thy great shepherd fiercely figheth the lion and the bear with the shepherd’s staff? Behold, he jabbeth, beateth, clobbereth, poketh and runneth the predator off. Thou, then, must do warfare on behalf of thy fellow troubled humans. In Adam’s fall we sinned all, including thou; and yet thou art called to heal thyself as well as thy fellowman. When addiction cometh with insatiable hunger, thou must whomp it up beside its multiple heads with thy staff. When quarreling cometh, thou must speak a kind word and lead by thine own benign example. When hate cometh, thou must love, thereby chasing the untoward away. SELAH.

So that, when thou hast rescued the perishing, encouraged the downtrodden and fought for those who err from the straight path, then thou wilt begin to resemble that great shepherd of the sheep, in whose heavenly flock thou wilt spend eternity—in the company of those thou undershepherded. Remember, thou thyself hast been shepherded and desire to remain in the flock.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Honor


 

I don’t recall much about my days as a boy scout but I do remember quoting the “oath” often. One part of it that still stands out to me is the phrase, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” I am not sure any of us in my troop knew what honor meant at that time. I think I assumed it meant that I was serious about God and country. Now, perhaps I have a more mature understanding of the concept.

Honor means integrity in beliefs and actions. In other words, when we act with honor, our actions line up with our beliefs. There is a section of scripture in James that admonishes people to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. That’s it: allowing our inmost convictions to inform our actions and words consistently, regardless of the circumstances. So, honorable people live lives not necessarily to please others but to align with inalterable principles. Thus, I believe that to be honorable, we must have a sense of the absolute, a sense of Truth underlying all that can be known and experienced.

One notable American writer of the 20th Century, William Faulkner, had, in his art at least, a sense of the absolute that registered in his aesthetics as “the old verities of the human heart.” He even went so far as to list those old truths of the heart as love, honor, pride, sacrifice, pity--you know, those attributes that set us humans apart from other creatures on the planet. Here is a section of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech that is to the point: “[A writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Even though the Mississippi genius was writing specifically about the art of storytelling, it seems to me that his admonition fits other aspirant activities as well. A politician, for example, deeply motivated by these principles would not alter views for expediency, right? Similarly, leaders who feel compassion for those they lead will not take chances on damaging their followers in any way. In fact, I believe true leadership sometimes calls for self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Self-sacrifice leads to my final point about honor. Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch told Scout that one must walk around in someone else’s skin in learning to be merciful and just. Charles Chestnut’s powerful tale “Mars Jeem’s Nightmare” is about a plantation owner who is miraculously transformed into a slave on his own plantation, thus learning what it means to honor others. Could it be that true honor is defined by the Golden Rule? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What's Wrong with Bicycling?


Bicycles have been important my whole life, especially from the time I was seven. Mother and Pop bought me a rebuilt one for my birthday, a hybrid, from a man in El Dorado whose place of business was advertised by reconstituted Cities Service sign. It read in awkward lettering: I fix Victrolas and Bicycles. (I later got to know that old man. He told stories about his early “boom town” days in such a way as to make me see pictures in my head. He was a true narrative artist.)

Because I was a growing boy, Mother and Pop went ahead and got a 26-inch bike with wide handlebars that stretched a kid’s arms out significantly. My two older brothers taught me how to ride it by pushing me off down a major hill and yelling, “Ride, Danny, Ride.” That was similar to the way they taught swimming as well, throwing me into the deep, yelling, “Swim, Danny, Swim.” Great teachers, right? Well, it worked on both accounts. The best education is self-education. Or, as country comedian Dave Garner used to say, “It is always best to self-educate you own self.”

I kept on cycling as I grew to maturity. My first job, in fact, was that of bicycle messenger for Western Union. I wore out two bicycles and several sets of tires doing that. During and for a while after the military, I abandoned that avocation, but after marriage I managed to procure and maintain a good bicycle. And, when I became a professor and rode my bicycle back and forth to work, it was considered a non-blameworthy eccentricity by students and faculty alike.

Once when my nephew was visiting, I happened to have two bicycles and invited him to go on a ride with me. Gliding through the college farm road, we came upon a man cutting up a tree that had been hit by lightning. He admired our bicycles and mentioned the he was an avid cyclist. It was the college archeologist and after that encounter, I started riding daily with him, receiving advice as to cycling equipment from him. He subscribed to the cycling magazines and eventually, so did I. We joined the Arkansas Bicycle Club and put in many miles riding with that group.

Now that I am approaching the threshold of old age, I have a mountain bike, not a racer. It is well-equipped with lighting, reflectors, a speedometer, a tool kit, a frame pump and other needful accouterments. I do not ride long distances any more, but there are some good hills around here for aerobic fitness. I especially like going downhill—I mean on a bicycle.

There is something good about cycling that is hard to define. Maybe that “something” is keeping rhythm while at rest. You know, sitting, yet exerting. Leaning forward. Feeling the wind in your face. Sneaking up on deer. Outwitting dogs. Imagining what people are thinking, such as, look at that old dude on a bicycle. What’s wrong with him.

I often wonder that myself and have concluded nothing. Intentional ambiguity.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Ordination


Thirty years ago, a friend of mine was to be ordained. He asked me to be a presenter at the ceremony and to read the Old Testament lesson for the day. I humbly accepted the invitation. He told me I should don my academic robe for the event, explaining that it was canonically correct to wear academic regalia in formal church services, even if it was not acceptable to be clad in ecclesiastical garb in academic convocations. So, I got out my robe and Ph. D. hood and tidied them up for the event.

When the great day came, I showed up at the appointed place, a beautifully ornate sanctuary in a large city, looking like a Supreme Court judge. The processional was long and ostentatious, the incense was pungent and the organ blared in full tremolo. I read my passage from Isaiah, emphasizing the part that says, “Here am I, send me,” from the lectern, concluding my contribution with the designated words, “Here endeth the reading.”

Then came the Gospel reading by my honored friend himself and then the sermon by a reverend professor from a New York seminary. I remember his remarks almost verbatim, notwithstanding the lapse of three decades. He said:

“Right Reverend Sir, reverend clergy, friends and relatives of the ordinand, fellow followers of Our Lord, ladies and gentlemen, I bring greetings from my colleagues on the seminary faculty and from the students studying there.

“When I was a student in that very seminary,” he went on, “I had a classmate from Texas I could not stand to be around. His accent was so very thick. He said “hep” for “help” and “wekom” for “welcome.” There was not an “L” in his mouth. And he had other objectionable speech patterns as well. I tried to avoid this Texan as much as possible.”

Since I was seated on the platform, I could see the faces of those gathered for the event, all Southern people, some Texans, and I wondered where that minister thought he was. He continued undaunted:

“I decided in my heart I never would go to Texas if I could avoid it. But, when this graduate of our seminary to be ordained here today asked me to come down here to deliver the sermon, I did not know what was going to happen. I got on the airplane at JFK and changed planes in Memphis to come to Little Rock. The weather was terrible at Memphis and worsened as we approached Little Rock. The plane was rocking and bouncing and lightning was flashing all around us. The pilot came on the p.a. system and said we were diverting to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Oh, my, I thought. This is terrible. But when we drew near to Texas, the weather cleared, the flight smoothed out. The Dallas-Ft. Worth airport came into view. IT WAS A WEKOM SITE, SO HEP ME.”

Then, he went on to preach a beautiful sermon. I thought that was a great attention-getter and a wonderful way to get into a sermon by shedding all semblance to the Pharisee.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Altruistic Team


I was a teenager when Uncle Sam paid my way for a three-year tour of duty in Germany. At first, everything seemed, well, foreign over there, but at time went on familiarity kicked in and I felt at home. That kind of familiarity did not breed contempt, though absence from my home in the states did make my heart grow fonder of it. I knew people who spent their whole enlistment bemoaning their decision to enlist. I got over that after basic training and actually enjoyed much of my time in the service.

In the states, baseball and sandlot football were our childhood sports. The rural people I met and grew to love in Germany played only one sport—soccer. They called it “foosball.” I don’t remember just how I became friends with Erich, Demeter, Wolfie, Joachim and the other guys down near Zell on the Mosel River. I do remember that I was quickly accepted into their circle of friends, which meant playing foosball with them on Sunday afternoons.

They were vineyard people, growing their crops on poles on the south side of the mountain. They had all the accouterments of farmers I had known in the states—barns, tractors, and so forth—with one addition that was unfamiliar to me: wine cellars. Each dwelling seemed to have one furnished with long rows of casks, labelled with the year the contents were deposited there. I remember seeing casks dated way back before my birth in some of those cellars.

But, back to foosball. Somehow the gang had flattened out a field near the peak of the mountain for a sports arena. The goals at each end were made of vineyard poles and fish nets and boundaries were marked with poles as well. I was a terrible player, but they did not seem to mind. I provided good amusement for them when I kicked at and missed the ball, falling flat on my American posterior. I got better as time went on, but those guys were downright magicians in their head, arm and foot dexterity.

Unlike sports organizations in the U.S., these individualistic vintners simply challenged other towns nearby and they met on more or less arbitrary schedules to compete. The team I was on won steadily until late one summer when they held an unofficial championship game against a little village across the river. For some reason—I will let you guess why—I never got off the bench during that game. My team lost by one goal and it was a downer. Erich, the biggest of my German teammates, took the loss very badly. He had missed a goal towards the end of the game and took all the blame for blowing the championship. My German was not very good, but I could tell his teammates were trying to tell him it was not his fault, each pointing out his own mistakes during the game.

I never saw a more altruistic group of people in my life. By nightfall, Erich was reconciled to the loss and everyone was jubilant and festive. We even went across the river to the victorious village and joined in their lively celebration. Their players embraced us and it was a happy evening.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Justice


Belshazzar was weighed in Yahweh’s scales and found wanting. He lost his kingdom because the gods he venerated were lightweights in comparison to the God above all gods. This grandson of prideful Nebuchadnezzar was such a punk that he was not worthy even to hear a voice from heaven; thus, the hand appeared and wrote on the wall in a foreign language. You might say it was “writing in tongues” that required an interpreter: enter Daniel. The weak-kneed king offered Daniel treasure and position for an interpretation of the weird writing but the honorable Hebrew refused the gifts, delivering the message clearly. “You, Belshazzar, are a lightweight. You have been weighed in the scales of justice and found wanting. Thus, your kingdom will go to the Medes and Persians.” It happened that very night.

So, what about God’s scales of justice? We see that the prophets reported God’s desire for it over and over. The famous passage in Micah 6:8 says the Lord requires justice, mercy and humble living. And we certainly see divine justice superseding man’s attempts at it all through scripture—David and Goliath, Mordechai and Haman, Ruth and Boaz, Babylonian law and the Hebrew children, Jesus’ treatment of the woman taken in adultery. What man sees as justice is often not justice at all but a desire to control others or elevate the ego.

However, I am glad to report that I saw a sincere and evenhanded desire for justice in law enforcement and the courts when I was a reporter for The De Queen Bee. The sheriff’s office, the police station and the courts exhibited real concern for fairness and objectivity in their written and oral reports to the media. I learned afresh the true meaning of the popular phrase, “It is what it is.” In other words, nothing was hidden and the desire for accuracy and completeness came through. The job of a journalist was to weigh the incidents for newsworthiness and write appropriate stories in Associated Press style.

My other profession, that of English professor, was full of concerns about justice as well. I don’t just mean fairness in grading essays but in the overriding theme of justice in the literature we taught. One of my favorite short works of literature is Melville’s “Billy Budd,” a tale about a young sailor with a speech impediment who is falsely accused by a senior seaman named Claggart. Because Budd cannot get the words out to defend himself, he strikes out with his fist, killing Claggart. Mr. Vere, the ship’s captain, is present at the fatal altercation and does not want to hang Billy Budd, but justice demands it. Just as the noose is placed around the young sailor’s neck, he utters an astounding phrase, “God bless Captain Vere.” Interestingly, Captain Vere’s last words not much later are, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” He could never forget how terribly much the demands of justice cost him.

Perhaps, like Belshazzar of old, we are all weighed in a cosmic scale—a fulcrum upon which our lives are balanced against the law of love and its constant companion, forgiveness. Unlike the punkish Babylonian, however, Christians have an advocate, ultimately making things even. It is what it is.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Smackover Salt Creek


As a kid, I always dreaded the beginning of school and, once it started, I dreamed of summertime. I loved being outside and free. Oh, I had jobs—mowing grass, trimming hedges, washing cars, helping Pop clean up at job sites—but I had a lot of leisure to enjoy not having to worry about tests, math problems or term projects.

My friends and I went for the first swim of the year usually by the end of February. One warm Sunday in February when I was 14, our gang was torn between two bodies of water with the same name: Salt Creek. There were probably more creeks so named, but we only knew about two of them. They both originated in the oil fields. One was out beyond Dumas pasture, the territory of ornery Brahma cows and an alert and very protective bull named Sammy. The other was almost to Smackover, a distance that required someone in our group to acquire a car or truck. That Sunday, Tommy sweet-talked his Mother with all kinds of promised domestic labor and came up with the family sedan.

No worries about Sammy the bull; we were headed to the Smackover Salt Creek. Nine of us arranged ourselves like sardines in the De Soto. We were full of advice for Tommy, whose driving skills had not fully matured. He put up with our banter for a while but, at length, pulled over and said, “If y’all don’t shut up, I’m putting you out.” That did it. We started singing “Do, Lord” disharmoniously and continued the adolescent praise service the rest of the way.

When we arrived at the Salt Creek bridge, Tommy pulled off onto a little two-rutted trail and drove up into a fairly thick canebrake. There, we shed clothing and made our way to the high bank. No one had to teach us to walk carefully in snake country. We just knew to watch the ground (and water) for any movement. That day, we only saw one moccasin, peacefully ingesting a bullfrog. At first it looked as if the snake had legs, but those appendages were the frog’s, on his way out of this corporeal realm. He looked so resigned to his fate, stoically accepting his role as nourishment for the ugly snake.

We had a blast cannonballing, belly flopping as well as creating other diving techniques, such as the alligator, the plank and the helicopter. It was so great to be back in a summertime mode, however prematurely, that we ignored the rather pungent odor emanating from the creek…and us.

I don’t know about the others, but when I got back home just enough before church time to eat some cheese and crackers and take a quick shower, Mother hit the ceiling about the smell. “Where have you been! Get some Lysol and wipe that chair down when you finish. You stink to high heaven!” she cried. “We went to Salt Creek, Mamma. I’m fixing to take a shower.” She could not believe that we would be so foolish as to go swimming in February, but, since it happened almost every year, she let it slide. She made me scrub the tub, though, and throw the washcloth and towel away.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Eating Habits


Back when I was on the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, some board members had a meet-and-greet cookout at a deer lodge way out in the boon docks and my wife and I were invited. The spacious well-furnished lodge was on the Bartholomew Bayou and rather difficult to get to. As soon as my wife and I arrived, we were offered liquid refreshment and they passed around a tray of hors d’oeuvres. These were little chunks of fried meat on toothpicks that tasted like fishy chicken. We both had several. Then, just before the main course, our host held up a huge rattlesnake skin and mirthfully announced that the meat of that creature had been our cordial repast. My wife and I looked at each other with that “Oh, well, the deed is done” look on our faces and moved forward to more familiar fare—rib eye steaks and baked potatoes.

I tell that story to assert that most of us like to know what it is we are eating before ingesting it. Sushi bars have all their fish, eels, squid, shrimp, etc. out there in plain view. That way you know what you are getting. Some people are squeamish about eating raw fish, but I imagine our ancestors did so a lot. I love that scene in Castaway in which Tom Hanks learns to spear fish and eat them still wiggling. Elia (Charles Lamb) wrote a piece on roasted pig in which he asserted that cooking came to be in this fashion: a man kept his pig in his house. His house burned to the ground. The man touched the hot pig in the ashes and put his fingers to his lips. Yum. Thus, cooking was born.

Historic Washington State Park had a week-long encampment and reenactment recently and those assembled tried their hardest to be authentic 19th Century soldiers. Some had live chickens in cages. I watched a bevy of them, who obviously had but little experience cleaning farm critters, preparing a big hen for the pot. It took a long time, and the carcass looked untidy as all get-out. I was told later that they were so hungry that they took the chicken up before it was well done and some got sick. I have a tendency to cook chicken to unsavory hardness on the grill. A well-done hamburger is one thing but a scorched chicken is quite another.

My Pop had strange tastes and I usually ate what he ate, be it tripe, raw oysters from the can, brains and eggs, dry salt meat, pickled pig’s feet or sardines. Tripe is cow stomach and Mother used to bread it and fry it. It smelled good cooking and I enjoyed eating it, though it was quite chewy. It took a while for me to develop a taste for raw oysters, but when I started adding Louisiana hot sauce like Pop, I managed well. Hog brains scrambled with eggs had a musky taste, but that just made the dry salt meat, the constant companion of that dish, taste better. Pickled pig’s feet, sardines and sharp cheddar with crackers were usually Sunday evening meals. Mother cooked a major lunch on Sunday, so we were on our own the rest of the day. Rarely there was some fried chicken left, but more often we had Pop’s exotic stuff. As far as I know, he never ate rattlesnake, though.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Water


I am told that amniotic fluid is identical to ocean water in its makeup and that our bodies are mainly water. Considering the preponderance of H20 on the planet, its influence upon literature is not surprising. Our most ancient extant tale, Gilgamesh, relates the flood story paralleling in several passages the flood in Holy Scripture. And Homer’s work is full of water, as is Beowulf. Some of the best stories of the 20th Century written in English are all wet, in the best sense. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim swim in the complexity of the human condition. The main character of the greatest American novel is the Mississippi River itself—of course I refer to Huckleberry Finn. The second greatest American novel, Moby Dick, is likewise afloat in the dark turbulence of self-discovery.

Consider the vast waterish themes of the Bible: The world came from a formless void in which darkness was upon the face of the deep. Noah withstood the worst storm ever recorded. Moses led the Hebrews through the Red Sea on dry land. The prophet’s axe head floated and leprous Naaman came up pink from the murky Jordan. Elijah soaked the sacrifice, taunting the heathen, and Yaweh’s fire lapped water up. A glass of water offered in the name of a prophet will get a prophet’s reward. The rich man in Hades wanted his poor servant to give him just one drop of this precious substance. Jesus strolled on water and told the Samaritan woman at the well about water springing up to eternal life. All the followers of the Lord baptized folks with or in water and finally, in Revelation 4 verse 6, we see God himself sitting on his throne before a sea as calm as glass. That must mean everything makes sense to him. From the churning chaos of creation to the crystal sea, water tells our story.

There is an odd report in Second Samuel 23:13-19. After a furious battle with the Philistines, David longed out loud for water from his hometown, Bethlehem, which was under the control of the enemy. Hearing his desire, some of his mighty men took off for Bethlehem and fetched him some water. But David would not drink it because it was to him like the blood of those men who had risked so much to get it. He poured it out as a drink offering to the Lord. In the Christian worldview, that is likely a foreshadowing of the mightiest man of all time pouring out unto the Lord a sacrifice for all mankind. He gave his righteous life in exchange for the sinful life of all who believe in turn to him in repentance. Considering that heaven is the home of the redeemed, that sacrifice is like water from home.

When I was eight, Mother and I visited my sister in Boston. The water tasted horrible up there. I could not wait to get back home to drink a huge quaff of water that tasted right. According to Psalm 46 (which Shakespeare himself probably translated for King James) there is a river flowing from the throne of God. That water tastes right.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hypocrisy


Literature is full of satirical and other corrective works about mankind’s hypocritical propensity. Shakespeare is full of hypocrites. One of the most expertly drawn is King Claudius in Hamlet. He pretends to be God’s honest representative on earth and yet on the inside he is murderous, adulterous and, by Elizabethan standards, incestuous. In short, he is the worst kind of scoundrel in the elaborate trappings of royalty. Iago in Othello is another out and out hypocrite. Even though this bigot is filled with lies, lust, manipulation and ambition, he is so skillful as a hypocrite that he boasts the nickname, “Honest Iago.”

The French are particularly good at identifying and portraying the hypocritical. Consider Moliere’s heavy-handed satire Tartuffe, in which the title character, an ostensibly pious priest, is actually lustful, greedy and thieving. American writers are quite good at nailing the hypocrite, too, as in novels such as Elmer Gantry and poems like “Richard Cory.” The title character of this latter work gives the impression of having everything that would make one happy, but in reality he is so miserable as to give up on life.

I can’t help but look into more ancient literature on the subject. One certainly finds it in Aesop, Boccaccio and Chaucer. Certainly we confront well-drawn examples of it in scripture. After ingesting the problematic pomegranate, Adam tried to hide. The fig leaf shorts gave him away to God, to whom no secrets are hidden. Interestingly, God seems to understand Adam’s hypocrisy and provides a buckskin outfit, having presciently shed first blood as a covering.

We also think of Tamar, who pretended to be something she was not in order to receive a lawful heir and King Saul, who tried to “clothe” David with his own armor, thereby crippling him. But David rejected this “mask” and succeeded against all odds by being himself—a shepherd boy with a shepherd’s weapons. He gave Goliath a headache no aspirin could cure.

Perhaps you remember prideful Nebuchadnezzar, who wore the mask of Godlikeness. “Look what I have done here in Babylon,” he said, not giving deity a second thought. So God stripped him of this prideful “mask” and showed him that, without God, he is no more than a beast of the field. Belshazzar had similar pride as his progenitor, demonstrating his “power” by drinking wine from Jehovah’s cups. That is when the writing on the wall cut through everything and stripped him of his kingdom.

Of course, in the New Testament, Judas was the ultimate hypocrite, even to the point of that betraying kiss. Peter’s hypocrisy was also exposed when he denied even knowing the Lord. Interestingly, he became a powerful preacher in the Book of Acts, though he still had a touch of hypocrisy concerning food. Paul set him straight on that one. In the Christian worldview, the sacrifice of Jesus is the covering for mankind’s bent towards hypocrisy. Scripture teaches that his followers are being conformed to his image and that God sees those who believe as pure through that sacrifice.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

How Tweet it is


Communication was not as instantaneous in 1956 as it is today, 60 years later. I started to work as a bicycle messenger for Western Union that year and I learned how the system worked. If a mother in El Dorado wanted to send some money to her son in Houston, she would come to our office and fill out the papers, handing over the money to be “sent” and a small fee. The teletype operator would then communicate with the Houston office and a messenger there would deliver a notification to the son’s address as specified that some money had “arrived” at the Western Union office and the son would go pick it up. Similarly, I delivered a lot of money order notifications in El Dorado and people were glad to see me coming.

Occasionally, however, some would get the idea that you could “wire” other things besides money. One lady wanted to wire a gallon of buttermilk to her son in California. I appreciated the kindness of the clerk as she explained to the lady that we did not actually attach things to a wire and send them along. But my point is that communication was a little more difficult 60 years ago than it is today. For example, I had occasion to deliver messages to the telephone company from time to time and witnessed an expansive switchboard, staffed by a dozen or so operators. The hum of voices in that place let you know that people were calling each other regularly in El Dorado: “Operator,” “Number please?” “That line is busy,” “Just a moment,” “That phone is out of service,” etc. These were the days before El Dorado had dial phones and people relied on the operator to connect them to their party.

Our pre-dial phone number was 2226J. I was with Pop, who was not a frequent telephone user, when he had to make a call home from a local lumber company. He picked up the phone and waited until he heard the kind voice on the other end say “operator.” Then Pop gave the number as he had it in his head, “Three deuces, a six and a Jack.” Apparently, the operator had no problem with his way of presenting the number and he was connected forthwith.

Sixty years later we have cell phones, e-mail and other Internet features such as twitter. These possibilities for instantaneous communication can and do get people into trouble. When I was a kid, “secure” communication meant going on a camping trip to the Ouachita River and talking to buddies, knowing that what was said on the river stayed on the river. If any of those communications were “leaked” the consequences were far beyond ostracizing, even to the point of exile and loss of reputation. Kids learned to be careful with what they said because of the severity of the consequences for breaching confidences.

Thus, we were thoughtful before speaking, pondering the possible consequences of our words. That is why I like good poetry. The artist struggles until the words are exactly right for expressing, as far as possible, an accurate sensory impression of what is in her head. Today, all of us, especially those who would lead, must think before speaking, writing or tweeting. How tweet it is!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Leader's Voice


Washington, Arkansas’s Mayor John Eakin, who was also editor of the Washington Telegraph Newspaper, managed to keep a sane point of view at a time of confusing foment. Not a single Union soldier had been to his city during the War Between the States, but at the end of the costly and bloody conflict, troops from Michigan came marching in, ostensibly to keep order. Emotions amongst the citizenry ranged from fear to resentment to anger to frustration. So, the Yale-educated mayor wrote a poignant editorial for the paper and made an impassioned speech.

In these, he made it clear that all duties of patriotism concerning the Confederacy died when President Davis and his cabinet were captured and when the Southern congress dispersed never to re-form. He also mentioned the final surrender of the last army of the South under General Smith. He held out no hope of the reassembling of the Confederate government. Mayor Eakin showed the futility of allegiance to that government for, in his words, “nothing remains to which allegiance may attach.”

His argument was clear, concise, cogent and apparently well-received by the majority of citizens who just wanted to regain a sense of normalcy. Many agreed when the mayor looked at the flag of the United States flying in front of the courthouse and said, “It is good to see the old flag flying here again.” But there were those who could not accept the new configuration. To these, Eakin said they should find a new country, probably meaning Mexico just to the south. Those who stayed, the great majority, were required to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States which included this phrase: “I will abide by…proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

The wife of a local former slave-holder in Washington, Mrs. Carrigan, made an entry in her dairy just after the war expressing great concern for former slaves who were homeless, wandering about the streets of Washington with no place to lay their heads. I know that must have been a terrifying condition with no local prospects for a livelihood in the place called home for so long. The price of freedom was great for all concerned. But freedom finds a way in the United States of America.

In every age, leaders emerge like John Eakin, who energetically acted as educator and encourager of the populace through his editorial skills and rhetorical acumen. Eakin had the gift of seeing what we sometimes call “the big picture.” Provincial in his personal tastes, he was nonetheless cognizant of the world beyond his borders. He had read history and he had a deep understanding of the human heart in conflict with itself. He knew as we often forget that there was not a single motive for the great war, but many motives, some of them wildly contradictory. And, mainly, he knew the necessity for a powerful persuasive voice, which he provided eloquently.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Gratitude


Noses turned up at manna made God burning mad. But, Moses prayed and the fire went out. Like Moses, true leaders pray for their people. Remember Daniel in chapter nine of his book? He repented on behalf of his people and asked God to deliver them because of his mercy, not because of any goodness on their part. We even have a record of Jesus praying for us here in the 21st Century in John 17. He was praying for the disciples and then shifted to those who would believe because of their efforts—that’s us. What did he pray for? Unity. At one point, he even said the world would believe in him because of our love for each other.

But, back to that manna. I cannot imagine complaining about food sent from Heaven, can you. It just about had to be the perfect food, with all the ingredients to nourish people in a top notch fashion. But they were tired of it. The word “manna” is the equivalent of the Hebrew “what’s this stuff?” (I heard that on television from a Catholic priest). In the Book of Numbers we read that the travelling horde of Hebrews following Moses to the promised land got to thinking back about those good fish they used to eat. They were so readily available in the Nile and the stock ponds. They also longed for cucumbers, melons, onions, leeks and garlic. None of these delicacies were available out there in the wilderness. Manna was not enough for them—they wanted meat.

In effect, God said, “They want meat? I will give them meat to eat until it comes out their nostrils.” He sent an overabundance of quail, blown in from the sea. There were so many! They were lying three feet deep all around the camp and a day’s walk in every direction. Each man gathered close to two tons of quail. So, they had a quail feast and their complaint and gluttony was so displeasing to the Lord that many got sick and died.

There was other complaining going on, too. Even Moses complained to God that he was not able to lead those folks all by himself. But that kind of prayer did not bother God at all. He simply had Moses name 70 elders of the people as helpers and placed an anointing to prophesy upon them. The end of that story is that the people complained about a couple of Elders—Eldad and Medad—who were not selected as part of the 70 and yet were prophesying. Moses’ response was cool. He said, let them prophesy. I wish all of you would do so.

I conclude that the God of the Bible hated complaint and we see later that he loves gratitude that results in contentment. In effect, gratitude is riches and complaint is poverty. When God told Adam he could have all the fruit of the garden except that from one tree, he should have been grateful and content. Moderation would have saved a world of trouble.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Flybird Nord and the Wise Old Man


When the wise old man was working on an Arizona ranch back in the 1950s, he became acquainted with the cowboy character actor Flybird Nord, who, besides being in demand in Hollywood, was an actual foreman for the Circle-K. He had mentioned Mr. Nord to me several times, usually noting his desire to do actual work apart from the movie set but I did not know he had mentioned me to the actor. Our home phone rang at around noon on Independence Day.

“Dr. Ford, this is Flybird Nord.”

“Uh, yes sir, you are a friend of…”

“Yes. I just talked to him. He called from Bright Leaf there in Atlanta and I am flying out to visit him. I will be happy to stop by if you and Mrs. Ford would care to accompany me. It will be a quick turnaround but we are both getting kind of long in the tooth, so I really wanted this visit.”

I had a lot of questions, such as, how old are you now? Do you still fly your own airplane? Weren’t you a producer for Shane and Giant? You know, things like that. So, I was not a little comforted by his next statement.

“My son will be flying us out. I am 94 and do not pilot much anymore. Shall I pick you up at the Hope airport or Texarkana?”

Well, we chose Texarkana and it was a joy to meet Mr. Nord there at the airport. He still sported the droopy Western mustache and, though a little stooped, still had his trademark bowlegged swagger. His boots were ostrich with silver inlays. The airplane was bigger than I had expected and we actually had a dour cowgirl flight attendant. The younger Nord looked more like a pro wrestler that the son of his father. I immediately discerned that he visited the gym regularly, as well as the tattoo parlor.

The wise old man was thrilled to see his old friend and tickled that my wife and I were along for the visit. The most interesting part of our time there was the rich conversations of the cowboy actor and the wise old man. In discussing today’s unusual political configurations, they identified what they called a zeitgeist of independence. The wise old man concluded that 1776 was the first Brexit borne of the desire of English-speaking peoples for independence. These two old fellows gave a whole new meaning to Independence Day.

Our muscular pilot and the dour attendant went out in the rental car and found some of the best ribs imaginable. When the wise old man said the blessing, he did so in this fashion, “Lord, you are good. You gave us choice and chose to make this crowd here, my dear friends. I am glad you did. Even though we value our independence as a country, we never want to think ourselves independent of our Father in heaven who knows what to do with ribs. Plant us by the river, Lord, and help us to produce fruit, even in old age. Amen. Pass the potato salad.”

Monday, June 27, 2016

In the Beginning


I treasure the turtle image Galapagos officials stamped on my passport. It is a souvenir of a life-changing experience for me and for others on the trip. Because I was dean at a Florida college, the biology faculty invited me to go along on a summer field trip to those extraordinary islands to observe the pedagogy as well as the amazing flora and fauna. You see, every other summer, a couple of our biology professors and a theology professor took 15 to 20 science majors down there to walk in the steps of Charles Darwin. During the journey, we all read books about Darwin’s theory and, each evening, heard lectures from the theology prof, balanced by discussion led by the scientists.

We flew into the largest of the complex of islands and boarded The Corinthian, a large boat that would be our home for the eight-day tour of the region. In a sense, every morning we opened our eyes to a new world, as each island is unique: some desert, some jungle, some forested and some tropical. I had heard our biology folks say that animals had not learned to fear humans down there, but I was not expecting a mocking bird to land on my shoulder. When that happened, the leader of our group said, “The bird sees your water bottle, but don’t give it any water because the national park folks do not want the birds to become dependent on tourists for their water.” I obeyed, but was certainly tempted not to. I had never seen such a thirsty look in a bird’s eye.

The sea lions were not afraid of us either. They just gave us a look as if to say, “Hello, folks, don’t step on me or my kin.” We went for a swim right there in the colony and some of the younger ones came in with us. It is an eerie feeling to be nuzzled by a sea lion pup. They are playful, very much like canine puppies. Penguins also darted about as we swam, yes, right there on the equator.

Frigate birds let you get up close enough to watch their mating ritual, namely blowing their red throat sack out and waving their extended wings while they look to the heavens. That was a sight to see, as was our leader’s imitation of the phenomenon. He carried a red scarf with him for just the purpose of hilarious reenactment. Students loved to watch their professor in his role as frigate bird seeking a mate.

Other birds such as the blue-footed booby and the red-footed booby allowed close observation as well. I read that Darwin was going to shoot one for observation, but discovered he did not have to do that. He could get up close and personal without taking a life. I recall actually handing a twig to a booby for her nest. She almost said thank you.

On the way back to Florida, we landed in Quito, where we took pictures standing on the equator and feasted on the best steak in the world. It was our frigate bird professor’s birthday and we had a wonderful meal and celebration in a restaurant overlooking the sparkling city. When we landed in Miami, I felt as if I had been to the beginning of the world in the Book of Genesis.

 

 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Dog Language


Dog languages specialize very rapidly compared to that of humans. No one knows that better than a veterinarian. The reason dogs bark so much in the reception area is that they do not understand each other. They are trying to pick up strains of a familiar tongue to no avail.

Bicycle riders also know that. Since dogs are not highly mobile, short distances make all the difference in the way they speak. As a linguist and a bicyclist, I have noticed the phenomenon when these protective creatures come out at me as I ride by. When I first deciphered a dog language, I lived in Magnolia, Ark. On the west side of town, the dogs had an accent that became very familiar to me. But the mere distance of five miles made a huge difference. “Get away from my yard” in western Magnolia language is: “abbah bah bah abbah arr arr arr abbah mmmgh,” whereas the same statement out towards Logoly State Park can be rendered phonetically as: “woop wooppy warp warp warp gmmph mmgh graph.” So, you see, an entirely new language group exists in just a short distance.

I came to understand this more fully as I considered what the dogs may be saying to me (or about me) according to their body type. I suppose I am indebted to Sheldon’s personality type classifications as I interpret these canine statements. The large muscular dogs often say, by interpretation, “Get that silly bicycle out of here before I eat your leg.” When these big dogs said that, I generally turned the crank as rapidly as possible yelling in my own language, “No dog!” It usually worked. Once I squirted a Doberman with my water bottle and he just sat down and laughed his head off.

Now the fat, happy dogs such as hounds are usually just saying, “Hello, bicyclist. Let me run along here beside you and please my master. He actually thinks I protect the place.” All I have to do to get rid of these floppy animals is to say, again, in my own language, since most are bilingual, “Supper!” That turns them homeward every time.

The most dangerous animals are the little intellectual ones such as dachshunds and Shih Tzus. When they get after you, they are saying, “Hey, you, I am going to trick you into crashing and go for your throat.” They run to and fro directly in front of your bicycle. The best remedy for these is to learn their names. They are often called, “Charlie,” or “Francine” or “Fred” or “Fritz.” Call out their name in English and they will stop, tilt their coiffured head and say, “Where do I know you from?”

So, if you are a dog linguist and a bicyclist, you have an advantage out there on the dangerous highways and backroads of life. Just remember that you have to be multilingual if you wish to understand them. What a dog says in De Queen may be utterly indecipherable in Lockesburg.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Looketh Here


When thou seest it come to pass that election season hath arrived, be thou not dismayed for the chaos thou findest, for such seasons alway alarmeth. It hath ever been so. Thou, when thou enterest into the political season, steel thyself against falsehood and wrath. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. I will repay.

And when thou goest to a political rally, hit not thy opponent’s followers up beside the head, for in doing so, thou hurtest thyself and thy cause instead. Rather behave thyself with utmost decorum, thereby bringing honor to thy candidate and not shame. By their fruits you shall know them. By all means, burneth not a flag at such rallies. By all means, wave not a flag of another land at such rallies. By all means, walk not on police cars, nor burn anything, nor throw rocks, nor swear, nor gesture obscenely. Such works are vanity.

And when thou listeneth to those myriad voices electronically conveying their inmost thoughts concerning the ambitious who would aspire to lofty position, temper thy thoughts with wisdom. All words are not fact and truth, but tinged with mere opinion. Findest thou not just those agreeable heads which talketh and columnists which writeth, but list and read those in disagreement as well, for in the counsel of many cometh wisdom. Broaden thy mind and ponder the other person’s point of view. Pray for those who despitefully use you and who say all manner of evil against thy candidate.

And let not the bitter conflict between candidates unduly hamper thy life. Look to thy own affairs and arm thyself with truth as thou hast sought it out. There is great merit in forbearance.

Perhaps thou art one of those who hath been in the ruling bodies of the land for many years and one cometh who hath not been in the traditional role of those in the ruling bodies. Perhaps this one cometh and bloweth the minds of those long ruling by brashness and lack of decorous acumen politically. If that come to pass, then, old established ruling bodies must ponder their lives, looking deep within their legacies. Hast thy way been the best way for those thou ruleth? Hast thou gotten fat off the land thou didst not plant? Hast thou reaped where thou didst not sow? Consider thy own service and then thou mayest convey displeasure to that one who cometh out of another realm, aspiring to reform thy lack of zeal.

Perhaps thou are one who wisheth to break the mold of male leadership, thus offering thy own self as leader as a woman. Imitate not male rhetoric. Rather, the strength of a woman’s words delivered womanly have a power called authenticity. Imitate not. Authentically pursue thy goal.
Perhaps thou burneth to reform the money system of an entire wealthy country by equalizing wealth, considering not the earning of it. Perhaps thou gestureth as if thou directeth an orchestra with zeal and amazing aplomb. Perhaps thou art old and yet wisheth to appear vigorous. Getteth thou not thy hopes too high. I, even I who writeth am older than thou

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Memorial


Because Mammaw had so many children, I had a whole bunch of aunts and uncles and first cousins. My oldest brother and some of my cousins served during World War II. My sister was in the WAC and later the Army Reserves as a sergeant first class. My brother Stanley, now 95 and living in Georgia, was a B-17 pilot. After he learned to fly the big bomber, the Air Corps had him teaching others to do so for a while; then he went to Italy. From there he flew 50 missions before the war’s end. My uncle Leonard and my cousin Morley were both fighter pilots who gave their lives in combat. My cousin John Henry was an aircraft mechanic career man and he was still in the Air Force at the rank of master sergeant when I enlisted in 1959.

John Henry was stationed in Bitburg, Germany when I received orders to do a three-year tour at Hahn, Germany, not far from Bitburg. Even though John Henry was considrably older that I was, he came to see me at Hahn and I became friends with him and his family. He knew that Cousin Morley’s grave was in Nancy, France, so he asked me to go with him to find it. We camped out on a stream near the cemetery and explored until we found it late one summer day. He took a lot of pictures and sent them to Morley’s mother, one of our aunts. I do not remember ever seeing Morley. He had already shipped out before my childhood memories kicked in. But it was satisfying to be part of the somber reunion. John Henry and Morley were close. That cemetery in Nancy, France exhibits row upon row of symmetrically arranged stars of David and Christian crosses, giving a sense of order to the chaos that precipitated it. In my mind’s eye, I could see Morley’s fatal flak-lit demise so far away from home where his mortal plans were forever foiled.

My brother Curtis went through the Air Force ROTC program at Louisiana Tech. Upon graduation and commissioning, he went to Harlingen, Texas for pilot training. He was there while I was in Air Force supply school in Amarillo, Texas. One day when I was between classes, the sergeant came and said, “Ford, your fly-boy brother is up at the flight line and wants to see you.” I went up there and helped him do the pre-flight on his T-33 trainer. We talked and laughed and cheered each other up. I did not know that visit would be our last. The Air Force sent him to B-47 training shortly after that and he became co-pilot on a B-47 that went down on takeoff at a base in Ohio. I was in Germany at the time, so I went home on emergency leave.

My surviving siblings and I were all three in uniform at the funeral in El Dorado—Colonel Ford, Sergeant Ford and Airman Ford. After the service, some neighbor kids who had grown up next door brought me some casings of the 21-gun salute firing, a very thoughtful gesture. I plan to visit the grave Memorial Day and think of all service people living and dead, and the many kindnesses shown in gratitude by so many.