Monday, February 29, 2016

Find Waldo

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a 19th Century essayist and poet who led the transcendental movement in America. Basically, he touted the belief that there was something beyond the ability of our five senses to be perceived. There is a Ralph way up there in the top of our state and, of course, Waldo and Emerson are down here in our general region.
Waldo played a role in my life. I was friends with Bailey Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, way back when he was pastor of Waldo First Baptist. In fact, I was Vacation Bible School superintendent there when I was a senior at Southern State College. That is when I became acquainted with Mrs. Benson and her son Vic. She was a mover and shaker for the whole community and a pillar of the church. Her son was in his 50’s at the time and he attended every assembly of VBS. I thought most assuredly that he was a deacon whose purpose was to keep a check on the young college student superintendent.
Later, when Mrs. Benson invited my wife and me to lunch there in Waldo, I learned that Vic was a stay-at-home son who served the household as cook, gardener, handyman and whatever else was required. He was an interesting fellow, slight of build with a leonine mane and heavy eyebrows that twitched as he conversed.  He stood as waiter at the luncheon with a towel across his arm, seeing to tea glasses and any other needful items he discerned. I noted that he whispered something to my wife about her astrological sign and she responded that she did not put any stock in those things but she was a Leo. When he learned that my sign was Sagittarius, he said in a soft deep bass, “Well, y’all must get along quite well, then.”
During the meal, I disclosed that I had been awarded an NDEA Title IV Fellowship to study for a doctor of philosophy degree at Auburn University. “Wonderful,” Mrs. Benson replied, “I have a son out there and I shall write him and tell him about you.” I did not think any more about that because Vic accosted me on the way out saying, “Mr. Ford, my mother does not know I smoke, so could you secretly bring me a packet of Cherry Blend tobacco.” I took him the stash and was proud of the clandestine way I got it to him before church Sunday.
I write all this to report that in my first graduate seminar at Auburn, a professor with Einstein hair, a deep voice and twitching eyebrows kept calling on me. He would say things like, “Ford, you are a Bible scholar, what did Joseph Conrad mean by such and such.” I was very uncomfortable, wondering what had given him the impression that I was a Bible scholar. Then, about half way through the seminar, he told me privately that his mother knew me.

So, in a state with a Ralph, a Waldo and an Emerson, I am of the firm belief that there are some things beyond the ability of our five senses to discern.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dr. Blank

Toward the end of my rocky path to a Ph. D. in English, my major professor started behaving strangely. For example, more than once he had me research and include what seemed to me superfluous segments in my dissertation and then in a week or two he questioned why they were there. I confess I was somewhat relieved but truly concerned when another scholar on my committee informed me my major professor had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That was in 1973 and it was the first time I had heard of the disease. My major professor was a phenomenal scholar and a brilliant teacher and he had become a valued and trusted friend. It was sad for me and for him that he was required to “hand off” the directorship of my project to a young professor I hardly knew.
I finished the dissertation forthwith and the five-person committee approved it and set up my defense, that dreaded two-hour session at which scholars from various fields of English and American literature question everything about your book. The new guy informed me of a tradition I certainly knew by that time, that of assigning an “outside professor” from another department to sit in on and participate in the session. That outside professor called me not many days hence and said, “Mr. Ford, this is Dr. Blank from the Blank department. I have been assigned to attend your dissertation defense. I have read your book and these are the questions that came to mind.” I grabbed a tablet and pencil, I said, “Oh, great. Go ahead.” The man had some really deep and profound questions for me, three of them. They were somewhat odd as well, such as the one about how a certain section of my dissertation reflected the work of Einstein. Imagine—asking about the theory of relativity as it relates to Faulkner’s uses of time in fiction.
Anyway, I appreciated the care with which he had read, marked and inwardly digested my work and I used the remaining weeks before the defense to prepare answers for those three erudite questions. When the great day arrived, I put on my good suit, slicked my hair down and walked into the seminar room with all the confidence I could muster—not much. There sat my erstwhile major professor, who gave me a warm though wan smile. I could see that it was torture for him to let go and I wanted him back as my leader, regardless of the difficulties that would entail. But, things moved rapidly. The newly assigned professor said, “Mr. Ford, since we have invited Dr. Blank from the Blank Department, courtesy dictates that we should allow him to examine you at the outset.”

I talked a good 20 minutes in response to his first question and a similar length of time in response to the other two. Apparently, that set a positive tone for the others. It was supposed to go on for two hours but we finished much sooner. The first person to shake my hand was the original leader. I told him I owed a lot to his leadership and with a twinkle, he replied, “And to Dr. Blank.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


I used to work as a carpenter for country superstar Lefty Frizzell’s grandfather. One summer’s day when Old Man Frizzell and our small crew were having our lunch in the shade, Lefty came to the job site to see his Pappaw. He wore fancy cowboy clothes so he was reluctant to sit on the ground with us, so he leaned against a stack of four-by-fours and let us know he was headed back to Los Angeles in a day or two. I asked him why he had moved to L.A. from Nashville and he said his agent lived there and he liked the weather.
“Look here,” he said, pulling a photograph from his wallet, “I have a swimming pool shaped like my guitar.” It was a huge pool and you couldn’t really discern its shape from the picture, but it was a fine looking pool. Lefty was sitting on the diving board in sunshades and there were four bathing beauties below him in the water.
Old Man Frizzell said, “Have you got anything to drink in your caddy, son?”
“No, Pappaw, I have given it up.” Then he turned to me and said, “Aren’t you that Swilley boy?”
“Yes, my name is Ford but my step-father is Loy Swilley.”
“Well, Kenneth told me you were friends with a Bigfoot. He was pulling my leg, right?” (Kenneth was my lifelong friend and also a grandson of Old Man Frizzell, a cousin to Lefty).
I thought a few seconds about how to answer. If I told him the truth, he would not believe me. If I lied and told him I had no such friend, I would break a commandment. So, I said, “Lefty, I do have a Bigfoot friend and she lives in Texarkana.”
The superstar bent double laughing. “Kenneth said you were a card, Swilley.”
“I can take you to meet her. She really loves your music. She plays ‘Forget my Grief ‘and ‘Mamma and Daddy’ all the time.”
“Pappaw, can you let Swilley off this afternoon?”
“If you will bring me a pint.”
“Come on, Swilley, let’s go to Texarkana.”
It was a great trip in the purple Caddy and a super visit. When we got there, my friend had just gotten off work at the landfill and we went to her plywood shelter where she whipped up some hash and hot water cornbread. We had that and grape Kool-Aid and she told Lefty our story, how she found me out in the Boggy Creek bottoms when I was lost as a little kid and took care of me. Lefty signed a poster about his up-coming performance in Ft. Worth and gave it to her. She still treasures that. It is old, yellow and worn but it still hangs on her wall at the nursing home over in New Boston.

Old Man Frizzell never got his drink that day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Right Shoes

Reading about that recent terrible train wreck in southern Germany sparked some reminiscing about one of my train rides over there years ago. I involuntarily caught flashes of memory about a time just after I had come off alert during the Cuban missile crisis. I was riding the train from a small town near my assignment to Amsterdam for a little rest and relaxation. Because I had a top secret clearance, I had been instructed not to engage in conversations with civilians about my job, politics or anything taking place on our compound. But I was sitting directly across from a very loquacious guy I took to be a German who wanted to practice his English.
“What branch of the military do you serve in?”
I thought that was an innocent enough question. I was in civilian clothes, so I suppose he guessed my nationality and occupation from my American style shoes. German shoes were quite different, pointy-toed and fancy, you know. I replied, “Air Force.”
“What are those airplanes made of?” He queried. I pretended I did not understand him and made an observation about the speed of the train. “Man, these European trains whiz on down the track, don’t they?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Trains in Europa go fast.”
“Yes, they do. What do you think of the Russian-American conflict over Cuba? Do you think it will get worse?”
I knew I could not talk about that one. I said, “I am sorry, sir, I cannot discuss that with you.”
“What are those airplanes made of?” He persisted.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I have to go to the restroom.” As I left, actually to find another place to sit, I heard the guy speaking to someone across the aisle. The language he spoke was not German. Russian?

Anyway, when the train arrived in Amsterdam, I hailed a cab and went to a bed-and-breakfast. No one in Holland asked me anything. For that I was grateful. At a huge Dutch flea-market, I found a great bargain on a nice pair of European-style shoes that fit me which I purchased and wore on the train ride back to my assignment. People on that train ride kept speaking to me in German. I simply replied, “Ja, ja,” and stuck my head in a newspaper. No one bothered me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Hood Ornament

Yesterday I pumped up the tires on my mountain bicycle and rode a few miles in Historic Washington State Park. Bicycling is a great way to feel and see this wonderful village, almost as good as walking. I rode instead of walked yesterday because I felt the need for speed and for a little upper body exertion. Yes, upper body. Pumping up the tires is a mini-workout for the arms and shoulders and, even though one does not notice it, bicycling does, indeed, work the muscles of the upper torso, arms, neck and shoulders. Slight aches this morning attest to the truth of my observation.
            As I have written here before, my first job was that of bicycle messenger for Western Union in El Dorado. The other boys and I delivered telegrams and more. Daily, Lion Oil would call for a messenger to come deliver bills of lading to the three railroads and then out to the refinery. And, we provided a service for people who did not want to get out on a hot summer day or in the rain. They could call the office for a messenger to come to their home for letters to mail at the post office. An antacid company even had us handing out samples of their product. So it wasn’t always about telegrams and money orders. One afternoon a lady came in wanting to wire some buttermilk to her son who was away in the service. The boss explained gently and with a straight face that we could not wire buttermilk. But what we could deliver kept the messenger boys busy and built our muscles and aerobic endurance very well.
So, I have tried through the years to use the bicycle for recreation, transportation and fitness. I went for a season without a good bike when we lived on gravel roads, but after we moved back to paved areas, I sold some books and bought the sturdy mountain bike I now ride. I modified it somewhat, adding handlebar extensions, a spoke mileage counter, a tool kit, a frame pump and some lighting. I always wear my bicycle helmet and one of those bright reflective vests that adorn highway workers. People look at a gray-beard riding a bicycle as if I were an out-patient from a mental ward, but, in the state park at least they seem to understand. I suppose they think, Oh, that old fellow is getting a little exercise.

Seriously, though, a bicycle is a very efficient machine, transferring energy to motion in a very straightforward way. It is an economical mode of transportation that does not pollute and it does not harm the environment in the least. So motorists should be courteous to the cyclist and let him or her have some room. I have heard it said that bicyclists are urban deer. But I can guarantee you that this old urban buck will not bound out in front of your vehicle. I do not wish to end up as a hood ornament.