Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bumble Jackets


Scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and cinnamon rolls heated in bacon grease—that was our scoutmaster’s specialty and we loved it. Breakfast was my favorite meal of the day anyway and still is. After we cleaned up the utensils, we had a couple of hours to straighten up the campsite and loaf around before the mountain hike. I do not remember just where we camped but it was near Mena, Ark. I remember that because I mispronounced the name of the town as “men-ah” instead of “mee-nah” and got laughed at.

When Timmy, the youngest scout on the trip, got his gear all squared away, he ambled down to the lake. We could see him from the camp. At first, he skipped rocks. Then he waded. Then he was hollering for help. Johnny, who was the scout closest to the lake at the time, shot like lightning down to the water, jumped in fully clothed and pulled the sputtering Timmy out. He got a badge for that one and much adulation from Timmy’s family. By the next year, Timmy was a strong swimmer.

“Timmy, do you feel like going on the hike now? You don’t have to,” the scoutmaster said. “Sure, I’m fine. Let’s hike!” he replied. So, we took off on a very long and steep climb up the mountain. When we got about a mile up, a man who called himself the mountain man was on the descent. One look at his energetic blue eyes with little bitty pupils told me he had mental issues. His first utterance was, “You boys look out for bumble jackets. They’s a bunch of bumble jackets up here in this mountain. You don’t want to get stung by no bumble jacket.” The scoutmaster called for a break and we sat cross-legged on the edge of the road. The mountain man had an audience. He held forth about a painter cat. “How do you spell that?” the scoutmaster wanted to know. “P-a-n-t-h-e-r,” he replied. Then he said there was a bigfoot about, though he spent most of his time over on the Kiamichis in Okla. When he got tired of lying to his gullible audience, the mountain man ambled on, calling back over his shoulder, “You boys watch out for them bumble jackets.”

We did not see a single bumble jacket but Johnny found a suspicious footprint—huge with gnarled toes. It was an old print, so we assumed bigfoot was in the next state over. I guess the old fellow meant yellowjacket or bumblebee. Or, maybe he imagined a hybrid buzzing about the mountains. As to the bigfoot, I now know what I did not know then--that he lives around Fouke, Ark.

I would not take a pretty for my boy scout experiences. They were fun but—how do I say this?—too supervised. I preferred the camping trips my friends and I experienced without adult interference. My friends and I even found an old abandoned house back in the woods that had a still-functioning fireplace. We made ourselves believe the former occupants still lurked around the corners and we could hear them faintly conversing late at night. Johnny swore he heard a voice say, “We got company, Mable.”

Monday, May 1, 2017

Losing Air


The back tire of my bicycle was slowly losing air, so, today I tackled the job of installing a new tube and tire on the wheel. I am a big guy with a big ride, a 29-inch mountain bicycle. I could have just patched the tube and planned to do so until I noticed how worn the knobby tire was. It was down beyond the treads. Only a thin layer of rubber remained between tire and tube. I keep an extra tire wadded up in a shoe box along with some fresh tubes with Presta valves. (The old spring-loaded Schrader valves are harder to pump up).

Because the new tire had been so cramped up so long, it was difficult to make it round and receptive to a tube again. It is no fun giving a vigorous and seemingly fruitless massage to an inanimate hunk of rubber made in China. But, at length, I managed to get the flabbily pumped tube inserted into the more-or-less rounded tire. After struggling with the derailleur (it is a 21-speed bicycle) I got the wheel back where it belongs and pumped to 65-pound perfection—ready to roll, right? It was then I noticed how out of true my wheels were.

Out with the spoke wrench. Truing wheels is a delicate art and quite satisfying. First, one must mark the place(s) on the rim where the wheel leans this way or that while rolling. Then, tightening a spoke or two on one side and/or loosening one or two on the other side will bring the wheel into alignment. It usually takes me several stabs at this to get it perfectly true. I know they have more technical devices to guide them at bicycle shops, but I am a do-it-yourselfer.

As I made my wheels true, Truth broke through. I realized that there are elements in my life I should tighten up or loosen up to be true to myself. I thought of Polonius’ speech to his college-bound son Laertes in Hamlet. He advises that if the lad is true to himself, he cannot be false to anyone. I think that is generally true. Shakespeare’s irony is that Polonius himself is not true to himself or anyone else. His is one of those “do as I say not as I do” parental speeches. Leadership by example is the only kind that really works. Leaders should be exemplary. Things break down when people start feeling superior to their leaders.

Being true to myself means that I need to tighten up on my tendency to fictionalize. I am a little like William Faulkner, who said, “Being a convincing liar, I have trouble telling the truth.” Of course, sometimes fiction can be truer than fact, as in parables. Conversely, I need to loosen up on being so judgmental—of myself as well as others. I understand that if I judge too severely, I set myself up to get the same in return. Have you noticed the reciprocity of ethics?

Now, fully pumped and completely true, I shall ride off into the beautiful May sunset.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Interesting Visit


The wise old man was napping on our side porch when we got home from church Sunday. “Happy Resurrection Day,” he said, standing to greet us. My wife had prepared ham, potato salad and barbecue beans and the three of us feasted. After lunch, he said, “Well, Dan, I got a little nap before lunch, so I am ready for a walk. Let’s go look at the magnolia tree.” That huge tree, planted in 1839, fascinated him. He walked all around under it, looking up. When he was satisfied, he said, “Would you like to sit on the Royston log house back porch and visit awhile?” Of course, I said yes.

Half reclining with his back against the log wall, he cut a tiny piece from a tobacco plug and placed it in his cheek. “Did y’all have a good church meeting this morning, Dan?” I told him all about it and he listened intently. “You know, Dan, I have been thinking about Easter. You know that passage in Micah 6 that says the Lord requires justice, mercy and humility?” I told him I did remember. “Well, Jesus exemplified each one of those qualities.”

He went on to explain that justice was a reciprocal concept in scripture. He said we should be fair to others if we want fair treatment ourselves. He further said that God’s sense of justice was much different from man’s. As evidence, he cited the crucifixion—satisfying God’s just requirements through an event that seems so unjust to us. “By his death,” he said, “we get life. How is that fair by human standards? Judging someone else guarantees that we will get the same kind of judgment from God.”

The wise old man leaned forward to spit through a crack in the floor and continued. He explained that mercy was reciprocal as well. Jesus said merciful people get mercy in return. He also explained that the scriptures are clear about forgiveness. He said we should forgive others to receive forgiveness ourselves. “Jesus said that just after he taught the Lord’s prayer.”

Finally, he explained that humility gains elevation. I do not remember all the examples he gave, but the one that stuck with me was that the ultimate humility was coming from heavenly mansions to lowly life on this planet to be betrayed, denied and unjustly tortured to death. But, for the joy set before him, he endured it. Seems like he said his joy was in ransoming the likes of us to be with him forever.”

“That will preach,” I said. “Well, Dan, I did not mean to get preachy. I just wanted to let you know I have been thinking about the reciprocal nature of our faith. Open rewards come from secret deeds.”

“Sir,” I said, “where have you been and where are you going. “I do not have much of a plan for my journey from here. I have a girlfriend in Doyline and I may go stay at her lake house for a spell. I have been to Quito and Havana. When I came back up here, I lived under the bridge in Texarkana until this morning. I caught a ride with an Episcopal priest who looked like Vincent Price.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Siblings and Accents


The recent “national siblings day” led me to take stock of my spread-out family. I have a 96-year-old big brother Stanley, who lives in Atlanta. He flew 50 missions in a B-17 in WWII. Now a retired colonel, Stanley sings made-up songs all day and up into the night. Amazingly, the lyrics often rhyme and have varying pitches and tones, most of them with substantial country influence. As a young man, he and my sister Gloria, a few years younger than he, sang with The Sunshine Boys on stage and radio in northern Louisiana. My brother Curtis, just a few years older than I, used to join their act. He had a cute lisp and would run on stage while they were performing crying, “I can’t see; I can’t see.”  They would ask, “What’s wrong, Curtis,” and he would reply, “I got my eyes shut.”

Curtis followed in Stanley’s military piloting footsteps, but, unfortunately, as an Air Force lieutenant, he was killed in a B-47 crash in Lockburn, Ohio in 1960. I was also in the Air Force at the time and flew home from Germany on emergency leave to be at the funeral.

Gloria fudged on her age and went into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) not long after our father’s death and a failed marriage she entered much too hastily and quite young. You see, Gloria was only 14 when our father died. Mother was a poverty- and grief-stricken widow, pregnant with me. Curtis was only five. She made a good soldier and learned some stenographic skills that sustained her throughout her life. She died in 2004.

She did not feel like moving back to the glorious southland after her enlistment was over, so she got a clerical job in the Boston, Massachusetts water company. When I was eight, Mother and I took a trip up to Boston to visit her. She had a cold water flat near Beacon Street. Boston was like another country with an almost foreign language. People said “cah” for “car,” “Bahston” for “Boston” and they pronounced the word “water” very clippingly, as if they were afraid the word would hurt their lips. It was even stranger out in Common Park where the squirrels would come sit on your knee and beg for peanuts and the pigeons were not scared of people. What surprised me most was that Gloria not only understood the language up there but she could speak it. When she moved back south, it took her awhile to speak normally again.

I vowed that I would avoid living up north and that if I had to move there I would never change my accent. I ate those words down in south Florida, where most of the inhabitants are from the northeast. After just a year of working at a university down there, I started speaking more rapidly and saying “Aye” for “I.” When I lived in Ohio, I kind of used a midwestern tone while out shopping so folks wouldn’t say, “Aye big your pahdin?”

Monday, April 3, 2017

Cherokee Princess Grandmother


While I was dean at a south Florida university, my chief academic officer and I were invited to a high tea on Palm Beach at an exclusive club. I had never been to a high tea before and was surprised when no one was having tea. There were many potential donors there and we wanted our university to look good so wealthy people looking for a worthy charity might consider us. I got a haircut, trimmed my whiskers, donned my black suit and even wore socks to the event. (Socks are a rarity in south Florida).

My place card at the main tea table was between my boss and an extravagantly dressed and bejeweled Southern belle of about 40. She quickly discerned from my accent that she was sitting next to a fellow Southerner and conversation turned to things that interest people from our region: food, architecture, interior décor and family. We had a lovely conversation much to the pleasure of my boss. That is, until she brought up that she was doing research on her Cherokee Princess grandmother.

I should have kept my mouth shut, but I mentioned that, as Dr. Jeter, an anthropologist from the University of Arkansas, had recently written, the “My-grandmother-is-a-Cherokee-princess” myth is prevalent amongst Southerners. She looked stunned and my boss turned red. I quickly tried to recuperate by saying, “But, your grandmother may well have been one. I am not saying that.” But that did not seem to help. The lady pledged a considerable amount to our university anyway, but I got a good talking to on the trip back to campus.

My own mother told my siblings and me that our long-deceased grandmother was a Cherokee and I believed it somewhat until I spit in a tube and got my DNA results indicating that I am mainly Scandinavian with no Native American blood whatsoever. That led me to ponder what makes people want to be related to Native Americans. Could it be because of a literary stock character who is innately good because he or she has not been corrupted by civilization? Queequeg, the South Sea tribal chief of Moby Dick, is an example. The main character, Ishmael, finds Queequeg’s innate goodness so attractive that he concludes it is better to room with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. Tonto and Little Beaver are popular culture versions of the innately good uncivilized person. And, there are numerous westerns in which the female Native American, like Pocahontas, saves the day. The movie Dances With Wolves certainly contrasts the corruption of civilization with the nobility of the native.

In our region, there are many people who are genuinely descended from Native Americans. One of the finest friends I ever had, a truly noble guy called Woody, is full blood Choctaw. Many of us of predominate European lineage wish for a tad of native incorruption. I hope the lady in Palm Beach found out that her grandmother was, indeed, a Cherokee princess. I further wish that I could forget that episode in my academic history.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Worldview


A long time ago, I worked for a couple of carpenters. One of my jobs was to construct frames for pouring concrete. Every time we needed a slab, I had to first build a sturdy frame, complete with strong wire to keep the sides from bulging and then lay in reinforcing rebar. When the concrete truck came, I held my breath until I was assured that the frame would hold. It always did. As soon as the concrete set, I tore down my handiwork and snipped the snag-ends of wire.

Such a frame works as a metaphor for integrity. If our “frame” or worldview is sound (well-constructed, reinforced and wired up snugly) what is poured in will adhere and set satisfactorily. In other words, integrity means having a strong framework to hold true to who we are. Without such a framework, we would be scooping up splattered and meandering ideas, never satisfied with the results. For me, the Christian worldview—that God made us and has an eternal purpose for our existence—is the only satisfactory one. Without it, I would be scooping up splattered and meandering ideas. We see a lot of scooping in contemporary thought. Many newspaper editorials come to mind as well as the pontification of other media gasbags.

Like Daniel of old, we live in an alien kingdom where people are put off by our worldview. If we can have discussions on a level above twitter and texting, we often find that even the scoopers have a Christian worldview imbedded so deeply as to be invisible—to them at least. It takes a lot of faith to be an atheist—faith in your own reasoning power.

Daniel did not want to eat the food of Babylon because he suspected it had been sacrificed to idols, so he worked it out that he and his friends ate only vegetables. His three friends did not want to bow down to the huge idol Nebuchadnezzar had erected because their worldview told them to bow only to the Hebrew God. They were thrown into a furnace for not bowing but came out smelling sweet. The Chaldeans worked it out with Darius to issue an irrevocable law that people could only pray to him, knowing full well that Daniel prayed openly every day facing Jerusalem. For this, he was thrown to the lions but came out unscathed. His accusers were then thrown in and they were not so fortunate.

Similarly, our Christian worldview means that we stick to our guns. But it means more than that. We should love God, love our neighbor, teach others about our faith, obey the commands of Jesus based on love, take care of the poor, widows and orphans. Micah 6:8 tells what God requires: Be merciful, love justice, walk humbly with your God. Do no harm by any word or deed; do good wherever there is need; remain attentive to the Bible; stay in love with God. This later is not easy—for me it requires fellowshipping with likeminded believers in the context of church.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gathering


Folks exhibit a primordial need to gather together occasionally. This fact was confirmed in my study of primitive peoples at Berkeley. I watched a lot of ethnographic documentaries about such gatherings, the most interesting of which concerned the Yanomami of South America. Even after groups of Yanomami fission into multiple tribes, headmen feel the need to reconnect and arrangements are made for reunions. Many of these get-togethers are highly ceremonial: warriors don fierce costumes; women display foods; children find fresh playmates; machetes and blowguns are exchanged.

I mused on this facet of human existence during the recent Jonquil Festival at Old Washington. Food vendors and trinket peddlers were joyous in their profitable work as strangers, potential customers, moiled about. I, even I, your humble columnist, moiled awhile and purchased a bamboo flute and a burger and fries. The burger reminded me of the county fair food of my youth. The mournful tone of the flute takes my imagination to some remote place, full of the throb of recollection.

Thousands of people attended the famous Old Washington event and Saturday the park was virtually clogged with all sorts and conditions of people and dogs. The poor animals had that “let-me-out-of-here” look on their sad faces. I admired their benign acceptance of bizarre human behavior.

But, what about the jonquils? It is, after all, a festival celebrating this wonderful flower. Well, there were still some left, maybe 30 percent. As you know, we have had a most unusual phase of weather in the late winter. The little yellow flowers started showing up in early February. I saw one vendor selling bulbs, but people were not flocking to buy them. I guess they know that there are old home places around with grown-over yards full of them.

Our yard still has a few, though they are browning a bit. Our house, built by the writer Claud Garner in 1918, is smack in the middle of everything and, as we sat on our screened-in porch for respite, watching the great variety of bipeds and quadrupeds stroll by, an elderly man (my age) saw us, came up our walk and said, “I’ll sit and talk to you all for a while.” He did so. We enjoyed getting acquainted, even hearing his heart about the recent passing of his wife.

Shortly, I saw a couple of professors, former colleagues, and I beckoned to them to come to the porch for a visit. It was great to see these folks again. We reconnected and solved all the problems of contemporary higher education in less than 15 minutes. Too bad no one took notes.

As the scholarly couple left, an octogenarian lady came up the walk. She had gotten separated from her convalescent group bussed in for the event and wanted to see our house. I gave her a tour.

After the festival, we went to a multiple-church supper and both my appetite and the human need to connect were cloyed. I want to be alone for a while now.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Wall


In commenting on humanity’s leanings towards exclusivity, the poet John Ciardi wrote, “Everyone in my tribe hates everyone in your tribe.” He apparently wanted to convey the idea that we group ourselves into clans of various sorts and try to keep outsiders out. Love lives in the clan, but will not go beyond it. In fact, often clans deny the humanity of those outside them.

I saw that tendency in primitive people groups while spending time with ethnographic documentaries at Berkeley. In one film, an anthropologist asked the chief of a remote tribe if he could himself participate in a tribal ceremony. The response was, “No, you are not a human being.” You see, the name of the tribe translated as “human being.” There was no way at all for an outsider to become an insider. Of course, we have seen this mindset play out in more “civilized” societies as well. It is as if we build walls to keep those who belong in IN and those who don’t OUT.

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” is about the phenomenon. I have heard people use a quotation from the poem, “Good fences make good neighbors,” as if Frost was arguing for good fences or walls. However, the poem argues just the opposite—good fences do not make good neighbors and before one builds a wall, the poet points out that he or she must consider what is being walled in or out.

“Mending Wall” is a dialogue between an apple orchardist (the narrator) and a neighbor who owns a pine forest. Every spring Mr. Pine insists that the two property owners walk the line to repair the rock wall that separates their acreage. Mr. Orchard does not see why they need a wall, seeing that neither has animals to keep in or out, and he says so. Mr. Pine, though, repeats what his father always said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost says with a wink of irony that Mr. Pine likes having thought of it so well. Actually he has not thought deeply about it at all. The poet contends that Mr. Pine will not go behind his father’s saying. That is, he will not evaluate the old saying in the light of contemporary circumstances.

Accepting old adages or aphorisms too readily without thinking through them is a problem in our day. For example, I have heard people say of a vacuous-minded acquaintance that still water runs deep. Really though, he is quiet because there is nothing going on in his head to draw from. Besides, even the saying is inaccurate, because still water does not run at all—it is still.

So, we must go behind our fathers’ sayings. We should not accept slogans or sayings too easily, no matter how longstanding. The kind of help mankind needs right now is the kind that acknowledges the commonality of our hearts. Fully aware that there is hate in our world that threatens us on every level, we cannot forget the power of love, the kind that casts out fear.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine Movie


I am so glad I took my wife to the movies for Valentine’s Day. We had a great drive to Texarkana, a wonderful movie I want to tell you about and a great dinner. Red meat is a must for me on such occasions and I got a big old steak and brought part of it home. I had a piece of it for breakfast with an egg on top, just like in the cowboy movies. But, as to that movie we saw:

Most of us like “coming of age” or “initiation” stories because we have all been there so to speak. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are such timeless tales as they convey a sense of innocence amid the sophisticated. We like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown because his naiveté bumps up against absolute evil—even in people he thought were moral leaders.

Maybe this fascination with initiation stories is what made me like the Australian-made film called Lion so much. Based upon a true story, this movie depicts the plight of a small rural boy in Northern India who gets lost, gets locked into a train and ends up on the streets of Calcutta. As he associates with other street children there, we see the terrible plight of homeless children.  At the end of the story, there is projected on the screen information showing that 80,000 children go missing in India annually. This movie individualizes the devastating problem in a deeply gripping way.

Once the child is “rescued” he is placed in a shabby and ill-administered orphanage for a while before he is adopted by a nice couple in Tasmania. Nicole Kidman deserves every acting award out there for her penetrating performance as the child’s adoptive mother. In her reserved Australian way, she conveys the heights of joy, the depths of disappointment and the quintessence of anger. I have never seen such credible acting in a movie.

Not to spoil the movie for you, I will convey that it ends happily—well, in a bittersweet way. I think the fact that it is a true story made it more poignant, but it was the initiation factor, the coming of age factor that drew me into the action and kept me there. Also, it is the first movie ever to make Google Maps a hero.

It is a story about brotherly love and about compassion triumphing over poverty. It is about the will and hardihood to survive in the face of seeming insurmountable odds. For that reason alone, it is worth far more than the price of a ticket. I was struck by the fact that Hollywood did not have much to do with this film, if anything. It was Australian made. There was no crudity, no nudity, no lasciviousness and no bad language. Hallelujah.

Monday, February 6, 2017

How Did the Magi Know?


Where did the Magi come from and how did they know to search for the Christ? To speculatively answer that question, let me take you back some 2,500 years to a time when young Daniel and three friends were torn away from their homes after the siege of Jerusalem. They were taken to Babylon and forced to undergo a series of physical and mental evaluations. All four boys proved quite superior and were consequently enrolled in a royal finishing school to learn Chaldean language, literature, geography and worldview. They were reportedly 10 times better students than any of the other enrollees.

They excelled in all their classes. After successful completion of their training they were named junior wise men in the Province of Babylon. As such, they were soon called to a somber convocation where they learned that the irrational king had assigned the wise men of the kingdom a humanly impossible task: to interpret a dream he would not reveal to them. The royal decree proclaimed that if the wise ones could not tell him both the dream and its interpretation, all their houses would be burned with them and their families within.

Daniel and his friends were thus motivated to crack the ominous enigma. Not neglectful of their former lives and their Judaic worldview, they prayed all night and, at length, God revealed the dream to Daniel as well as its meaning. He bowed before the king humbly and with the respectful decorum learned in the royal academy. “Your Highness,” he said, “no man alive can accomplish what you require in the edict. However, there is a God in heaven who can and he has revealed the mystery to me.”

To the king’s astonishment, Daniel went on to relate the dream exactly and in detail as well as the interpretation thereof. It involved a great statue with a head of gold and other body parts of lesser metals all the way down to feet of iron and clay. Daniel told the king that these parts of the statue represented future kingdoms, himself being the head of gold. The king liked what he heard and consequently, Daniel received a very high and respected position in Babylon. In turn, he saw to it that his three friends got promoted, too. They were, of course, the Hebrew children who were cast into the fiery furnace because they would not bow to an idol of gold erected by the king. The monolith was probably created because of the dream’s head of gold representing the king himself. All the sycophantic subjects were to bow to it, but the Hebrew boys would not do it, as you recall. Fortunately for them, a fourth man showed up in the fire and the boys came out unscathed.

I conclude by noting that Daniel’s divine revelation saved the lives of all the wise men and their families. Perhaps Daniel’s supernatural feat also resulted in Hebraic influence in Babylon for 500 hears through history, even to the Magi.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Framework


I feel frustrated when I try to text people, especially those I love. There is so much nuance, so much extra, so much digression that I want to do. But my thumbs are awkward instruments of communication. There is not room to tell all the stories inside the story I want to communicate. And no one writes friendly letters any more. I do send and receive some digressive e-mails from time to time, so all is not lost.

Most of my favorite writers occasionally use a literary technique known as framework—telling an anecdote or series of stories inside a larger tale. Boccaccio perfected the method in The Decameron and Chaucer used it to good effect in Canterbury Tales. In the former, plague exiles spend their days telling stories. The larger idea is the plight of the displaced folks but the stories they tell are the focus. Of course, Chaucer’s storytellers are on a pilgrimage, telling their unique stories within the journey framework.

African-American writer Charles Waddel Chesnutt explored racial and class identity in several framework stories. My favorite is Mars Jeem’s Nightmare. That work starts out as an episode concerning a white man and his wife who have just bought an old plantation in North Carolina. A former slave called Uncle Julius who lives there soon takes over the interest and the narration, relating to the white folks a powerful tale about a conjure that turns a plantation owner into a slave and then back again. Uncle Julius explains at the end of the framework that when the shoe is on the other foot, minds and dispositions change.

Earlier in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne employed framework to good effect. His famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, starts out with the narrator in a customs office examining old documents. He comes across a beautifully embroidered scarlet letter “A” and it seems to burn his fingers. This sensation leads him to research and relate the story of the adulteress turned angel, Hester Prynne. Of course, even the framework is fictitious, but it gives an initial sense of reality, almost as a documentary would.

Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find is one the shortest framework stories I know. The larger story is about a Southern family taking a vacation to Florida. The smaller stories reveal a miscreant called the Misfit on the loose. The framework comes to a screeching halt with a car wreck caused by the family cat, Pity Sing (Pretty Thing). The Misfit comes on the scene and his dialogue with Grandma nails down the most chilling framework imaginable.

I write all this simply to give my view that we should not find digressiveness too terribly blameworthy. One must start somewhere and if another story kicks in, it may be more important and entertaining that the initial narrative. Such phrases as, “oh, by the way” and “I’ll tell you this so you will understand what I will tell you later,” should be welcome in conversation. I like actual conversations, don’t you? You can’t digress much while texting.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Know Way


Aunt Lucille (we called her Ceecee) did not love her flock of chickens but she hated possums, coons and chicken hawks. She lived to get a bead on one of these predators with her old 22 and send them to possum purgatory, coon crematory or chicken hawk hell. She was proud of her hate and bragged about it, but she never expressed any affection for the chickens. Isn’t that just like some people: hating the opposition more than loving their own ideas?

I read an ancient oriental parable about two young monks who had vowed poverty as well as celibacy—in fact, they promised never to touch a woman. On their first day outside the monastery, they were met with monsoon rains. As they sloshed through a nearby village, they saw a beautifully dressed young damsel distressed because the road she had to cross was so muddy. Without a word, one of the brothers picked her up and carried her across, putting her down on the other side.

They walked on in silence for about a mile. Finally, the other brother said, “Hey, you violated your vow. We promised never to touch a woman and you picked that girl up and held her close all the way across the road.” The brother replied, “Yes, that is true. But I put her down on the other side of the road about a mile back. You, however, still carry her.” Isn’t that just like some people: making judgments about others based on appearances while their own hearts are impure?

Aesop told a story about a sleek and well-fed mastiff dog, living as a pet behind his master’s house. An old patchy and skinny wolf approached his yard and said, “How do you remain so fat and healthy? I have had to work very hard this year for just the minimum of food. Where do you get your meals?” The dog said, “Oh, those humans in that house yonder feed me regularly, really good food. In fact, I have a few ribs left from my dinner that I would be willing to share if you care to indulge.” Creeping into the lighted yard, the wolf said, “Absolutely, but what is that shiny thing about your neck that trails off to that peg in the ground?” The dog said, “Oh, that is a chain. The humans keep me chained up back here. See I am a watchdog and…” The wolf replied over his shoulder as he crept back into the woods, “Goodbye.” Isn’t that dog just like some people: those attached to their own comfortable place so much that they are captives of it or, isn’t that wolf just like those who risk all for personal freedom?

William Hazlitt said we cannot hate anyone that we truly know. And, in Bible language anyway, “know” is related to “love” as in “Adam knew his wife and they brought forth young.” We cannot really know people through social media alone. Real knowledge of others requires relationships—the kind that lead to love. To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you and…….”

Monday, January 16, 2017

He Knows Me


The Mississippi writer William Faulkner was a symbolist of the first order. What he was writing about was not always what he was writing about. For example, in the famous story, “The Bear,” he winks magically about things both being and not being what they seem. The old grizzly himself, Ben, is more than just a bear. Most commentators think of him as an embodiment of the wilderness itself, representing all that is wild and free. I suspect Old Ben was intended to embody more than that, though.

One scene in the story has 10-year old Ike, who wants more than anything to lay eyes on the old denizen of the woods, has been place on a stand by Sam Fathers where he may possibly get a glimpse of the bear. Sam is half Chickasaw and half African, a master woodsman who has become a mentor for the kid. Sam leaves Ike alone on the stand for a long time. While there, the boy suddenly feels that he is being watched. It is a hair-raising experience. He knows deeply within himself that the old bear is observing him.

When Sam arrives late in the day he says, “You didn’t see him, did you?” Ike replies that he did not but that he was aware of his presence. To this, Sam simply says, “He done the looking.” Astonished, Ike asks, “You mean he knows me?”

That is a poignant moment on both the literal and symbolic level. Literally, many of us have had the eerie experience of feeling watched when there was no one around. But on the symbolic level, it may depict Ike’s discovery that God (some would call it the spirit of the wilderness) is aware of him. That is a profound, life-changing discovery for all of us, that we are known by deity, and it certainly matures the kid. I would call it a salvation experience, for shortly after that moment, Ike, with gun in hand, does see Old Ben up close and personal. Yet he cannot shoot.

Sam Fathers has no words to explain to the boy why he could not pull the trigger, but Ike’s older relative tries to by reading him Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” explaining that he could not bring himself to destroy the thing that had put him in touch with himself so earnestly and intensely. When the older relative asks him if he understands that the bear represented love and honor and compassion and sacrifice, as well as the will and hardihood to survive, Ike says yes. He understands.

I think Faulkner wanted his reader to understand that, too. Although I do not think a Christian worldview informed the story in any specific way, I do believe that the compounding history of Christian thought in Western literature led the word-drunk Mississippian to symbolize God by way of an old three-toed bear. Thus, I see “The Bear” not just as an initiation story, but truly a story of conversion.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Fun at the Park


Historic Washington State Park offers two trial reenactments at various times throughout the year. One concerns the 1844 trial of Henry Skaggs for the murder of William Oaks and the other depicts the 1880 trial of Sidney McFadden for poisoning his wife. On the dates of the events, registrants start their evening at Williams Tavern Restaurant at the park for a historic “country cooking” dinner, after which they go to the courthouse for the show. In the case of the 1844 trial, they go to the 1836 courthouse and for the 1880 trial they walk over to the 1874 courthouse. Both buildings have been authentically restored. A calendar of events is posted on the park’s web site, along with instructions for getting registered.

The Skaggs trial reveals that Henry, apparently in his cups, showed up uninvited to a dinner at his “friend” William Oaks’ house. He, a married man himself, apparently had a crush on Oaks’ wife Elizabeth and Oaks knew it and yelled for Skaggs to go away as he neared the house. He did not go away and William Oaks ended up with a bullet through his chest. Skaggs claimed Oaks drew on him but credible testimony at the trial asserted that Oaks never carried a gun on his person. The historic verdict was guilty but many modern juries find him innocent.

The McFadden trial is a bit more complex with a larger bevy of witnesses. The historic truth was that Sidney wanted to get rid of his wife, Easter, so he could take up with one Martha Smith, known as a strumpet. But, during the trial, doubt is cast upon that motivation. Even the owner of the plantation where he worked testified that Sidney’s greatest fault was going on to new tasks too quickly. He thought he was hardly capable of murder—unless drunk.

Members of the audience are selected for jury duty in both reenactments and the actors who play the prosecutors find it difficult to get a verdict of guilty. So, after thanking the participants for their service as jurors, the judge has the historical verdict read and sentences the guilty man to death by hanging. The last words from the judge in both reenactments are, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

 I have been type-cast as the judge in both trials and have a lot of fun pontificating. The park’s chief interpreter plays the defense attorney in both trials and one of his staff members plays the prosecutor in both. We have better court records for the McFadden trial. We know, for example, that Col. Dan Jones was the defense attorney and our interpreter goes to the trouble of arranging his hair and whiskers to resemble the Col. (Dan Jones was a very influential citizen during his time and was also a strong benefactor for James Black, inventor of the Bowie knife.)

The best parts in both dramas are those of the accused. The park employee who plays Henry Skaggs is my favorite, the way he becomes almost simultaneously belligerent and deeply afraid. The sheriff in the Skaggs trial is an audience favorite as the judge browbeats him and keeps him moving to multiple tasks.

As a local citizen, it is a joy for me to volunteer at such events and to see the audience enjoy a slice of history.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Brakes


Because I was needed to drive Mother to work, I got a license early—at age 12. My just-older brother “taught” me to drive on the back roads of Union County. His predominant teaching method can be captured in his oft-repeated phrase, “Faster, Danny, faster!” So, I learned to navigate two-plank bridges, sandy beds, mud holes and oil field twists and turns very early.

You might say I was a seasoned driver by age 15 when Mother bought a new Buick and wanted to try it out on a trip to visit my other brother in Dayton, Ohio. My driving mentor brother was away at college and could not make the trip with us, so I did all the driving. Like my mentor brother, Mother often felt the need for speed and urged me on beyond the speed limit. Such traveling behavior was beyond my comfort zone, but one wants to please his mother.

On the journey, I noted that the brakes felt mushy and made a noise that was pitched above Mother’s capacity to hear. I mentioned the malfunction sailing through Kentucky and Mother said, well, maybe your brother knows a place in Dayton where we can have the car looked at. And, of course, he did. But not before he diagnostically drove it and had me join him up under the car looking for who knows what and after taking off a wheel for some obscure reason.

Anyway, my brother had to work the next day, but he called his mechanic about 15 or 20 blocks from his home and told the man there that his little brother would be bringing a new Buick by to have the brakes checked out. I found the place, left the car and walked the mile or two back to his cookie-cutter split-level home. It took me awhile to recognize the house because they all looked alike, but luckily, I saw Mother through the picture window looking for me. The walk had made me thirsty, so I drank a lot of root beer with which my brother had stocked his refrigerator, knowing my love for the beverage.

The mechanic told me he would call my brother’s number when they were finished with the work. Well, about the middle of the afternoon, as I was enjoying yet another root beer, he called and said the repair—new brake linings—was done. I lit out, neglecting my need to relieve my bladder. The further I walked, the greater the need, if you know what I mean. When I finally arrived in desperation, I walked into the shop and almost shouted, “Where’s the restroom!” They pointed it out and I wasted no time. My personal brakes worked that day, but they were on the verge of failure.

The mechanic charged $35 for the brake job—Mother had sent $50. The brakes worked fine on the way back to the cookie-cutter, which I recognized just fine this time, because I had memorized some landmarks. When he got home from work, my brother was outraged with the news that it cost $35 for brake linings. He said I should have talked him down. “That’s what we do up here in the north.” Well, I didn’t say this, but I was a 15-year-old southern boy that paid the bill in great relief.