Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Work Ethic

Pop was 42 when he got out of the Seabees. He heard on the way back to the states from the islands that my mother had become widowed a few years earlier. His own marriage had failed—that is one reason he went into the service as an older man. He knew and liked Mother in school so he decided to call on her after his discharge.
I was six and I remember the first time he came to the door. Mother recognized him and reminisced fondly with him for a while, thinking he must be some kind of door-to-door salesman. There were a bunch of those after the war. He related a lot about his life, including the dark episode of his failed marriage and Mother told about the untimely death of my father. When an hour or so had elapsed—it seemed longer to me—Mother finally thought it was time for him to get to his sales pitch, so she said, “What are you doing for a living now?” His response was classic. He said, “I drive nails.” All at once the scales fell from Mother’s eyes and she realized that this carpenter had come courting.
And court he did—not just mother but my brother and me as well. He sent ice cream from the drug store, brought us a football, some boxing gloves and other items boys like. He took Mother places almost every evening, leaving my brother and me with our faithful housekeeper and sitter. My brother was five years older than I so he would often wait up for their return. One night it was after midnight when they came home. My brother was pacing the front porch and he scolded Pop strongly with, “Well, it’s about time!”
It was a short courtship. I remember some things about the wedding. It was at a justice of the peace’s home. Just before they repeated their vows, the JP’s grandfather clock sounded eight o’clock. I said, “Listen, wedding bells.” That was one of the first times I remember being gratified by the laughter of others. The witticism was feeble but the response warmed my heart.
I told my brother I was going to call the man “Daddy,” not remembering my real father, since he died before my birth. My brother advised against that designation since he did remember our father. He said to call him Pop, which we did. Pop later told us they used to call him Pop in the Seabees, so he did not enjoy his new step-children calling him that. We had two more siblings, both adults at the time. They simply called him by his first name.

Pop had a super work ethic and he tried to instill one in my brother and me. One time when I was 12, he had me go with him to a job where he was remodeling an office and needed a hole knocked through a concrete wall. He blue-lined the place for the door, handed me a chisel, a regular hammer and a sledge hammer. “Knock me a door in there boy,” he ordered. I did so more quickly than he anticipated. That night, Mother asked him how I had done. “That boy will work,” he replied. That was the greatest compliment Pop could give.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Missing Donkeys

We did not have a lot of company when we lived in the woods of Sevier County near De Queen Lake. The terrain up there was hilly and rough and our remote dwelling was way up on a gravel road and back in the woods on two-rutted dirt. Many town folks don’t like to drive nice cars on such rough highways and byways of life, I guess, and there was not really much to do back up in there except talk to the donkeys and fight off raccoons. That is, until deer season. Then the region got quite popular. (I enjoyed conversing with donkeys and learned that sometimes what appears to be stubbornness is actually caution—that is true with humans as well).
We have a lot of company now that we have moved to the state park in Washington, Ark. The roads are paved here and there is a lot to do in our village. Plus, even when there is not much going on at the park, people are attracted to the historic restaurant’s famous “home cooking.” We like it when friends and family come to see us. And it is gratifying to see them enjoying the park and all it has to offer. (I miss talking to donkeys, though. It is not the same conversing with the park’s draft horses. They are not very imaginative).
The Jonquil Festival took place this past weekend. My wife wanted to set up a booth in our front yard to sell some handcrafts. She is on a board whose concern is for the homeless and she wanted to raise some money to buy towels for the local shelter. I joined her and sold some of my books, advertised on a card as works by local author Dan Ford. I signed copies and wrote a little personal note in each one sold. While we were dealing with some “customers,” we noted that a lady was staring at our house with a benign smile. Turns out she had been conceived in our house a long time ago—she would not say how long. She knew some things about the history of our place, too, and her information checked out with what we had learned.
Our house was built around 1918 by the author Claud Garner, whose most famous work was Cornbread Aristocrat. Our good friend is the curator of the state park and he has published a book of photographs of historic Washington. A snapshot of our house when it was new, along with a Model T and Garner himself appears in the book. Had we not been so busy with sales, we would have given the lady a tour of the place where DNA connected to start something that was not yet finished.
Whether friends or strangers, it is nice to be here in Washington. It is a rural setting but from time to time there are as many people walking our streets as in Hot Springs—or even more. I hear that we set records in attendance at the festival and I am sure the famous restaurant did more business than in past years.

So Washington sometimes feels as remote as certain sections of Sevier County, but occasionally as populous as any major city. (But there are no loquacious donkeys around here.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

No Country for Old Whatever

Last week my wife and I went to visit the wise old man at Bright Leaf assisted living center near Atlanta. He had left a bunch of books at my house and called to ask for them, especially the volume of Yeats. We boxed up all the books he had left behind and placed the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats on top of the pile.
He seemed very glad to see us and patiently went through the greeting and visiting decorum before he reached for the books. At length, he took out the Yeats tenderly, as if he were handling a small child, and opened it reverently.
“You know, I met and visited with Senator William Butler Yeats in 1936 in Dublin.”
“No, I did not know that. How old were you? Didn’t Yeats die around the time of World War II?”
“He died in January of 1939. Isn’t that the year of your birth, Dan? Interestingly, Yeats was about your age now in 1936 when we sat with me, a teenager, on the park bench for a bright afternoon. My, he was a brilliant man and a great conversationalist if you could keep him away from political discussions.”
“What did y’all talk about?”
“Well, Dan, I asked him which of his poems he counted as his best. Right away he said it was ‘Sailing to Bysantium’ because of its meta-literary qualities. Not being much of an aesthetic kid, I asked him what he meant. He said I should surly know John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ I told him I had read it. He said, that the ode is a poem about poetry. That’s what he meant about meta-literary. Art about art. He said he did not try that much in his own work, but ‘Sailing to Bysantium’ is one of those.”
“Sir, isn’t that the poem that starts “That is no country for old men?”
“Yes, that is where the Coen brothers got the title for that chilling movie. But the poem concludes with the desire of the persona of the poem to be reincarnated as a work of art made by a Grecian goldsmith, a permanent work of art that would be able to represent all of time—of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
“So, sir, that is why it is meta-literary? Because it is art whose subject is the function of art?”
“Yes, just like in Keats’s ode, that piece of bas relief art called an urn stands as a friend to generations other than the one in which it was created in a friendly stance saying something about the nature of beauty and truth.”
“Wow, I guess we will have to re-read Keats’s ode as well as “Sailing to Bysantium.”

“Well,” the wise old man said in his raspy bass voice, “Let me read it to you now.” And he held forth in the most astonishing way. When he got to the conclusion of the work, the scales fell off our eyes and we both saw that the best art is about art itself.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Wisdom

Alexander Pope wrote many things that sound wise but may not be wise. For example, he wrote, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of mankind is man.” That humanistic view sounded very good to me until I realized that the study of man leads to a dead end without a concept of intelligent design. Likewise, his statement that “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise” sounds right. However, in my experience, ignorance is never bliss and thus it is never “folly” to seek wisdom.
Along those lines, I have heard people complain that we should leave primitive peoples alone. After all, they have their system that has worked and is working for them. What is the point of bringing them into the modern world? What is the point in civilizing the uncivilized? Are we so-called civilized people happier in our ingenuity and prosperity than they are in their ignorance and poverty? (I was raised the first few years of my life in a condition that would be called poverty today but we never knew we were poor. I have heard many people from the Great Depression era who said that very thing.)
I am reading a book now that addresses the issue, Zane Grey’s “Under the Tonto Rim.” I was surprised to discover that Zane Grey wrote stories other than shoot-em-ups. This one is a sensitively told tale of a young female social worker who goes to live amongst backwoods mountain people to help modernize their lifestyles. The primitive folks do indeed learn a great deal from her, but she also learns a lot from them about unencumbered, raw humanity and what it means to love wholeheartedly.
Grey’s fictional work reinforces my own conviction that education does not always equal wisdom. I have known very bright people who do not have a lick of common sense. Likewise, I have known illiterate people judged by most to be ignorant who are wise as to matters of life, love and friendship. So, how does wisdom differ from knowledge?
That Anglo-Saxon “dom” suffix denotes “judgment,” so that “wisdom” actually means under the judgment of the wise. You see, “doom” actually means “judgment” and that “dom” is just a shortened version of that. “Deem” is a variation of “doom” as in the phrase, “Do you deem that necessary?” The word “deem” in that sentence means “judge,” right? So, whatever is under the judgment of the wise is wisdom.

Solomon of old asked for wisdom and the Lord gave him wisdom in abundance but also many material blessings. Interestingly, the Proverbs, attributed to Solomon, have a great deal to do with defining wisdom, especially in the first few chapters. Perhaps you remember the wise Gamaliel in the New Testament. He advised that if this new Christian sect were just a movement like others he named, it would fizzle. However, if it were of God, be careful. You do not want to go against God. Gamaliel is a case of being very knowledgeable and full of wisdom at the same time. That is a good goal.