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.