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 d├ęcor 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.