THE GENERIC READER
(FOR GRADES SIX THROUGH SENESCENCE)
By Dennis Boyer
AT A FRACTION OF
NAME BRAND COST
© 1998, Dennis Boyer
We've gone through the "Hippie" era, the "Now" generation, the "Yuppies", "Muppies", and "Dinks" - now it's time to hear from our generation - call us what you will! We fell through the cracks, somewhere along the way; too old to be real "hippies", we are the parents, aunts, and uncles to today's young adults. You who number yourselves among us will recognize yourselves, and maybe your experiences, your twists and turns, agonies and "coming into being", in these pages. To the rest of you - here we are at last -enjoy life our way for a while!
"Dennis Boyer for Ethel Harvey"
"....This IS Ethel Harvey!"
"This is Dennis Boyer"
".....My nephew Dennis?"
"Where ARE you?"
"Standing in front of the courthouse in Savannah talking to you on a pay 'phone."
".....You come out here and see me right now. Who's with you? Do you know how to find my place? Of course you don't. I'll give you directions. I'll be looking for you in five minutes. It's been so long; how many years?"
"Sarah's wedding; twenty-two years ago?"
At age eighty-two Aunt Ethel gives directions as crisp and concise as her (to us southerners) "Midwestern-Missourah" accents-in spite of which I made enough reverie-induced wrong turns to bring us cruising down First Street looking at house numbers about ten minutes later. Suddenly I quit looking at numbers. That big old white house on the corner...big old tree overhanging the street, pushing up the "pock-mark" style sidewalk...coal chute under the dining room window..."Here we are!"
I whipped the van into the side street, jumped out and raced for the door, as Jeannie called "Look down the street!"
If this were indeed the home of my childhood memories, why was that old lady standing there, two doors down on the wrong side of the street, wringing her hands impatiently, as the cold sweat of
dawning, embarrassing doubt, crept across my brow? And Jeannie always laughs.
"Come on, come on-I've been waiting here since I hung up the phone!"
Jeannie had asked for a description of my father's older sister as, in the dense dark of the preceding night, we crossed storm- battered northern Kansas, detouring toward a surprise reunion I'd avoided, not knowing why, for so many years. The conflict, ambivalence, and resentments of early family struggles had distilled into a kind of strained anticipation which defied description. So I couldn't define or describe. "You remember, don't you?"
"You don't remember how people ARE from weddings and funerals!"
Two days later as we pointed south toward Arkansas Jean asked again, "Was Ethel always that warm-hearted, wise old gal we just left?"
"Of course. I knew in an instant; just as I remembered her. A little heavier now, moving more slowly..."
It was a brisk walk in the cold, crisp air for an excited five- year-old in the afternoon of December 24, 1944, and it seemed a long way from home with Christmas coming in that unsettled, troubled time in the midst of a world war. A consciousness, if not comprehension, of these things mingled with first doubts about Santa and the Easter Bunny, as I noted landmarks on my way from Gran's to Dick and Essie's...the pock-marked sidewalk..finally a street with sidewalks. Small towns are strange, not at all like Kansas City. Yards extend all the way to the road. Big elm trees join branches overhanging the street, as their powerful roots push up and crack the concrete. Things to remember. Pavement doesn't conquer all. Something drew me on. I wanted to go there. Uncle Dick was a kindly man, one of the last, I'm afraid, of the breed of "gentleman farmer" who worked his farm, and Aunt Ethel always smiled. Little Sandra was a lively tot, and baby Sarah cried a lot; oh, well. I wouldn't be staying long. Someone at Gran's would be calling soon, looking for me.
"Open that jar for me please hon? Can't get it myself. Do you remember this house? we moved in just before Christmas in '44. Sandra was a baby in her crib. And Russell came home from the Navy......."
Sandra or Sarah?"
"Oh, yes. It was Sarah. Mother was so anxious for us to get settled, nothing would do but move in. The old place was still being remodeled....nothing could stop us. Set up cots in the middle of the floor..."
"Sure I remember this house. It's part and parcel of my memories of visits to Savannah. The girls and I ran all over the back yard, Uncle Dick made ice cream on the back-porch steps while we slid down the coal-chute door...this is what I remember."
"I'd think you'd remember The Cottage. You were such a busy tyke, always all over the place. You spent a lot of time with us at The Cottage."
"That must've been before I could put a label on things, Aunt Ethel. This is the place I wanted to see again."
"Sandra-Sarah-well, one of the little ones-bumped a table-hurt herself pretty bad-and suddenly Dick decided The Cottage was too small, too crowded for raising those two, so we bought this old house. It was big and grand, built in the last century, you know..."
I didn't know, of course. But it looked big and grand when I got there. I also didn't know they'd just moved in, were still remodeling...parents never explain, do they? it's just "don't go bothering your Aunt Ethel."
Dad looked grim climbing from the old Dodge - the best one could do with frozen salaries and no new cars being made anyway - and made his way to the stoop. Dad looked grim often these days, so I didn't think it was just my excursion; grown-ups had become an even greater puzzle as I grew more aware of their "moods."
"Sorry, Ethel, he slipped away. Mom thought he was looking for eggs in the chicken house, and we just didn't miss him for a while."
"It's no bother, brother. We love to have him. We'd love to have more of you too, Frank. Won't you bring R.J. over for a while?"
"Can't do it. You know she's never comfortable, and I'm in no mood for a family feud now. Mother's in her usual dither over Christmas dinner, too, and besides, with looking for Russ home anytime and wanting everything perfect, and just finding out I've been accepted by the Navy-well, we need to keep it calm, O.K.?"
The Navy? So that was it. There'd been a lot of talk in the past months. Uncle Buck (dad's younger brother, Russell) was 'doing his part'-something hush-hush in the Navy-and dad had been passed over as a result of his knee and back injuries from a car wreck in his college days. He was, besides, a family man and past draft age, but it was obvious that something had been 'fretting' him since about the time that ol' Easter rabbit (?) had left a piece of train track beside my Easter basket. What torture. When was I going to get my Lionel model? This is your big chance, folks. It's Christmas.
It started again at Gran's house, that quaint little building that didn't have a bottom-was propped up on widely spaced blocks for 'underpinning' and had the most peculiar roof coming down on all sides from a point in the exact middle. "Frank, you'll never make me understand this. We're hardly making ends meet with us both working and you want to 'go to the war'-the Army had better sense; they at least told you to go home. Your own brother is coming home for good-alive by the skin of his teeth-and you want to give them another shot at a Boyer hide? You're nuts!"
"And you're right, R.J. I can't make you understand. Maybe I'd settle for a little cooperation."
Gran's bustling noises got a little louder in the kitchen; she'd been bustling there when I left, scooting out the back door, down the covered porch to the hen-house. What a kitchen that was, with heavy 'side-boards', and an imposing, long, slanted porcelain sink stretching from the hand-operated pump which brought cold water from the well by the back door; gran wasn't ready to trust her cooking to water she couldn't see, pumped under the streets from an unknown source going through God knew what before it got to her house. It was good enough for flushing commodes and washing hands, but that was all. This was a serious kitchen, from which came only the lightest, flakiest homemade biscuits to be spread with Gran's own fine grape jelly from the Concord vines in the back yard. And tomorrow, the perfect Christmas turkey with all the trimmings ....
"R. J., Frank's always been a stubborn hard- head. You won't out-reason him. And proud. He's Boyer-proud, and he's not going to pass up such a heart-felt obligation. You'll be all right. We all will. You and Dennis will be welcome here...."
"I'll go to Mother's. I can get on again at the hospital there."
The sun was sinking and I was nodding, recalling the night before. It seemed hours I had lain in my bed, watching the bit of light slant through the high vent atop the bedroom door. I had let my eyes become accustomed to the scant light as I took in all the unfamiliar details. The gleaming, painted round knob that stood out from the heavy iron work of the door fixture seemed, for some reason, reassuring in the dark. It was quiet, country- quiet, in the house at night. None of the city noises from the streets; no drone of traffic punctuated by horn-blasts, no startling sudden shouts to echo and drift their way into my dreams. It seemed instead I'd had no dreams, but stretched-out, contented musings had taken their place. A Christmas tree stood already decorated at the side of the living-room with a stash of brightly wrapped packages-most with my name on top-it still gave me a bit of a thrill to be able to decipher those familiar letters in the variously-drawn 'cursive' of my relatives' hands. But there was no snow again. How would old St. Nick find a small boy to whom he'd paid so few visits and who was so far from home when there was no trail to follow in the snow?
The day before had been a brighter sort. We were relieved to have arrived; getting there safely seemed to be a big point with the old folks, though I couldn't see the need for all the fuss. But I did enjoy the commotion. I was active and I felt less conspicuous when others were active too. Now, I suppose, it would be called "hyperactive" and would require treatment but in the forties it was called "being a boy" and was an exasperating something some parents had to endure. As they stood talking in the door my eye went to, in the dining room, one of my favorite toys in Gran's house. There, hanging invitingly on the wall, its long, curved mouthpiece set at an impossibly high angle, was the old "crank" phone. I ran over, dragged up a wooden chair, lifted the "horn" to my ear, and turned the handle. A voice said "Number please?" and I whispered "I want to talk to Aunt Ethel." The operator responded, "Where are you, son?" "At Gran Boyer's for Christmas." "Would that be Ethel Harvey, then?" "Yes, ma'am. Aunt Ethel and Uncle Dick." In a few moments I heard the familiar "Hellooo...."
"It's Dennis. We're here."
"Good to hear it. Was the road icy?"
"I don't think so. Tell me the way to your house." Then, "Want to talk to dad?"
Of course, hon. Put him on."
That evening as we sat around the living room the grown-up chatter moved too fast to be intelligible to me, and I drifted away in my thoughts of Christmas-to-come. Suddenly it occurred to me it was time for one of dad's stories, and I ran to his lap, brushing against an object in his hand, and felt a searing pain at the base of my right index finger. It was followed quickly by another scorch across my brain as my own father yelled at me for causing my injury at his unwitting hand. Then, "Frank, don't yell at the boy. He's already hurt. And besides, you're chain-smoking again. No one can get near you without running into a cloud of smoke. Put that thing out and I'll get the Vaseline."
"It IS out, mother. Dennis saw to that." Then, to me, "I'm sorry, son. It was a shock to me too. Does it hurt?"
Of course it hurt. It seemed the fun was over already, and the tensions were back. "Tell me a bedtime story, Dad?"
The story and Vaseline did their due, and I was soon gazing serenely at the smoke-haze filtering through the door-top vent suspended half-open on its slender iron rod.
As Dad and I returned to Gran's house from Aunt Ethel's it was finally Christmas Eve; the sun was lowering rapidly in the West and the chill felt more intense when I opened the car door. Gran Suzie was setting the table in the dining room, and presently we all sat down to another home-style feast featuring a juicy mound of roast beef and mashed potatoes. Later, with mom and dad washing and drying in the kitchen and Gran carefully transporting her treasured utensils for re-arrangement in the huge "hutch" in the dining room, I heard hurried footsteps on the front porch; a light tinkling of bells; more hurried footsteps. I dashed to the door and out on the porch, where I saw, under the dining room window, a large box with a picture on its side of a coal-burning engine, its headlight casting a bright yellow cone toward the edge of the box. And it wasn't too heavy carry in, but I was met at the door by my father, who took the box from my hands to set it under the tree.
Before I could tear into the box, there were again footsteps on the porch, this time of a firmer and more deliberate meter. The door opened, and there stood my Uncle Buck, in his Navy blues, pea jacket, and round white sailor-hat on his head, a huge grin on his face. "So this is my welcome home! Merry Christmas, Dennie!"
"Russell! Now here are all my boys! Oh, I wish you'd made it in time for supper-we weren't expecting you at all tonight."
"Uncle Buck-did you SEE anyone out there?"
"No, Dennie, but I heard an awful commotion on the porch as I was pulling up in front of the house; bells tinkling; hooves clattering....no, I didn't see a thing, though."
"Well, look under the tree! That box was on the porch all by itself a minute ago! How...Where'd it come from? Everyone was right here....Thanks, thanks!"
"Must've been Santa. Looks like he found you early. Didn't you get a little hint at Easter-time? I hear he and the Easter-bunny work together sometimes."
The little sections of track, each with a third rail in the middle-"For the electricity-that train won't run on coal."-was soon assembled; dad seemed to know exactly how to do it. "Frank, there's no room to walk in here!"
"Well, mother, I guess everyone will have to ride!"
The engine was a beautiful dull black with a tiny flashlight bulb in the exact center which came to life as I eased up the lever on the transformer, thrusting jerky stabs of light as the machine rounded the corners on its track. The load in the coal tender was, to my disgust, "fake", consisting of a slant of black- painted, lumpy-patterned metal; but the cars were realistic, and could be arranged in any way I wished; some went backwards, in spite of the urgings of my adult audience. The little brown cattle car had tiny slatted moveable doors which allowed me to install "passengers" for a hazardous journey. With the bright red caboose affixed, the train was sent careening about my grandmother's living room. I discovered that with a carefully timed thrust of the transformer lever I could send the entire assemblage to a wildly juxtaposed disaster amid the other packages at the base of the Christmas tree. The discomfiture this caused my mother-"What a mess; that thing won't last any time at all that way!"-only fueled my glee. We all took a turn at being engineer, and everyone seemed to forget, with me, the remaining stack of gifts, until Uncle Buck cried, "I'll be Santa!" I don't remember what else was there, but I know I went to bed exhausted and happy.
Late the next afternoon, after Gran's Christmas turkey had been reduced to a pile of bones, mom and dad re-packed the little sedan and we headed across the state for more Christmas in East St. Louis with Grandma Wilburn.
This was a pause in troubled times. There were, for at least one five-year-old boy, peace and joy in the Midwest that Christmas of 1944.
"I've been sitting here so long I've lost track of the days. What's today?"
"No problem..it's Winter's-day!"
For the third consecutive day, Jane has occupied herself in the house, finding innumerable alternatives to a confrontation with the winter which has made a sudden belated appearance. Together, we watch the snow blowing in horizontal sheets across our window, closing us off from, and within, the surrounding hills.
"I've had an eye on the same snowflake for about three minutes, now, and it's no closer to the ground."
Abruptly, the north wind ceased its uproar, and the tiny frozen particles drifted aimlessly for a while. The view was as from inside a glass-bubble paper-weight just upended by an unseen hand; the horizon lay obscured in a grey distance while a rolling, cloudy opaqueness above shielded a presumed observer from my returning gaze. I knew he was up there, playing with us again.
I didn't mind, though. This was real winter, something I could deal with on familiar terms. It had been (for Arkansas) quite cold; a ten-o'clock check at my utility-pole "weather station" had revealed a temperature of seventeen degrees. The grainy frozen surface (another ice storm, for Pete's sake-bringing back those fun-filled winter days I recalled from forty years ago) was receiving a white dusting which gradually softened shape as well as texture. All the animals were inside, hovered against the blasts whistling through the gap between the walls and roof of the barn. Supplies were still plentiful-hay, feed, water - I knew there'd be plenty of cleaning up to do later. But play-time was here for the kids, now. Missy and I had a ready-made sled run down the steep slope of the back pasture. I watched, from the hill-top, as my latest and last teen-ager went careening in a precarious dash down, the little sled bobbing, diving, and occasionally flying, at improbable angles in a seemingly comedic speeded-up "fast track". "AAAGHA-HA-HAAAAA....YAHOOOO!" Her cry of conquest trails behind, and she ends her rapid journey safe, upright, and a bit surprised at finding herself intact.
I hate schedules-and clocks-and all the rest of our insensate contrivances devised to control and regulate our lives, governing as beings with lives of their own, and with incontrovertible authority.
What about us, in our regression from nature into this artifice called "culture", eventuated in this compulsion to fractionate (or fracture) our existence into the tiniest, least perceptible element of progression through our days? I'm sure we must need something, surrounded so long by our own sights, sounds, smells, and structures that isolate us from the alarms and messengers of our natural rhythms-but I still hate it! This has been a lifelong source of difficulty for me. I have always been a little out of touch, or time, perhaps, at least in this artificial sense. In my childhood it was easy for me to regard this as a great failing, since everyone else did. I was so often late, or slow, or early, so often railed at by an exasperated adult, so often tagged with epithets of ridicule-"Where's the absent-minded professor been this time?"-that I began to take some comfort in my capacity to at least be unfailing in my unreliability. Later, at an age when I could reflect somewhat dispassionately on these personal quirks, I was able to observe that this was only one aspect of my failure to "acculturate". Apparently I was just less responsive to the pressures of the "mold" in which I had been placed; Lord knows it was no fault of my parents or any other of the authorities in my upbringing-the discipline of the parochial schools complementing the educational process overseen by mother - but I've come to feel that the "veneer" of culture must have been a little too thin to cover all the convolutions of human character.
Anyway, I was left with some pesky problems in dealing with time. As a first-grader I knew I was headed for trouble when my recess periods were sacrificed to my "dawdling" over my math. I did too little too late, and was "allowed" to make up the deficiency while my playmates played without me. The situation was evidently no less perturbing to the dour little woman in black who oversaw my efforts; achievement tests clearly demonstrated that I possessed math concepts at an advanced level, so the only possible reasons for my slow pace must be idleness and devilment. I eventually devised several little "tricks" which have enabled me (like a woodsman marking his trail) to at least appear more timely and reliable, and to in fact attain a dependability that has become the envy of many. No one will believe that it's not the "real me". It's a pity, though, that we have to get so old to develop the "maturity" to weave convincing rationalizations for these unalterable features of our personalities. For instance, I've only recently become aware that I possess a deeply ingrained and acute sensitivity to the more primitive elements of time; "nature's clock", "internal clock", however it might be identified. Country life has given it a chance to come to the fore, again. I "know" when it's time to plow, to plant, to feed the stock-even to get up in the morning. I've dispensed with my old alarm clock; I've not needed it in over a year now. But I know in my core that, now that St. Pat's day has come and gone, Spring in Arkansas is heating up; the sap's rising, trees are budding, the fields are greening, and, after a good winter's nap, I'm ready for action, too. Winter in its dying throes still gets the upper hand for a short time, and now a brief cold snap, giving us yet another "dreary wet cold afternoon" in the house, is actually a sort of comfort, rather than an unpleasantness. Besides, Winter has always been an enjoyable passage in the year for me; I've never seen it as "dead" time. In nature's plan (assuming she has one) it's a time of rest, and preparation for the great renewal of Spring-a perfect respite for the would-be philosopher. I think it can only be odious for one who fears time to reflect-or one who is unprepared for it (or for the ravages of the weather). One more day to reflect, now....and recall the first time the coming of Spring offered its unique meaning to me....I was five years old, the Christmas at Gran's when I got my train set was already a treasured memory, Dad was now in naval officer's candidacy in Florida, Mom and I had wintered in East St. Louis with Grandma Wilton....
Winter in early 1945 was different in the city. More restrictive, confining, than it had seemed at Christmas-time in a rural town in northern Missouri, where a small boy might wander with the wind, soaking in the sights with the chill, until both became too much to bear. Instead, the view from an upstairs window, framed as it was in utilitarian fashion with unornamented sturdy old wood with dull paint beginning to peel, was softened and distorted by the huge, wet snowball-flakes whose journey to earth was aborted into a clinging passage down the pane. The sooty blackness of the small rectangles of ground which constituted yards along our block were being gradually covered with the white stuff, which for a short time lightened the heart of a young lad feeling particularly insignificant and displaced, before succumbing to the pervading blackness in the city air which soon covered the luster and restored the uniform dullness which was becoming the dominant feature of my surroundings.
"It's settled." I heard from behind my window-seat. "We're going to Mae's in Kentucky this spring!" my mother announced.
Maysville was (and is, no doubt) a small community along the Ohio River in northern Kentucky, just a short "motor trip" (to which a drive by car was referred in those days) from Cincinnati. It featured the basic necessities of a central settlement in an otherwise rural area, with the usual assortment of small shops- and hardware store (The enterprise of my now-deceased Uncle Sam- no kidding, Uncle Sam!) and the hospital where my widowed Aunt Mae worked as anesthetist. There, on the outskirts of town in a row of "respectable" homes situated on a bluff overlooking the river, was nestled the substantial brown-brick two-story abode of my Kentucky kin. This was impressive; far more permanent-looking, with an atmosphere of confidence and quiet affluence, than anything I'd ever thought people called home. The yards were small, carved as they were from the slopes-but well-kept-and so green! The grass was lush, in contrast with the anemic and oxygen-starved patches still lying brown in southern Illinois.
Behind the house, amid a great deal of what seemed to me unnecessary concrete, was a sizeable concrete pool, filled with huge goldfish, and fed by a fountain concealed in the obligatory (and, of course-concrete) nymph-figurine. But my eye (and eventually the rest of me, as well) was irresistibly enticed by the scene below, falling away to the wide brown gash in this bucolic landscape-the Ohio River! This was so different from my experience of big rivers-the Missouri in Kansas City, The Mississippi in East St. Louis-because it was-right there! It was accessible; a long way off, but nothing to bar the way! I marked this for future exploration, half-hearing the warnings of the adults; I knew, I'd heard all my life, these big old rivers were treacherous killers. Fresh in my mind even yet was my first vision of the havoc the Ohio could bring to this countryside; a short time before, my mother and I had passed through this region, travelling by train to an east-coast rendezvous with my father, who had just completed training and was about to begin his first shipboard assignment. Then, as far as I could see, the land had been overrun by flood; it seemed we "rode the waters" for days, the only hint of solid substance being the twin gleaming trails stretching to the forefront and rear of our temporary home-on-wheels. The aspect was terrifying; I brooded on the prospect of slipping off the track, or becoming stalled with no chance of rescue. The residuals from this experience persisted into adulthood in the form of nightmares whose most frequent content featured bridges and universal expanses of rolling brown water. But now the mighty river looked friendly and inviting, lying, as it seemed from the distance, motionless, well within its banks. Not far above, I could see the train-track paralleling the river-course-but there were warnings about this hazard, as well. Trains were to be avoided! Conscientious youth that I was, it was no time until I could be found sitting on the bank above the river, between the tracks, musingly contemplating the slow passage of a ponderous barge-in-tow....
There I learned the reality of Spring; my senses were flooded with the stirrings of life. The delightful earthy aromas mingled with the scents of crushed new grass underfoot, the moisture heavy in the air after a soaking shower-that same odor which even now calls back to me all these images of that Kentucky countryside - pungent fishy smells drifting up from the river - the thrill of seeing new life arrive as my aunt's old Cocker gives birth-and later, of fishing a wet, writhing, whimpering puppy from the pond in the back yard! A "rescue" which needed much repetition, after my cousin Sammy (yes, Sam Jr.)-ten years my senior, and awesome in his ingenuity-discovered that the entire litter could be terrorized into the water by the sudden "BRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZT" as he started the noisy little motor of his model plane directly behind them! "Why won't that thing fly, Sammy?" I asked, after he had retrieved it, and the spent, waterlogged pups, for at least the fifth time that afternoon. "I don't know, but I'm sure not gonna fix it for a while!" I really wondered about Sammy. I wondered, too, what his mother really knew. Something didn't quite fit. I remembered the morning not long before; I was half-listening in the front hall, across from the kitchen where my mother and her eldest sister were finishing their coffee when my attention was focused in their direction as Mom pronounced, "I think you're being harsh with that boy, Mae. Planning his whole life like this. He's still awfully young for military school."
"Ruby Jean," my aunt intoned haughtily, casting a disdainful glance in my direction, "I'm raising a man, not a boy!" That man graduated from West Point, and flew bombers in the Air Force, but I remember him as all-boy.
The small radio in that same kitchen, one otherwise uneventful and pleasant spring afternoon, suddenly assumed great importance to the entire household as it announced the death, in a far-away (but still Southern) place called Warm Springs, of my first hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I asked how a President could do that, with the war still on ..... I didn't get a very memorable answer, I'm afraid; it was very quiet around Maysville for a while. I was pleased to hear that somebody named Harry Truman, from Missouri, would take over; maybe Dad would be even safer now, with a man from home in charge to look after him. This didn't seem to reassure Mom much, but there were still more good times to be had. Mother and Aunt Mae took time to acquaint me with the lore of their Kentucky childhood; my fascination with the rail-bed produced, along with the warnings, the unique ballad of old Ikey Small who, as my mother sang, was burdened with a most troublesome billy-goat named Reaveneau, who "ate six red shirts from Ikey's line; said Ikey 'oh, that goat must die' so he tied him to a railroad tie. The whistle blew, that goat in pain, threw up those shirts, and flagged the train!"
This sojourn marked Spring, for me, as a time of awareness, of learning, of the thrill of coming face-to-face with new experiences, and even new creatures! I would leave with a tiny black shiny bundle of radiant energy I called Rosie, for the imprint of her feet ....... she was to be my constant companion, and confidant, during the next eight years of our lives .....
These and many similar recollections-straddling the front fender of a neighbor's car as we crossed the Ohio River bridge, settling the issue of who would be first to return to Kentucky after a trip to Cincinnati-from those days soften my present contemplations as, forty-four years later, I watch Spring sneaking her way out for yet another beginning, and the restlessness stirs me again; it's time to get ready again, and time to get out and see what's happening. We're going to visit Aunt Essie. Happy Easter to all, and to all a good night!
It was going to happen again. There was no doubt in my mind; I'd been here too many times before, and I could clearly see it coming. So, "Why go on?" I might ask myself, with dramatic pathos. "Because it's all part of the job," is my mundane reply.It's a very difficult situation, at best, attempting to extract in just an hour or so, sufficient information about a person's capabilities to facilitate a reasonably informed judgement about what he or she should do with the rest of a working life. So, no short cuts allowed, buster. But, how I wish! It's not that I'm alone in this; Al, as usual, is doing his competent best with the less impaired (that's not fair, either; some are not only unimpaired, at least from my perspective, but very able), so I am free to give individual attention where it's needed. And how it's needed. As I boxed the last of the puzzles from the preceding section of the test I "sized up" my man again; but why put it off? Wade on in there, show your stuff. Ask the question. I really do hate this part of the I.Q. test I administer so routinely, but only from the mechanical aspect. It's actually quite revealing, and has enabled me, over time, to perceive some distressing facets, or so I believe, of our society and educational system. It's not just a test for the individual. This is the part whose results I euphemistically describe in my reporting as, for instance, "....awareness of social and cultural norms and expectancies."
The folks who devised this revision of the standard scale, in their accursed Yankee wisdom, found this to be an "easy" question, placing it early in the "easy to hard" sequence of items. Wrong. Couldn't be more wrong, at least from my view. It's excruciating to deal with. We are now going to start around the logical (illogical) circle. "Why" (that's the first misstep; the word "why" seems to have no meaning) "Why do we cook meat?" I see the eyes narrow; I can almost hear the thought flash through his mind-"Boy this guy really IS dumb!" Casually, forced through a contemptuous glare, comes the reply-I try not to wince, knowing what it'll be-"'Cause it's raw." O.K., no short cuts, remember? No leading questions; my purpose is to find out whether this fellow can solve this tricky poser on his own. I want to know whether the ability is there, so I have to veer to another tack, without "putting words" in his mouth; use only what's already out in the open.
So, "What's wrong with that?" (How dumb can I be, anyway?) "You want to eat raw meat?"-comes the next step in this dance. "Why wouldn't you?" I ask. "'Cause it's s'posed to be COOKED!" Square one again. "How come it's s'posed to be cooked?" "So you can eat it!" I'm looking for a glimmer of knowledge about the conventional wisdom which dictates the necessity for cooking food, so maybe we're moving that way now. I'll try again, "Yeah, but how come you cook it first?" Crestfallen, he reverts at last to the core of "social convention"-"That's what everybody does, don't they?"
I think part of the problem is the "why" nature of this question. This is also the "why" part of the test, and I find so many people unable to produce the kind of thinking that requires. Even many of our bright youngsters are so well versed in the "how" side only-they know all the steps, the procedures, what's required to get by or get along-but there's so little attention to why it's done, or even whether it should be done; educators have recently shown some attention to this situation, and have devised courses supposed to "teach" children to reason. The approach is so predictably un-deviant; there are, as in every other area of subject matter, right-and-wrong answers, good-and-bad approaches. The emphasis is still on outcome, not process. Well, go ahead, kiddies; think right, dress right, go to the right school and land the right job, so life will be comfortable and predictable...
Why do our schools do this to people? They've labored so long under the misconception that someone can be a "teacher". No one can "teach" someone anything. Experience isn't the best teacher- it's the only teacher! The best educator will manipulate, plan, and arrange experience to facilitate and channel learning, which is what children do best.
It's worse still for the ones who have the misfortune to be identified early on as "slow", or "mentally handicapped", or "retarded." They're shunted aside, and expected to learn less more slowly.. So they're encouraged to "Taaake your time, get it right-try again." We're told patience and routine are necessary for them, and they will only learn a few things-but they will do them so well! And over and over...Skills which require speed of response, or perception, or acquisition, are "trained out" and become unmeasurable. Now look what's happening when I reach the last item in this test. It seems simple enough, on the surface; all that has to be done is to copy a series of simple symbols in a sequence determined by their pairings with single-digit numbers which are available for viewing throughout the test. The object, of course, is to "learn" the pattern of the relationships, and then to reproduce them as quickly as possible. Uh, oh. I said "Quickly." After years of "Take your time, get it right", "Quickly" just doesn't register; no more than "why." "O.K., that looks nice, but I want you to go as fast as you can. Neatness doesn't count. Hen-scratches will do, just so I can tell which mark is which." No good. He carefully etches a perfect, 90-degree juncture between two lines-"Faster, you don't have much time!"-and then a beautiful, deep-chested, capital "U." Great. It's the wrong symbol, even. But it sure is pretty. Oh, well. Self-fulfilling prophecy time. Retarded folk just don't have the ol' "eye-hand speed and coordination", do they?
Why do we do this to people? Why am I doing it? Why, why, why? The devil made me do it-"They're s'posed to be cooked!"
It's over again, for a while. I can relax now. And remember that my tractor will be ready to go this afternoon. Pleasant thought,that. Something I can get my hands on. My mind drifts to the little square black-and-white photo my sister showed me recently-"Look what I found! You and dad on Uncle Dick's tractor!" That smiling cherub was sure 'nough me, and there was Dad, wearing his "old" pants with his ever-present narrow-brimmed hat, looking unusually pleased with himself. He was back on the farm for a while, in the rolling hills of northwest Missouri, sitting on his brother-in-law's tractor with his little boy on his lap...
That setting doesn't exist now. Given time, people change their surroundings. What was, in the mid-forties, bucolic and peaceful, is in the eighties a busy subdivision, fronted on the four-lane that cuts through the hills from St. Joseph to Iowa by a motel....This is still a small town, but spread so far .... "The motel you're looking at was the first three acres we sold off, Dave," my Aunt Essie is telling me as we sit in the secluded haven of the shadows of the few surviving elm "monsters" along the drive to "The San" (built as a "Sanitarium" for tuberculosis patients) which is now a convent-house. "My father-in-law planted these elms when he came to Missouri. All this, the San, the highway, 'way back over there...it was a land grant...."
"To whom?" I asked; I'm video-taping, trying to bolster Essie's stories for my memory.
"Richard's (my Uncle Dick-her husband) father. He settled this place."
The thought covers a lot of history. What might have happened here? The Civil War, and everything since. I'll have to check it out sometime. Aunt Essie's eighty-two; her in-laws, the Harrows, are prominent in "The History of Andrew County, Missouri", which I perused briefly back in "downtown" Savannah. A "pioneer" family.
As I looked for an opportunity to cross the busy highway, I recalled Uncle Dick's "fussing" over the wasteful necessity to "drive down and come back" just to get across the newly-limited- access road to reach the driveway to the farm. Just routine now.
"Go ahead, hon. Pull on up the drive. They won't mind." The Harrow homestead has itself been recently sold, and the house and grounds are in the remodeling process. It's unoccupied yet, so we can observe at leisure. We can't drive all the way to the house; the ground is channeled for future concrete-pouring. The old three-story, square-looking, final residence of "pioneers" stands imposingly at the hilltop, but I don't remember it at all. "No one was living here when you were a boy. I guess you came for other things." I did. I looked to my left now, as Aunt Essie began her story of her elopement with her Richard. There between the trees and the houses, I thought I could glimpse the roof of the dairy barn; I interrupted her.
"There's something I remember. Isn't That Uncle Dick's barn?"
"Yes it is. Oh, it looks awful! Why hasn't someone torn it down?"
The dilapidation offends Essie's habitual propriety and dignity; even now, in her eighties, she seems always "in charge", keeping things neatly arranged-"Isn't my lawn lovely? I just had it dug up and re-seeded this summer, and here in October I had to get it mowed again." But there it stands, dilapidated, inexplicable and anachronistic in the midst of development-housing, which also offends Essie-"They just threw up those places for people who don't even appreciate them or take care of them; most of them are run down already."
Still, I don't recognize the house at all. "We came up this drive, suitcases in our hands, walked right up to the porch..."
"This driveway?" My wife interrupts from the back seat. "It's really steep!"
"Well," Essie continues, "We walked up to the door and Richard rang the bell. His mother answered. 'Hello, Mother' he said. 'we're married!'
'Yes, Richard, I see you are!', she said, and fell back in a chair."
"Poor thing. That wasn't the way to do it at all. She was such a good person..." pronounced Essie.
Remember the forties? No, I know you kids don't; but I mean, remember how they look in the movies, or on T.V.? Everyone running around in baggy clothes, sort of a gauzy golden mist that's supposed to invoke "images of the past." It wasn't at all like that. That golden mist is more often seen now, isn't it? Smoggy haze that hangs in the air most of the summer, even here in the Arkansas countryside. My summer memories were of deep-blue sparkling skies that invited cloud-watching; the kind of day that's a rare treat now.
There was time for "why" questions then. I wanted to know, and nothing could stop me. "Why does Uncle Dick have a tractor and we don't?" I asked, when Dad said we could go out to the farm to see if the tractor had been fixed. "He has a big farm and all those cows to take care of. We don't. The tractor helps him with the work. It, plows, mows hay ...." "And roars!" I said.
This afternoon the deep, strong "chug-chug" from my own ground-breaking machine bounced back from the distant hillside as I turned at rows-end; I looked back to see that the cultivator was beginning to smooth out this rough patch broken for the first time only a week ago. That sound was another link to long-ago delights....
My Uncle Dick was, like most of those men who lived so close to the land, both big-hearted and frugal. The last ounce of utility was squeezed out of everything, but he seemed always to have time to explain, to demonstrate, or let me "try my hand" and my father's tolerance. Dad's city-induced "hurry" was slow, even on these holidays, in giving way to the rhythms of the countryside. "Don't bother your Uncle. He has work to do." But if he was bothered, I was never made to know it. I was, naturally, ever eager for a chance to escape to the farm with all its fascinations, and the wide-open-spaces of that Missouri prairie on the edge of Nebraska. It was there I first felt the contentment that seemed to blow through me with the winds that whipped and rowed the tall Bluegrass of the pasture. And there was so much to explore; the almost-too-milky, overpowering aroma in the dairy building as the milk was whirled and filtered on the first step of its journey to the tables back in Savannah (Uncle Dick did it all in the time of his youth and vigor-he milked his own herd, processed and bottled and, in the mornings, delivered a milk route); the long line of cows standing in their stalls, quietly munching hay and waiting to be relieved of their burdens; the ride back down to the road in the black-and-rust Model A Ford, once an object of pride, but now, in its last years, an old utility vehicle that never left the farm-"It gets around better in the ruts and mud anyhow, Fred. They've never made anything else like this." I didn't doubt that a bit. I couldn't believe that, even in ancient times twenty years past, people depended on things like this to get them somewhere.
I think late that afternoon I drifted into sleep on the way back to town. My next memory is of the mouth-watering steamy supper- time smells from Gran Suzie's table.
The forties were great years for growing up. Well, I realize this sounds a little far-fetched to you youngsters who know that age only from the history books as "The War Years", and to an older generation as well, such as that of my parents, who endured those times from the more stressful vantage of adulthood. But it's nonetheless true. That's so, if only because growing up is great fun, or should be. The times matter only in that they provide the setting which shapes the growing experiences, which are necessarily highly personal and individual ones. Looking back on the events of which they are comprised can itself be exhilarating, furnishing a sense of accomplishment-"I made it; I grew up O.K.!" What really matters, then, is that closer environment, the "cocoon" of family, school, and friends, in which the child makes his first contacts with the world, and where expectations are set....and such great expectations there were, in those days......
I do my hibernating in the summer. Some folks just can't take the heat, and I guess I'm one of them. Even here on my own Serenity Ridge, which was so appealing during that first summer with its steady breeze constantly stirring just a hint of freshness and promise, I sometimes feel defeated by the unremitting oppression of the "damp musties" which have settled in on us during the hot stretches of the past two years. It's especially unbearable now; the season started with very un-seasonal rains, and cool days and nights, continued from the wettest springtime I can recall. I knew all along it couldn't last, that there'd be "hell to pay," and it's sure enough here with us now, in late August, as it would normally be in Arkansas. I sit in my air-conditioned envelope, watching the weeds reach for the sky in my garden while I wait for an evening cool enough for a battle with them. The grass in my hay-field is head-high, but no matter. I'm too hot and sluggish to care about the looks, and we've already put plenty of hay in the barn loft. The haying had been fun at the time, and even teen-age Missy had helped, getting the "feel" of hoisting the heavy bales out of the flatbed truck. The haze is dense enough to blur the view of my neighbor's pasture across the road as it stretches to the feet of the distant hills. Nothing seems as clear as it should; there's a dullness, a lack of color, and the sunlight is pale and thin in the cloudless sky. I don't know whether it's just age catching up with me, dimming my vision and making it harder to do the things which transpired without thought or effort a few years ago, or the consciousness which has come with our increasingly sophisticated monitoring of our environment-we are bombarded with information about "heat index", "chill factor", "pollution index", "relative humidity", and warnings to avoid the carcinogenic mid-day sun-but I'm certain it's more than just impressions; the very air around us has undergone subtle and malignant alteration. There's an argument to be made that "living is not conducive to health." Too much has already been done. There's no escape from what we're doing to ourselves and our children. I escape to the past at such times; my memories are sharp-edged and distinct, bright and clear through the filter of time, which gradually screens away the ugliness, doubt, and ambiguity. I can set that filter to emit distilled happiness.....
My seventh birthday brought for my delight, along with a "Tom Mix" cowboy outfit with an outrageous ten-gallon hat just like that of my hero, and a genuine-leather, fleece-lined replica of a WW-II flight jacket (also complete, with an aviator's cap which had pull-down ear flaps and goggles) a shiny little red wagon. You know what I mean, the one with a long-handled black tongue and the name "American Flyer", or some such, in raised white letters on each side. I'll bet you had one just like it. I know I saw to it at least one of my own kids did. It was perfect for hauling comic books, rock collections, little Eddie from down the street, and a frightened but ever-trusting black cocker spaniel. It also apparently set my dad to thinking. It was August, it was hot, as it must be in mid-August (the picnic planned for my birthday party had been spoiled by one of the showers I've since come to anticipate with pleasure; sometime close to my birthday, the midsummer draught is almost invariably broken by a much-appreciated spate of heat-showers) and I began to hear rumblings from him about the unreliability of his latest old Dodge, and the great advances in automotive design that were beginning to appear, now that the technology which had been developed for the war effort could be re-directed.
Dad had, anyway, a fascination with technology and inventiveness that brought to our home a never-ending stream of odd, and sometimes outlandish, gadgets, toys and "thingamajigs" which were to furnish him a never-quite-realized "ground floor opportunity" to make marketing history. Mom was introduced to the delights of the "automatic turkey-baster", an aluminum device with a long, curved, slender metal spout which, when the temperature of the juices in the baking pan neared the boiling point, aimed little spurts of liquid, percolator-fashion, at the turkey-breast. It worked, but mom thought it was awfully slow and wasteful. "But you don't have to keep going to the oven to do it!" my salesman father cried. "And it works just as well for roasts, or, or... hams.. or,"
"But I still have to go the oven to check it, Fred. I won't trust my cooking to a little piece of metal!"
That was, in essence, the end of the "Wonderful Automatic Turkey-baster." The nearest to success came, a few years later, from a strange collection of screened-in neon lights in a little case on our front porch which attracted a great many flying insects to a noisy electric death, to the amusement of myself and the neighborhood boys, who took great delight in looks of disgust on our sisters' faces. "And the best thing about it," declared my father, "is that it's safe for people. No DDT in the air, no poisons on your hands. Only the bugs get zapped." "The bugs and my nerves!" Mom flinched again, as another doomed night-flyer took his last ride on the bug carousel. Dad held a healthy share of stock from the fellow who had patented the bug-killer, in return for access to a marketing network, but their plans fizzled faster than the insects' hides in the course of a tangle of litigation, and, while the little lights are still around, we never saw any profit from them.
A new family car, in the fall of 1946, was cause for more than happiness in the heart of a seven-year-old; it was unfathomable ecstasy! It was time for new things; the "throw-away economy" was cranking up, as a renewed urge toward self-indulgence pervaded our national mentality with the celebration of the end of the war. We deserved a reward, didn't we? Hadn't the U.S., for the second time in this century, come to the rescue of civilization? And hadn't we all sacrificed, and endured hardships and loss? It was true, my own life hadn't gone untouched, even within the haven of that "cocoon" I've mentioned; I had been uprooted by my father's departure for service in the Navy, and I had friends who had lost brothers and fathers in distant battlefields. I felt the impact of more personal events, though. I seemed to have just survived battles of my own. My health had been ravaged by, in rapid succession, attacks of scarlet fever-complicated by ministrations of the new cure-all wonder, the sulfa drugs-later by pneumonia, and such seemingly uncalled-for assaults as a tonsillectomy and an ear-lancing which, in a child's mind, caused no less anguish than the painful infections which had precipitated it. But now my mood concurred with that of the nation. We were recovering handily, and feeling good about it!
A few weeks later a new fall term was under way, and I was on my way to school, in my usual spot in the back seat, behind Mom. We were scarcely a block from the house when steam roiled from under the hood of the grey Dodge, and the engine sputtered and died. Dad jumped from the door almost before the car had rolled to a stop at the curb. "Damn!" I heard, reverberating against the raised hood. "Radiator hose is gone-Den-get walking! You've got time to make it to school if you get going. I don't know how long this damn car will be here." "Fred, watch your language!" My mother's automatic response was hurled out the window toward him. "R.J., I'm fed up with this thing. What kind of traveling salesman can I be when I can't even get the kid to school in the mornings? We're not going to fight this any more. I'm going to get a new car-a real new car, too. No more used-up ones. It's time; we deserve it."
"Well don't tell me." I heard my mother's voice, sounding a bit mollified, fading behind as I trudged off toward the Seventh Street intersection. "You're the economy freak who's always saying a car with less than fifty thousand miles hasn't been broken in."
Yes, indeed. This sounded like serious new-car talk. I was so elated I could tolerate the embarrassment of walking to school in those woolen nickers, too hot for the early fall and of an out-dated style fit only for certain ridicule. Oh, I was a pretty picture, I was sure. And ready to fight anyone who might take issue with that.
My thoughts rolled ahead on those yet-unseen new "wheels" as I detoured at the corner, two blocks from school, to find out whether my best friend Bobby had left yet. I'd forgotten time, forgotten that I was already late, losing more time as I waited at the front door to be told by his mother that Bobby had left for school fifteen minutes before. I resumed my reverie as I turned again onto the sidewalk.
I was late! I saw the first line marching from the little asphalt-tiled school-yard as I started running the last block. I'd never make it, of course; it was futile. I hadn't been there to answer as first role was called, with the entire student body standing in neat two-by-two rows, each class in alphabetical order. This meant extra penmanship line to write, and probably detention through first recess. I squeezed into my customary place behind Gary Blount, who turned and snickered at my nickers. Trouble lay ahead; I knew this was not going to be an easy day.
Writing lines during morning recess wasn't too bad; it was hot out anyhow, and I was wearing those darned short wool pants that kept stabbing me everywhere and itching, and getting sweaty and dusty would just make it worse. Besides, penmanship was repetitive nonsense that didn't take any thinking, so I could let my mind wander, as was its natural inclination.....my daydreams were in color, or about color. A new car could be something besides black or gray this year. We were beginning to see brightly-painted cars on the streets, looking like mobile symbols of the end of the austerity of wartime. What color would I suggest, if they asked me? Or if they didn't? Fire engine red, of course. My favorite color for anything. I didn't think about the make of auto; it would probably be another dull old (new) Dodge. Dad had said driving a Chevy or Ford was just a mark of brainwashing, so I was sure these weren't eligible for consideration. What else? I realized I really didn't know that much about cars, and resolved to fill in that gap in my education. Meanwhile, classes had resumed around me, and we were well on our way to lunch-time.
I was first out on the playground today; after having been deprived of my morning break I was in no mood to dawdle over lunch, and I forgot about the potential discomfort of the nickers as I stepped up to the ladder of the big slide, wondering whether the "cushioned ride" currently advertised for the new models would feel anything like the thrill of flying through the air on that slide. Then I felt a pressure against my back, and I turned to see Tubby Keene's broad smile.
Suddenly I remembered things I'd been taught about manners and sharing, and I offered Tubby my first place in line-I didn't want that bucket of lard crashing down on top of me! Then I waited, suspended at the top, until he was halfway (maybe) to the bottom, not noticing the little knot of boys gathering at the foot of the slide. I slung myself into the air to gain speed; as I hit the slide, I hardly noticed the contact. "Maybe wool pants are good for something after all-they're really slick!"
Too late, I saw Mike Johanssen and Gary Blount join hands in a death-lock across the bottom lip of the slide, and I hit their arms doing about ninety behind the wheel of my red racer. So this is what a wreck would be like! I'd breathed my last; I knew it. My lungs were crushed; the last gasp of air had been squeezed out of them. I looked around, as I haltingly rose, through a red haze of pain and anger, and determined that, if these were to be my last moments on earth, I would take with me the perpetrators of my impending demise. Mike, seeing the look in my eye, bolted for the front door. I caught him in a flash, still, I was sure, not breathing. Without a word, I pinned him against the brick wall with my left hand and brought my right up from the ground to meet his chin. He staggered, but came back with both fists flying, pounding my already-numbed chest and stomach. Fine-I didn't feel a thing! A well-placed (lucky?) jab opened a bloody geyser from poor Mike's nose, and I began to feel better. Mine wasn't going to be the only funeral after all.
The iron grip of Sister Magdelene's heavy hand stopped my arm in mid-swing. "Tired of recess, boys?" she crooned sweetly as she steered us, ahead of a disappointed crowd of children, back into the building. Well, there'd be nothing but penmanship lines today. The cloud of dust had a silver lining, though; those nickers were through for a while. Dirt and blood were everywhere. And I didn't expect a lot of comment if I had to wear them again, either.
I guess, in those days, a little rowdiness was just expected from boys. Sister exacted the required lines, and put us both through a miniature inquisition, but nothing further was said or done.
Mike turned, just before he mounted his bus that afternoon, and flashed a grin that crumbled into a grimace as he briefly covered his swollen lips with his hand. When the hand came down, he mouthed an inaudible "Sissy-britches," then repeated the grin-grimace sequence as he swung about to dash up the bus-steps. I reached into the stair-well in time to snag a foot in mid-air, and dragged Mike bouncing back down the steps into the street. It was just too much, as I saw him sitting at my feet, making ludicrous faces as he tried to hold back the laughter. I stretched a hand out to him as I said, "You can borrow them any time, O.K.?"
I thought I was due for a treat after the day's ordeal, so I detoured toward the little railroad-car diner on seventh street. I checked my pockets; I still had a quarter for a bowl of chili and a Grapette, my favorite afternoon snack, and a nickel left over for a tune from the nickelodeon, which had the latest gimmick, two remote selection boxes, mounted on the counter-top. I marveled again that I could push a coin in the slot in front of me and make ol' Bing start moaning from the flashing machine at the far wall. Bobby, on the next stool, groaned as he knocked a blob of catsup from the Heinz bottle onto his hot dog. "Not again. Why don't you ever play Gene Autry?"
"Why don't you ever spend your own nickel?" I shot back.
"I guess you and Mike aren't friends now, huh?" He asked.
"I wouldn't say that. But he knows to keep his hands off me now."
My mother was less forgiving than Sister Magdelene; I found I'd made my last detour that week, for my allowance was unceremoniously cancelled.
Dad was a little more understanding when he got home the next evening. "Well, that's the end of the nickers for a while, isn't it? They're off to the cleaners. By the way, what color Hudson are we getting, anyway?"
I couldn't believe it! I didn't have any idea what a Hudson was, but I figured it had to be something special to lure dad away from Dodges. And he did ask me for an opinion! I didn't hesitate-"RED!" I cried.
Dad laughed. "Who ever heard of a red car?" he directed toward mom.
"It doesn't matter. I won't be seen in one!" she chuckled.
It was thus that my family acquired the capacity to turn into the fast lane, now the mainstream, of American middle-class post-war life. Another symptom of spreading affluence was dependable transportation, making possible for more and more of us the casual luxury of the Sunday drive. And, just outside town, Joplin was itself joined to the rest of the nation by a fairly well-developed cross-country highway, Route 66. Gone was the decrepit and colorless old Dodge; even my mother made no effort to hide her satisfaction as we glided south down Main Street in such a splendidly distinctive machine-even though the apple-red exterior was far too conspicuous for her taste. But it was a new car-brand new! It was shiny and clean all over. "Like my red wagon!" I mused aloud from my old back-seat position. Dad heard me; "Yes, I've got a new red wagon now, too!" He chuckled. It even smelled new-remember that smell of a new car? Enamel mingled with pungent rubber aroma-real rubber, not the silvery synthetic stuff of war-time that hardened and disintegrated as roadside tire-changing became an expected part of any trip. This new luxury introduced me to many joys; our regular turf began to include Shoal Creek, a small boy's fishing paradise, and provender for scenic delights and recreation spots. We discovered the small stair-step rock ledges historically known as Grand Falls, which, in low water, could be precariously crossed on foot at their head. Once I persuaded my mother to join me in such an expedition; the smug look of the conqueror disintegrated from her face when I shouted above the roar, "Now we have to go back!" and she realized that was the only way to return.
Gradually I discovered the rationale for dad's choice. It was his fascination with novelty again; the Hudson claimed, or at least advertised, an aggregation of advances in automotive engineering, and Hudsons had a reputation for dependability and durability.
"Watch your step-you're not climbing up into one of those out-moded horseless carriages, you know!" He warned my mother repeatedly, to her annoyance.
"I can see that, Fred. You don't need to keep reminding me. I'm glad we've got it, too."
The point was that this was one of the first vehicles- a pre-cursor to the radical design changes which would appear in the '48 Hudson models - with the body slung low between the wheels, to effect a low center of gravity and improve stability on the road. Or, as dad put it, "This baby'll corner!" This was invariably followed by mom's rejoinder, "So what? We're not on a race-track, Fred."
In a way, we were, though. My life was racing ahead; our world was racing on through a rapid-fire succession of discoveries and changes. The atmosphere was everywhere (well, except in school, maybe) charged with optimism and hope for the future. And what was there we couldn't do? America was invincible, the great collective conquering hero. It was a good time to be alive. And young.
"A noted airplane with a special Jasper County" (Missouri) "identification came to the end of its days in 1946." ... "Former Joplin resident Herbert W. Davis who served in the 8th Air Force noted, 'Civil officials and public apathy accomplished what the German Air Force failed to do, bring down the Joplin Jalopy.'" - Marvin VanGilder, Jasper County (Missouri) - The First Two Hundred Years, pg. 270, 1995.
You were expecting pathetic-I mean, sad-poetry, as the title suggests? Sorry, I don't do that. I do feel a little sad, maybe, when I think about the old Jalopy, but mostly proud.
One morning not long ago, we were cruising contentedly in our trusty Toyota van (nick-named "Toy-van), giving vent to another of my restless urges that sometimes impel me, in the heat of summer, to seek respite in cooler climes. I love most of South Dakota, as I do so much of the plains states, with their wide-open, rolling expanses, unlimited vistas, and blue skies. On the outskirts of a small prairie town, my eye was caught by a neat row of-"Oh, noooo..." groaned my enduring mate, from the seat at my side-vintage tractors! So what, you say? This catches me right in one of the passions of my current life; I never cease to be fascinated with these fine old distillates of our rural history, which are also surviving testimonials to the practical wizardry, industry, and craftsmanship of another age. Besides, I've "had an eye out", as they say, for a part I need to restore an old mowing machine I've acquired. So, as I had done in countless other places near to and far from home, I turned around and pulled in for a closer look. As I ventured into the drive of this "shade-tree" equipment hawker, I couldn't help admiring the apparent condition of the machinery lining the road-side; its restoration seemed to have been accomplished with the same loving care which had first brought it all to life. I felt a surge of reflected pride, as I usually do at such a confrontation with "living" evidence of our mechanical-technical proficiency; I think one of the strongest "pulls" from this obsession of mine comes from my feeling that these old hulks represent the essence of our greatness as a people-our inventiveness, initiative, fierce individualism, imagination, facility with practical things, pride in workmanship, perseverance...they all seemed still alive here, and I was curious.
As I neared the equipment shed I saw a tall, spare, muscular, white-headed fellow bent in absorption over a piece of cowling from an old John Deere tractor whose frame was suspended on blocks nearby; he was pounding the thing with determination-and a huge hammer, with which he was straightening the metal, and removing dents in preparation for repainting. As I climbed out of the van I heard, muttered but distinct between hammer-blows, "You've got a hellofa nerve, driving into my yard in that thing!"
I bit. "Why is that?" I asked. He straightened slowly to his full height-which exceeded my six feet by only a few inches-and roared,
"Do you like what the Japs did to us in the war?"
Well, I don't, and I'm also not too proud of what we did to them with our nuclear bombs, either. This didn't seem the time to mention it though, so I didn't. Besides, he had the hammer, and it was a really big one, too. So I thought I'd just avoid discussion (I sensed he was looking for an argument, not a fight, and I was looking for neither) and get straight to the point. "I'm looking for a drag wheel for an old International mower, and I saw all this fine old stuff here; I thought you might know something about it."
"I don't keep parts," he mumbled, as he bent once again to the piece of cowling.
I mused, later, on what I considered the man's misplaced loyalties. He, himself, seemed as good a representative as I might find anywhere of the things I want to preserve and promote; evidence of careful craftsmanship, ingenuity, independence, and pride in accomplishment abounded in that unique display in his front yard. Yet his attitude, that old conservative protectionism, can only hasten the downfall of everything he seems to stand for. We make inferior products, and complain when someone else does it better. Why don't we, as our elders did, rise to the competition, instead of protecting mediocrity? How short-sighted can we be? "Take care of me now-I'll fix it later." Let's get back to work, and fix it first.
One early Sunday afternoon in September of 1946, shortly after the Sunday drive had become an established institution for my family, Dad called to me as I was changing from my church clothes, "Get your flak-jacket. We're going to need a pilot today."
Well, shades of wool knickers! It was still hot out; far too hot for that pride of my wardrobe, my genuine leather, fleece-lined aviator's jacket. But I couldn't resist a chance to wear, or even carry it; now new and supple, a recent birthday gift, it would become a familiar old friend before I had "worn it to death" a couple of years later, when it had become hopelessly out-sized, and stiff, torn, and faded. Today it was perfect for an afternoon "flight"; I could imagine the bracing cold of the winds at ten thousand feet as we sped down south Main again, toward the recently re-discovered old resort at a place called Redings Mill, down along Shoal Creek. The radio- Dad's new "red wagon" had a radio, which was crucial in getting him out of the house during baseball season-carried the play-by-play of our St. Louis Cardinals' road to conquest over the Boston Red Sox in that year's World Series. I eavesdropped as Harry Carey, in his customary suave, detached, impartial style (if you believe that, you've never heard a Carey broadcast, have you?) exploded, "Hoooooly cow! Called third strike! Stan's out of there for the second time today! No way that ball was in there-had to trap it in the dirt to save a wild pitch! Well, Musial's the gentleman about it-not a word-he just handed his bat to the bat-boy."
I knew this was true; I'd seen "The Man" strike out before. He always looked unruffled, confident, sure he'd get his chance. He usually did. I couldn't believe even the Sox' great Ted Williams could be a better hitter. The Cards were World Champs that year, by the way.
I glanced at my wrist where the little PX-purchased Helbros Dad, on shore leave, had brought with him for my sixth birthday, informed me it was time for one of my favorite Sunday afternoon fantasies. "Dad-it's time for 'The Shadow'-can I please listen?" I knew he'd grumble, then start the process of switching back-and-forth between my station and the game. We were both learning about compromise, and neither of us seemed too grateful for the lesson. Unmindful, I listened greedily, to be rewarded with the familiar, "Who knoooows, what eeevil lurks in the hearts of men-The Shadow knows-ah-hahahahaha!"
What clever and devious scheme would the more clever and devious Lamont Cranston foil from his cloak of invisibility today? Who knows? I don't remember. It certainly wasn't as important as what was about to take place. I don't remember what happened to the Cards that day either. I was about to meet the Joplin Jalopy.
Dreams, cast as seeds on barren Depression soil, holding hopes of a better society, now sprouted in the tense optimism, energy, and ambition which fertilized post-war America. Patriotism ran strong before breaking up on the beaches of a far-away Oriental peninsula that came to be known as Korea. There were heroes, still, in those days, not the weaker and flawed "role-models" of today. There were no feet of clay. General Washington had never lied, not even about the cherry tree; President Roosevelt had died pure of heart, lover only of Eleanor, and humanity in general. We grew up acquiring some rather naive, altruistic and, in the sense of having relatively well-defined objectives, somewhat concrete motivations; we wanted to imitate our heroes and "make the world a better place." On the heels of the shock of the A-bombings of Japan, we heatedly discussed beneficial uses of atomic energy-some of us even set about making it possible, didn't we? No one knew then what a Pandora's box the atom-splitter really was. We wanted to make our homes more comfortable and agreeable for our mothers and sisters-and ourselves; there were so many things, we thought, yet to be "invented." We were eager for knowledge; our relationship with potential sources of information was quite different from that with the modern "information glut," which bombards us, through multiple media forms, and has made learning a selective-screening process, which tends to rob a child (and me) of the thrill of active discovery which gave us such a sense of achievement. Achievement itself has undergone a subtle re-definition; the meaning seems so much more personal now. I hear the word, instead, in the connotation of "getting ahead", "fitting in", "finding security." What we called, in the sixties, "conspicuous consumption" has become things like "wardrobe investment." Newspaper columnists teach "dressing for success", which means, as I said, to "get ahead". Pop sociologists, looking at all this, think they've identified a "me-first" generation. Maybe that's so, but if it is, it's a by-product of misplaced expectations, and the reward has been an awful lot of disappointment, discouragement, and just plain apathy. I've seen too many younger people who have absolutely no interest in "leaving a mark," or accomplishing something in the sense of having a generalized or long-term benefit. As a result, our nation is losing its reputation as "the first with the most." The irate out-cry, "Buy American" translates readily as "protect the status quo." Instead of responding to the challenge to do better and forge ahead, we want to cover our collective posterior. Nonsense! We can build better cars than the Japanese-let's do it, and sell to them for a change. That, anyhow, is the attitude that confronted me in the 'forties. We can get it back. We threw out the baby and kept the bath-water again after the 'sixties, too. We choose to remember (and unfortunately, to perpetuate) all the bad-the drugs, the selfishness, the lack of "ambition" and goals-while forgetting the things that started it all-the longing for peace, for a world in which each of us could fulfill the best from inside, and mold it to the benefit of all of us. We don't even want to hear such talk now, recalling its close association with the evils which grew in the same social context. We've "netted" from all this a critical lack of purpose. We've lost identity with the product, as the industrial psychologists of the 'fifties warned we would, and the product is no longer as good, either. Responsibility and pride were once better than any written guarantee. We're not accustomed, any more, to seeking a purpose outside ourselves, and making it a part of us all.
I read recently a very well-written, analytical, and well-argued essay in which the young authoress decried the false promises my generation had made to hers. I saw this made clear from another perspective; she noted the impossibility, for her, of ever attaining what she saw as the "rewards" her own parents had accumulated. At the time when she was at the peak of her earning power, it was no longer possible for a "middle-American" to become a new home owner-et cetera. In essence, her life-style would likely be, as far as she could see, less comfortable and hence less satisfying, than that of her parents. She, in fact, found she had to visit home and sleep in the bedroom of her childhood to be close to the conveniences with which she had grown up. An excellent analysis, this; yet it also impressed me as pathetically superficial, from my viewpoint. There are so many things this young woman, with such fine intellectual facilities, can't understand from the context of her beginnings, so many potential satisfactions inaccessible to her; somehow, we failed to bring our young people beyond the realm of simple cause-effect relationships, or performing the manipulations to attain a pre-determined reward. "Go to college, you'll get a good job. Get a good job, you'll live happily-ever-after." These aren't fundamental laws of the universe, as my young writer discovered; unfortunately, she doesn't seem to be looking for them yet, either.....
There have been other losses with the loss of responsibility. We're becoming a nation of juveniles, constantly expecting to be told what to do and when to do it. We become incensed when someone (always someone else) "who should know better" tells us wrong; our indignation demands setting the situation right, which then means suing, or punishing, somebody. We really know our rights, and want them right now. It's causing us a kind of paralysis, though. We can't move for stepping on someone else's rights, and there's always that "someone" who ought to be held accountable, and it's easier to assign responsibility elsewhere. It was awfully irresponsible of you to leave a loaded pistol on your desk. Was I less irresponsible when I picked it up and shot your mother with it? Or did she deserve to die for having raised you so irresponsibly? It's all so impersonal, too. We look for the signs, and follow them blindly; we don't have to be responsible for ourselves if we follow the signs.
I enjoy my occasional visits to Canada. One of the things I find most enjoyable is being treated as an adult. There seems to be an assumption (in many places I've visited there) that people will treat one another with civility and responsibility, and won't need so many signs. Once, having arrived a day ahead of our reservation schedule at one of my favorite stop-overs, we took a room in a very American-looking motel, our preferred rustic accommodation being as yet unavailable. The first thing I noticed, after an absence from state-side, was the burgeoning of the old familiar signs-"No paper towels in the toilet", "Please don't clean fish in the sink", etc. I asked the manager later whether a lot of Americans stopped there. "Not at this time of year," he replied, "but later in the summer our clientele are about ninety per cent American-why do you ask?"
"Oh, the signs are there." I replied.
"Progress" has become a god, instead of a means to an end. We have to keep our economy growing, at a carefully modulated pace, for no better reason than that allowing it to do otherwise would cause its collapse. We've built a delicately balanced house of cards, with a little instability in it which can only be counterbalanced by adding a carefully placed card, then another, and then another.....
I noticed we'd left the road and were crossing what appeared to be one of the many abandoned mining-fields in the area when Dad came to a sudden stop. I leaned forward to find we were nose-to-nose with a B-24 bomber! I was immobilized; this was impossible!
"Get into that flight jacket, Cap'n," Dad beamed. "You're taking us up!"
I was astounded, thrilled, and shocked, all at once! There it was, something I'd day-dreamed about so many times.....it was a stark reality, that old airplane. Its skin was dull, not shiny silver as in the comics and newsreels, and torn in many places by, I assumed, shrapnel and bullets; she was obviously a veteran. It was also much smaller than I had imagined; small and, in a way, actually delicate and vulnerable-looking, with her glass-encased nose-guns. I crawled out of the car, never taking my eyes from the plane. I felt it could take life and fly over us at any second. It didn't belong there, and it was going to leave now that we'd had our look-see.
"Wh-how-where'd it come from?" I stammered, wanting to know everything at once. "I don't know," Dad began. "I heard about this in town, and I thought you'd like it. No one seems to know how these things got here (there was another plane, a fighter, I think, but the Jalopy is all I remember clearly-she filled my imagination) or where they came from. Looks like they just couldn't make it back to base, wherever that might've been. They're pretty shot-up and rough looking, aren't they?"
They were, indeed. Veterans, as I said. I walked-carefully-around to the side of the bomber, and saw, in a bold long-hand scrawl along the side of her nose, the name, "Joplin Jalopy." This may have been home to the pilot, or someone in her crew," Dad concluded, following my eye, "but we may never know. Come on, let's take her up."
My father and I clambered into the plane's open belly, and I began to feel an intensity, a somber purpose, I'd never encountered before. It was so bare, cramped, and utilitarian inside; no space was wasted. I could sense here, for the first time, the cold reality that was war. We hadn't sent our young men out on luxury junkets; there was little provision here for comfort and ease. This was a machine of destruction and death, and suddenly I knew that. Men crawled inside it, to become a part of it, and to make it their tool. There was no protection here. I could see, at an occasional bullet-hole, through the flimsy fuselage. This plane, like the men who controlled it, was meant to live hard, to fight and, if necessary, to die fast. It was sobering and, to a child of seven, awesome. Up front was the cockpit, with its twin set of sticks and controls, and a dizzying array of unintelligible instrument dials. I wondered what it must be like to command, and be responsible for, all this; it must be difficult. The view from up here certainly wasn't all that great; as I sat in the pilot's seat, tilted back at a ridiculous angle, I couldn't see anything but blue sky above me. I wondered how anyone managed to even get the thing off the ground. I looked, and, for the most part, sat quietly, without the usual vocal noises of the child in play-fantasy. It didn't seem right to play here.
I moved slowly throughout the plane, studying and absorbing. It felt full of mute messages-mostly warnings-"Look out-three o'clock!" "Get in the nose-gun!"
Dad was silent too, and he let me take my time. I finally led the way back to the ground, then stood apace and studied her from a distance for a while. I was first, too, to turn in silence and go to the car. I forgot everything else on the ride home; as I said, I don't know who won the game that day, nor whom The Shadow foiled. But I've never forgotten The Jalopy.
We returned several times over the next couple of years, and my fascination with flying was fueled each time. I've also never forgotten the initial impression that "lean, mean, fighting machine" made on me; it's come to represent my notion of what this people, of whom I was growing to be a part, had become in order to preserve themselves. The Jalopy wasn't a pretty sight; she was totally dedicated to a purpose, and simultaneously efficient, deadly, and vulnerable. Looking at that plane, in my mind's eye, I see a mirror-image of what we were then. The image is broken and gone now. I wish I could call it back for you. The best I can do now is invite you over to look at one of my old tractors.
Historical footnote: There is now (July 2006) a BLOG site dedicated to exploration of the true "Jalopy" story; visit here with Robert Smith to learn more of the facts and ongoing research.
Suzie was steaming! As she stumped toward the side-porch with the pan of dirty water in her hands, she conjured up ol' Harvey's face at the door, relishing his shock as he met there a wall of scalding, scum-filled steam! In her preoccupation she must've sloshed a bit from the full pan onto the floor, where the damp spots would await her renewed irritation and furious cleansing.
"That old fool!" She addressed the frosty morning which placidly absorbed her ire with the used dishwater she hurled across the porch.
She was a little woman with an imposing presence; no one ever thought of her as small, though she barely cleared the five-foot mark in her stocking feet. Fine-boned and long-limbed, wide-shouldered and wasp-waisted, she was built tall. Her movements were graceful and deft; there was never doubt or hesitancy in anything she did. She swept through life with a purposeful assurance which had commanded respect even in her youth, when the slight pout of her mouth, the smooth roundness of her cheeks and the intelligent gleam in her eyes inspired admiration of her beauty. There was now a tautness in her skin which emphasized her high cheekbones and, with typical practicality, she had never regarded herself as a beauty, anyway, but most people, men and women alike, paused in admiration upon meeting her. She wasn't given to reflection, but she knew her life had rewarded her with the best of the satisfactions and attainments available to a woman of her time and station. There were pleasant memories of home and family, should she choose to call them to consciousness. Such a short time ago, her first son, born after two daughters, had given her a sense of relief at seeing the renewed pride in her husband's eyes. The tiny lad had become a constant companion, substituting to some extent for his often-absent father. She chuckled to herself, recalling the wide-eyed disbelief and censure on her little Essie's face the afternoon of what became remembered as "The great race" when, nine-month-old Fred held secure against the pommel of her saddle in front of her, she recklessly cut her fine saddle-bred mare into the path ahead of her nephew who, inspired by the pleasant warmth of the early spring day and the headiness of the conversation he had struck up on joining with her on the way to his uncle's house, had challenged her to a race home.
Could that have been six years ago? Married sixteen years in this late autumn of nineteen-twenty, she didn't disguise her resentment toward her husband for dumping his family in this back-country shanty-town buried in the scraggy bluffs overlooking the Missouri River just below Iowa. Well, it felt like being dumped, when the family had arrived by train with all their possessions behind in a freight car. As she stood watching her life's treasures being hurriedly unloaded and piled beside the track she observed a young mother emerging from a shack in the hillside to chase down a toddler whom she threw unceremoniously to the ground for a diaper change. Definitely not proper, not something she wanted her daughters to see. "Two teen-age girls, and two small boys who've never known any home but Warrensburg - and this is supposed to be a better life!"
True, this was a huge, grand house, sitting atop a clearing below which the fresh-tilled black-gumbo river-bottom at the edge of the rolling waters spread in an eye-catching vista as she stepped up to the door-sill. This, no doubt, was what made that idiot think his fancy banker-brother had found him a great bargain. Harvey did have an eye for beauty, and it looked like it had led him to folly again. "Get rich raising sheep-in a pig's eye!" She thought. "And seven thousand dollars in debt, with a mortgage on our heads when we've never owed a soul." True, the soil of the old farm had been worked to hardscrabble, and Harvey with his roving eye and wandering ways hadn't been much of a farmer. Not like his own father, who'd farmed his whole working life on up in northwest Missouri, saving enough, by the time he decided to retire and sell out, to buy himself a pretty little white house down in Warrensburg, and forty acres for each of his four boys in the surrounding countryside as well. Harvey, last-born, was also last to leave. But leave, he did. And now, "This grand house will take a grand cleaning," observed Suzie. They'd already been here a few weeks, but just today did she feel she could call it hers. So anxious had the "ol' sheepherder" been to get a start, they had come ahead with the house still occupied by a renting family, with whom they had shared quarters until now. "It's big, but not that big," she muttered.
"That old fool!" Then-Suzie's face set in horror, her feet going out from under her as she stepped up onto the now-frozen spill by the door. Her momentum (she never moved slowly) carried her careening across the floor in a slide that would've been the envy of a modern base-stealer, but instead of tagging second, her ankle hooked the iron stove, upending a pail of boiling water. She couldn't avoid it as it tumbled full on her, drenching her left arm and her abdomen in searing pain. It was cold and she was wearing long-johns under her work-frock; there was no escape. She screamed as she tugged and tore at the sleeve of her burning prison before she passed into unconsciousness.....
Spring is a sudden event in the Ozarks. It's not something that steals in quietly or slowly. I guess it must be the same everywhere, though. It's not called "Creep" or "Sneak", it's "Spring". Go to bed one winter eve, and you'll get up next morning to a changed world; the brown ground cover gives way to green-"luminescent-it'd make its own light without the sun!" our Missy notes. Green that seems to have overshot itself toward a brilliant blue in its eagerness to meet the new warmth. Leave four days, and you'll find on your return the peach tree in the back yard has already bloomed and the blossoms have fallen to the ground. Keep a sharp eye; you can miss a lot in the springtime. Everywhere there's a mad rush into the spirit. The air is filled with the moist smell of freshly turned earth being readied for seed; I knew it would be coming. This is one reason I took advantage of those warm days in January to break a new garden-plot. This afternoon, on my way home from the office, the sight was almost too much to bear. I stopped my car at the top of the hill just after turning off the highway onto our lane, and just looked. The cattle in my neighbor's field were munching industriously to keep ahead of the sprouting grass, and they seemed to be losing the battle. The hills in the northwest distance, visible again in the air just cleansed by a spring shower, seemed to sparkle as the budding trees stretched themselves in the evening sun....this is one of those moments when peace and contentment flood my consciousness, along with the old memories and the old stories....
Harvey was checking his fences as he ambled toward the house, having already returned the stray ewe to the flock. His morning had been a pleasant one, with no more than such minor irritations as this brief search for a missing sheep to interrupt his enjoyment of these still-new surroundings. The air, crisp and cold and invigorating with warnings of the coming winter, only sharpened his sense of satisfaction as he topped the hill and his magnificent new home, with the river valley falling into the distance below, came into view. Then he sensed, more than heard, a change, one which sent an unsettling tingle down his spine, in the usual bustlings about the house. He stepped up his pace, then broke into a headlong dash, as he watched his younger daughter Katie burst from the side door. Sighting her father, she cried, "Daddy, find a doctor-mamma's been boiled alive!"
Life in the country, not far removed from the turn of the century, could be harsh, and tragedy was no stranger. Harvey nonetheless wept silently as he carried his semi-conscious wife to the parlor to make her more comfortable on the couch. The children had overcome their initial terror; his Essie, practical and brave, had rushed to her mother, where she had tried to finish freeing the arm from its wet cast. She had drawn back in revulsion for a moment as shards of skin, still attached to the undergarment, peeled away. But she knew instinctively that exposure of the surface was needed. Suzie lay on the couch now, her head rolling from side to side, her eyelids fluttering; she stayed there for hours, attended by her children, before the doctor could be found and brought the ten miles, arriving on the railroad tracks below the house on a hand-car, from the nearest locality which afforded such amenities as medical facilities. He pronounced this a very bad occurrence and stated that after the passage of so much time, little could be done but prescribe something for pain and keep the wounds clean and open; he feared a great deal of scarring would take place, and warned Suzie against the use of her arm until healing had progressed. He also mentioned the danger of infection.
A few days later she had forgotten all warnings; the incessant pain precluded inactivity, and that house still wanted its cleaning. Nothing was going to keep her from administering it.
No one could say the healing might've been cleaner or the subsequent infection avoided, but Suzie almost lost her life, as well as the use of her arm, in the following weeks. Years later, with the movement of her arm still restricted by the mass of scar tissue which, more than old-fashion, accounted for a preference for long sleeves, even she conceded that a little house-cleaning might not be that important-but "cleanliness is still next to godliness!"
This passion for duty, and a boundless energy with which to practice it, were a large part of the heritage this tireless and determined little woman imparted to her offspring. Things were done in the way they should be done, because it was the right thing to do. No other reasons were needed, nor were sought.
Now, with our helter-skelter way of doing things, and with the press of so much activity, and demands coming from all directions, I found something soothing, during a recent visit with eighty-three-year-old Aunt Essie, in the "old" ways. We tend to regard as quaint, and even annoying, the elders' preoccupation with "three squares a day," and "are you sure you've had enough to eat?"; we may justify it or toss it aside as an irrelevant residual from hard times past-"These folks survived the Great Depression"-but I came to anticipate with pleasure the morning routine. Always the pot of coffee simmers first, followed by the agonizing choice of a breakfast menu-which must include fruit, grain, bread, and a little meat. Always we sit around the table and make plans for the day, and remember yesterday.....the evening-after supper, of course-is again a time for review, and remembering.....
Suzie went on to make a home of her Aerie, one which could be remembered with fondness, as a refuge of comfort and security, for the few years before the depression era moved through northwest Missouri, as it did the rest of the Western world, with the fury of a great tornado. Not everyone was rich in the twenties; Harvey provided, by way of his "sheep ranch", adequately but not abundantly. His house was substantial and well-furnished, but he continued to feel inadequate at his brother's "mansion", ten miles away in the city with "a new Buick in the garage every year." It was thus to this brother he sent his eldest daughter that she might complete her high-school education in more advantageous surroundings. He must've been pleased with some of the results; Essie acquired there, and under the influence of her father's half-sister Edna, a keen eye for judging the antiques which became her life's passion, and much of the caustic, but tolerant, humor which has enabled her to make important decisions with a peculiar combination of compassion and cool clarity of vision. "I'll pass on my Aunt Edna's advice," she told my teen-age sister, "Choose a mate the way you would a horse. Always check the pedigree and the teeth."
"They don't build 'em like they used to." That old saw has renewed depth and meaning now. Most of my life I've regarded myself a rebel, never hesitating to challenge or question what's handed down. I've also never hesitated to embrace the "tried and true" when I'm convinced it's the right way to go. I felt, standing in the ruins of Suzie's front parlor, a renewed contact with much of what I revere most in the ways of our forebears. Here was yet evidence of the pride, the labor, the striving for achievement, that set the foundations of what's still the best in us. The old place still stands, sixty- nine years later, at the top of the hill. Isolated and, for the moment forgotten, its inner skeleton has been stripped bare to reveal the true strength and dignity of this turn-of-the-century construction. Only the roof, floors, and external siding, wrapped long ago in an ugly layer of brick-patterned tar-paper, still remain. The windows gape blindly-recognition finally dawned as Aunt Essie spotted, as we climbed the steep drive, her old upstairs bedroom-"There-that window-that was my room." Each two- by-four, reaching toward fourteen-foot ceilings, stands tall and true, weathered and strong, the wall studding looking more like a thicket than the interior of a modern home, spaced closely on one-foot centers even in non-supporting walls. Even with the wallboard removed, it's a tight squeeze between rooms, unless you use a doorway. Each piece of wood is perfect and without defect, as though individually selected for its purpose. Virgin timber was probably in use, making it possible to be more selective then than now, but still the careful and prideful work of a craftsman is everywhere evident in the severely spartan and simple construction. The overall plan is a joining of rectangles, which lends itself to both sturdiness and variability.
"Right here- there was a double parlor-sitting room and living room; up above was the guest bedroom, and across the stairwell there, Sis and I shared a room, with Mama's sewing room behind." I thought I detected some satisfaction, maybe a little relief to find something familiar surviving with her, as Aunt Essie's recollections found their old setting. She wouldn't admit to anything quite so favorable, though; so many of the memories were bitter ones, for a teenager uprooted. "I guess I just sort of have the 'hates' for the old place. It really was nice, and Papa furnished it nicely, but I just never did like it here." I'm impressed most of all, as you can no doubt see, with what it represents; something I think we've lost in such great measure. I don't see such manifestation of pride in workmanship, and I miss it. Now, instead, producers take offense at criticism or rejection of their products, and cry for protection against "outsiders" who do it better, rejecting competition instead of rising to it. Why has it become unpatriotic to expect us to continue to do that which built strength into our history as this old house was built?
The clock in Aunt Essie's upstairs parlor was warning us of the approach of midnight on the last evening of our visit, as she continued her recollections. The Depression wasn't just an economic event, you know. Mother Nature helped man in his folly, with drought which produced the Dust Bowl and, "The sheep all got sick and died. Papa still owed seven thousand dollars at Uncle's bank, then the bank crashed, and everything was up for grabs. Suddenly no one had any money, and a lawyer in town wound up with that note. I think the brothers and Aunt Edna got together and decided Papa should leave town, and they found him a job selling cars somewhere out West. Aunt Edna, who had no respect for Papa and considered him unstable, told Mama that if she took the family to join him, there'd be no more money, but if we stayed in Missouri she and Doctor (her husband) would help get the boys through school. When Papa called, Mama asked him for a divorce. He waited, but her mind was made up. You know, that nice lawyer brought the note to Mama one day and tore it up in front of her? You don't find 'em like that nowadays, do you?" ............
They don't build 'em like they used to, Suzie.
"Starry, starry, night..."
I still am capable, even after a year-and-a-half in the country, of feeling a tingle of amazement as I glance up at the luminescent blue-black sky hanging suspended on brilliant light-points strategically placed in familiar pattern-groupings as though for the amusement of one with nothing better to do than seek them out on a cool, crisp January evening. It feels so good to be home again, where I can watch the stars as I carry feed to the animals and get them settled for a late supper after our return from the city. The stars aren't visible at all there, and this lack contributed to our growing restless sense of displacement after twelve years of what we regarded as virtual deprivation. Even in the small town of eighteen thousand where we had sought refuge from big-city life, the world had again been closing in on us.
But now, after a satisfying and full day, it's especially wonderful to be here.
Only a brief moment ago, it seems-this morning-I busied myself around the house after morning feeding, anticipating the time when a long-absent sun would whisk away the preceding evening's thick layer of frost, and when the thin-frozen crust of the earth's damp surface would thaw sufficiently to accept the penetration of a plow. Jean and I had recently discussed the location and timing of a blueberry-patch, and with the appearance of a much-needed cloudless day, with the prospect of a good warming, I decided it was time to get started.
I think the Lord and his bureau chief in the Weather Department must have contrived Arkansas winters as the ultimate test of man's patience. Day, night, day-on-end - there's nothing to be seen in the sky but clouds, or an ominous-looking layer of fog and mist. No snow, just rain. Well, at least it makes a contrast which gives a break like today special meaning.
The lusty aroma from the moist earth as it is torn open and cast belly-up in neatly rowed mounds mingles with the acrid odors of gasoline, oil and grease which always accompany the operation of my old tractor. This not only feels right, it smells, looks, tastes right. I'm quite contented with my day's activity, and much gratified with the visible results of my labors. I cut open the first row and called back to my critically-watching wife, "How's this look for a blueberry patch?" "About right for a start," she concluded. When I'd finished, we had ground broken for two hundred blueberry shrubs, far more than we had outlayed to purchase and tend this year. But it seemed such a small space, and the time passed. Quickly.
Sometimes I feel more kinship with our juvenile Irish Setter than with the bulk of humanity. That dog is spurred by an innate urge to occupy space, and he frequently does so with random gleeful abandon. I also experience this urge to spread out and see nothing but openness around me while I move about, at times doing nothing more than occupying space. The more the better. It's no wonder I love the Plains of the West. I am constrained so much of my time amid the contrivances, structural and figurative, of our society, and I never feel at ease with it all; there's always a pressure to escape. At least now I have a place for that escape.
Our visit to the city this evening, after several days' absence on holiday, put a particularly keen edge on this sensation. I was unusually aware of what appeared to me the most inane, trivial, and pathetic attempts on the part of so many of us to find a way to fill time and space and to establish a sense of identity. We, unfortunately, all go about it the same way most of the time.
The first order of business was a shopping expedition; since this one boasted at least vaguely defined objectives (new jeans, and/or a new skirt and/or a new dress for "church" day at school) I was willing to tag along. As my wife and daughter meandered through the shop aisles, demonstrating their sense of purpose as they sequentially examined and rejected about 18 million or so likely candidates for adoption, I fell to observing (as I usually do) the puzzling behavior of the dominant (or so shopkeepers must hope) city-dweller, the Shopping Animal. Are the vacant, or at best condescendingly sneering, facial expressions and dismissing waves of the hand calculated, practiced, or genetically-transmitted traits of "The Haggler" who was made most fit for survival when man began to move into towns? They seem rather useless now, with sales clerks so listlessly unattuned to the whims of the would-be buyer, and prices virtually written in stone. Most of these women seemed merely to be passing time, though, casting in a hand at a rack of apparel much as an indolent fisherman tosses a baited hook on the water; something might result, but nothing was expected. They may be looking for something else, too. As I bent to attend to another article offered for my inspection, I registered, from a few aisles away, a surreptitious, and lightly inveigling, glance cast in my direction by one attractively dressed, but rather prim-looking, young lady. Well, forty-nine isn't really so old, now. Moments later, she appeared a bit distracted and uncomfortable. Feeble effort, that. Flirting may not be be dead in the 'eighties, but it has certainly acquired an appearance of decay.
This all seems foreign to me now; the impatience of the drivers in the traffic, the annoyance to which I am myself so readily subject, at all the twists, stops, turns, and forced movements in the down-town dance. My daughter, exiting for her dance lesson, grabbed the wrong bag-not the one containing her shoes, etc.-as another of those impatient souls in the line behind us at the studio leaned on her horn. Our Missy has a short fuse, and often her explosion leaves a bit of a powder-burn on her face.
At home again at last, I let the cool night, which at least now has a taste of winter, take me back a scant forty years or so...
Through the night the steady hiss of falling sleet, punctuated as it was at times by the loud "crack" of another overburdened tree limb, held forth comforting assurance that there would be no school tomorrow. The thought was both soothing and stimulating. Finally, a dim, sunless dawn diffused the shadowless dark of my room, and I crept to my window. Already drawn on my mind's slate was an image I was sure to see, as recalled from a similar event a year earlier. It was just as I'd hoped. The world was white again. Street and walk merged in gentle slopes; trees, power-lines and car-tops all bore their burdens of opaque ice.
This was one of those rare mornings I was first dressed. I couldn't wait for breakfast; it was time to, literally, test the ice.
I reached carefully for the bottom step as I left the front porch, the last haven of normality in this bizarrely altered world of mine. Familiar objects on the ground were recognizable only by their softened outlines; in several places, large limbs lay aimlessly deposited on the ground, and down Sixth Street I could see the upended roots of a huge old oak, as its corpse spread itself across the street. No one seemed to care; nothing else in sight was moving. But I moved. With what elation I moved, after my discovery that the several inches of white stuff on the ground was covered with a pebble-grained crust which supported the weight of a scrawny eight-year-old! Sliding in a wavering and precarious path down the sidewalk after a headlong running start, I happened to glance across the street at the empty school-yard, which now bore a resemblance to a great frozen lake with a tall fence (only yesterday behind the now-obliterated home plate of the baseball diamond) at one corner.
Suddenly that was a lake-my lake-with at least one hockey goal waiting for a practicing team. I dashed for the house, momentarily heedless of the slippery surface, and shouted, "Mom! Mom-I need your skates!" My mother had vowed never to skate again after her last shoulder dislocation, but I knew she'd kept her skates in good condition and there was a chance-surely worth trying-that they would fit me now. They wouldn't even be too embarrassing, should someone else brave the ice later, for me to be seen in; they were black-sturdy, tubular-reinforced steel racing blades, not dainty "figure" skates-and only the narrowness of the leather shoes would belie their origins as ladies' implements. Mom was exasperated, but cooperative. After complicated lacing-and-tying lessons-they fit!-I was once again stepping tediously off the front porch. Another miracle; the ice still held! I was soon speeding up the sidewalk, gliding effortlessly over the cracks which had been my downfall that summer as I had learned to negotiate my new "rollers". In a short while, I was across the street, with a rock for a puck and a knobby limb broken from a tree-branch as a hockey-stick, ready to challenge all comers. But still, there was no opposing team. My "practice" was solitary for a good while, but eventually the neighborhood children began to appear, bundled, masked, mittened, and pulling sleds. I think I was avoided for a while, but as I raced past them down Pitcher Avenue, which fell to a good slope before ending in the old mine-fields across Fourth Street, they began to perceive utility in my methods. I found I could quickly pull an empty sled uphill, and a loaded one on level ground. I didn't mind being a carriage-horse on occasion; I was a born show-off anyhow. But as the days passed, precious few of them, my solitary pleasures took stronger hold. I raced round the base-paths; on skates I was untouchable. Every hit was a home run. I chased fly balls in the frozen outfield; no ball flew as fast as I in my big-league fantasies. Sometimes I simply moved aimlessly, or worked at my skating skills. This was not smooth pond-ice, of course, and speed was actually limited, but it was great fun to have it so available, and making new paths to old places I had trod in other times. It actually worked quite well as long as I remembered to avoid over-enthusiastic push-offs which occasionally sent a blade below the surface of the ice, and more than once left me spread-eagled on the surface, anchored by one shoe-toe.
But kids don't feel pain, do they? Anyway, it's forgotten only a moment later, and I'm on my way again.
"Rosy the Rooster has met his match," Jane has written in one of her infrequent entries in the "daily" journal in which she chronicles our "escape" to the country (the preceding date is "Friday, Sept. 9, 1988" - this one is "Jan. 20, 1989"; maybe her pace is still a little too hectic with school in session). "..... met his match in the northwest wind that is whooshing over Serenity Ridge this morning."
It is the wind which drew me - blew me here as much as anything else. On a hot, Arkansas-summer day a year-and-a-half ago, the incessant hill-top blustering welcomed us to our first encounter with the setting Jane has christened "Serenity Ridge". The first view of what was to become our present "havenly" abode, coming suddenly as we crested a hill in the dirt road from which we had been seeking features described for us by the owner, inspired a breath-stopping admixture of pleasure and disbelief - "Keep going- that can't be it!" "Road to the left; long drive; red barn on the hill; that's it, all right." We are so often disappointed in our expectations - the "Sales Pitch" is invariably exaggerated - that we were hardly prepared for what seemed to us, instead, to be understatement. This was truly the place of our dreams of a return to the earth; it offered all the comforts of home in the midst of the bucolic scene we had craved. The fact that we both experienced the same elation settled the matter then and there. The kids would have to start packing. We were moving!
The house is modest and inconspicuous, befitting something we regard as a practical convenience and refuge rather than a center of the universe, as "home" seemed to have become in the twelve years since our youngest child's birth. Protected, it seems, on the west side by the modern, bright-red barn which is our most conspicuous landmark, the mottled-gray-brick, split-level-with- basement structure is situated, as though with a careful eye to soul-pleasing, precisely atop a mound in the very midst of our twenty-acre field, with the back pasture sloping away to woods on the south, leaving a spectacular view from the living-room picture-window encompassing several hundred rolling acres of Bermuda pasture across the road. The farmers here showed an innate sense of esthetics; a few small hardwoods spread sparsely across the field afford not only shade for stock but eye-catching focal-points in their shadows and movement in the wind. In the distance, to the northwest from whence comes our life-saving breeze, the mountains rise in the haze. We've learned to rate our air quality by the appearance of these hills; in the summer they are sometimes lost completely in the dense, dank, brown sludge which can accumulate when air movement is from the Gulf of Mexico, across Texas and Louisiana, or southern Arizona. On those rare days when the sky sparkles to azure depths which recall my cloud-watching childhood afternoons, it seems I'm able to count needles on the pine-trees there. Due north, the long, gentle ridge immortalized in country song as "Woolverton Mountain" caps the view from the front porch. Old Clifton Clowers still keeps watch there; a recent article in the local paper recounted his 97th birthday celebration. This blessed wind was regrettably infrequent this summer, leaving us all too often to swelter, though temperatures were not extreme, in a pervasive damp. Even in this year of drought, the books on our basement shelves collected mold which necessitated a wholesale rescue operation. But today the wind is its old invigorating, wintery self; Jane concludes "....there is a conspicuous lack of crowing this morning-all the roosters are quiet. Maybe they're afraid they'll get their cock-a-doodle-doo shoved back down their throats."
Picking a few green blades in the winter-brown of the pasture, my black mare works her way, following the last rays of the afternoon sun, toward her barn for supper. It's feeding-time again, and she knows it.
Now the air's still. A shimmering, almost-full moon floats up in the eastern sky, gloating in another conquest as a burnt-orange streak marks the fading of yet another sunset I'm here to enjoy.
I really missed the sunsets, in the city. I think the only way I saw the sun was directly over my head.
I wish I'd had, in my youth, the memories my daughter will accumulate here. I'm glad maturity has room to make memories, too.
So it'll be bedtime soon. And time perhaps for another story, though the requests are infrequent now. But thirteen isn't too old for an occasional bedtime story. Sure enough, "Daddy, when are you going to tell a 'Vacant-lot' story?" The memories spill back into my consciousness; there'll be a story.
My thoughts were of "wheels" - not horses - that afternoon as I trod the sidewalks toward home after another visit at my friend Gary's. I often dreamed of '48 Chevvies these days. I'd just seen the sleek new models in the showroom downtown. And I was already big enough to peer over the steering-wheel as the salesman nervously watched over his precious charges. I assured him my father would "be here in a minute"; a lie, of course. We boys were on our own excursion. Cars were changing their appearance as well as their features in the dizzying post-war rush to "capture" markets in the battlefields of a suddenly thriving domestic economy. Conveniences not generally available before, such as "fluid drive" and air-conditioning (still not available on the pedestrian little Chevrolet - I looked for them) were being dangled before the pocketbooks which had been clutched so tightly for so long. And it all seemed symbolized by the cars; they looked so different now, sporting a variety of shapes and sensuous curves, after the "boxy" no-nonsense which had prevailed. Even our fire- engine-red (yes, a car didn't have to be black any more, either) '46 Hudson was no match for this baby. Mulling this over - "I wish dad would get a new car"-I continued on my way home. Gary, Steve and I had pledged to tell no one of our "window-shopping". We'd barely escaped with intact hides.
I was really dawdling, too. As I looked up I saw I was just passing that old scene of our long-forgotten childhood adventures -The Vacant Lot. We could roam much further now, and find grown-up adventure-daydreams behind a car-wheel.
"Have you brushed your teeth? Hey, I know, that's no way to start a story. I was just thinking, though. About one afternoon I was really late getting home. Mom had already called Gary's mom, and it looked like I was in trouble. Well, I made it fine as far as the ol' vacant lot, and you know, I really didn't want any trouble this time so I really meant to cross the street; I wasn't going to pay any attention, no matter what was going on. But it was too late now. I'd forgotten where I was, and I was there before I knew it. I turned toward the curb, but not before this big hairy arm had me around the neck. I couldn't see what was happening as I was being dragged across what I thought was the field, when I heard my captor call out, "I've got one, mates. It's kinda puny, but this'll make a full crew for Cap'n!"
This was an older part of the city; all the houses had been there at least twenty years, but this small segment of a block had for some reason been overlooked. The serendipity of this anomaly was not, I'm sure, to be attributed to the good will of some long-forgotten developer, but was more likely the product of a deemed unfeasibility of the site. A wet-weather creek had etched a now-dry but substantial furrow through the middle of the lot, but this only further fired the imaginations of the fanciful part-time inhabitants among whose number I was a regular. On this wild river we would launch our escape-vessels where our imaginations, fueled by various readings or adventure movies, might take us. These pastimes needed no structure, no organization. I think in those days it never occurred to anyone that a child would need direction or inspiration in play. We were subject only to curbing, and the confines of the schedules imposed by our adult "keepers". Sometimes we would plan our trips, and even devise costumes for our parts. We three "Musketeers" needed capes and swords, and - does anyone remember stick-ponies? No gentleman could caper about the countryside unmounted (though it was often our intent to cause one another to be unseated). My Confederate trooper's cap rekindled the Civil War, and an extended history lesson. Our eagerness to replicate a battle scene led to-horrors - a perusal of history books, and an exasperating stream of questions endured by several sets of puzzled parents. "Cowboys and Indians" was inevitable in this "desolate" scene. I spent many a tense hour scanning for camels bearing Arabs intent upon wiping out the last Foreign Legion outpost. And so on; only the ravages of age could end these adventures, as they inevitably did. Gary and Steve had been "best friends" for some time anyway, and we eventually drifted apart. I was a die-hard Cardinal fan, they rooted for the Yankees.......
"Cold, wet, and exhausted I heaved my aching bones ashore and crept away into the night. As I struggled toward the lights, shrouded in the fog creeping in from the sea behind me, my hand struck-concrete! It was the sidewalk! As I turned toward the twilight behind me I saw the familiar shapes of my old playground, the vacant lot; it looked harmless enough ... It was almost dark now. I knew I was going to "catch it" at home. And mom probably wouldn't realize I'd been missing twenty-one days. Grown-ups aren't all that observant..."
As I was saying, I wouldn't take a million for my childhood memories!
The big yellow full moon was lazily resting her chin on one of the wispy clouds floating off our starboard as we passed above the city on yet another long drive home. Seen from this height and bathed in moon-glow, the scene inspired me to pronounce, "Even down there it looks peaceful tonight." My daughter agreed.
The stillness was doubtless attributable to the fact that this was Super Bowl night, and houses below were stuffed with comfortably roasting "Couch Potatoes." It was good enough for us, though. I was anxious only to get far enough from the bright lights to be able to watch the familiar countryside pass by once more.
Time passed in a silence which I abruptly broke, intoning a long, drawn-out, "Ooooohhhhh..", which Missy joined in perfect tempo with "Maresey-doats-'n-doesey-doats" ...... Later she asked, "How did we come up with that at the same time, dad? I haven't thought of that song in months." I hadn't either. "Old road hands just do that, I guess." At thirteen, she's an experienced traveller. It's not just the long miles that life in the country has brought us; we began our travels years ago, in our restless search for escape, for new things to see and do. And our "babes" were with us as we went, until they drifted off to lives of their own.
We didn't know, for a long while, what it was that impelled us; life was comfortable in those days; we were committed to, and entrenched amid, the secure haven of the American Middle Class, living, we thought, The Dream. Income was adequate, not lavish; home was large enough to give refuge to seven diverse lives, and we were (at least by our past standards) "drawn into" the life of the community, making every effort to give our brood, including our bright and shining little "caboose", all the advantages our earlier meandering had, we felt, denied our progeny. It was a conscious decision, this "joining the establishment"; we had the means, so we'd go with stability, security, et al. The results were already visible and gratifying. The elder pair of our five (we joked that our "hand" was comprised of "two pair and a wild card"), Bill and Kathy, were going about the agonizing after- high-school business of entering adulthood; the younger two, Mort and Jodie, were adjusting well to the more relaxed atmosphere of a less urban school system, and were enthusiastic in their activities-we were, it seemed, condemned to a life-time of being "band parents"-and Missy delighted all with the non-stop adventures of a toddler discovering the world.
Happiness seems to be one of those things recognizable only from the perspective of hindsight. Involved with life and living the moment, I could only recognize the ups and downs, the moments of frustration and contentment, that make up the ongoing act of being alive. I knew I felt pleased more than otherwise, but it has ever been difficult for me to retreat far enough to enable so final a judgement as "This is happiness." And when we are on the plateau, it is sometimes possible to sustain a static illusion that denies the basic fact of all existence, which is that everything is flow and movement. Recollections which stand out from those days further tend to freeze time, presenting images like photographs which feed their characteristics into memory, leading me to look back, on reflection, and declare "That was a happy time for us." A more critical examination might reveal it to have been merely a time when strife was relatively absent; it was certainly more peaceful than past times had been. Peace is a needed element in our existence, but I think strife also plays its role, if only in contrast. Besides, we're creatures who crave a little excitement now and then. We're not likely to "give peace a chance." And, as I said, lives change with nothing more than the passage of time; we grow older, children grow up.... but there were those days when time seemed to wait on us to move it .... I can do some drifting of my own now; cruising I-40 north toward home I drifted back, ten or so years, when we were just beginning to feel the pull of the West.....
We had had a fairly pleasant spring, not quite so wet and muggy as recent ones which had left me with an increasing dread of central Arkansas summers. This particular Friday afternoon held even greater promise; school was out, and I knew, as I drove into town that everyone at home had been busy getting "road-ready" in anticipation of vacation. The house had been restored to its usual chaotic semblance of order following the disposition of the family of white rats befriended by Jodie, our newest teenager, during a conditioning-learning experiment conducted for her junior-high science project. I had been delighted with the skills she had shown; her research had been thorough, had included contacts with acquaintances of mine who were noted experts in learning theory; her write-up was rendered in excellent scientific form, being concise, vivid, well-reasoned and well - written, and even interesting to read.
Even Missy had something to escape, now. She was finally a schoolgirl, too. A veteran of Jolly Time Pre-School. She must have heard the whine from the dying differential in the old truck which I still enjoyed driving; "The Scarlet Noodle", as it was called, was a respected family member. My little girl was a round three-year-old bundle of energy as she burst from the front door of the house and met me before I could wrestle the door open.
"Where are we going, Daddy?" She wanted to know. "Why don't you jump up here and we'll talk about it?" I invited. She did, standing in the seat beside me as she had done so often for a drive around the neighborhood. This was an escape from the confines of the house-and-yard routine, one which gave her an overview of her surroundings.
"Are you going to sing for me today?" I asked. She began, her chocolate-brown eyes sparkling as I pulled out of our cul-de-sac onto the street, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when the skies are great..."
The next day, a Saturday in early June of 1978, we climbed gradually north into the isolated hills of New Mexico on a detour through the little old Spanish town of Las Vegas on our way to Santa Fe-or Santa-buffet as Missy called it, with a cramped car- full of family in our new Toyota station wagon, the "Blue Flea". I began to feel, as we gained altitude, that phenomenon I've experienced so many times since; an elation, a sense of shedding of old weights and burdens, as I escape the tug of the lowlands into the rarer and dryer atmosphere. I had read warnings about this; that it was deceptive, that instead the reduction in the oxygen supply should have a dangerous weakening effect. It is the opposite with me, though. I'd found before, during a week's stay in Denver, that after my initial adaptation, I seemed able to do things with an effortlessness I'd never experienced; I was soon exhausting my hosts in my quest for a good tennis match.
I began to toy with the notion that we should stay here; Jane also seemed favorably disposed, but the kids were, of course, horrified at the thought of giving up their newly established routines and friendships. I wondered, though, how old a person has to be in order to know his own mind-and body! It made sense, to me, that we are so diverse in our nature that different people would respond differently to a given physical environment, and I was only beginning to find places which I felt contributed to my joy in living. So, why shouldn't I stay here? I could think, naturally, of a million-and-one reasons in response. Conventional wisdom instructs us to "brighten the corner where you are," and the wisdom in this lies in the fact that the best things may be underfoot and in danger of being overlooked. But life is empty without goals, too. The trick is to recognize that a goal is nothing more than a beacon set in the distance; it may eventuate as a warning rather than an invitation. As the light turns, it illuminates the landscape along the way; when it does so, it also provides opportunity to re-examine the objective, and change direction, sometimes. What might our history have been had all those pioneers who struck out for Oregon gone no place else? But I was beginning to think I might belong in the West, and each time I came here I took more of it home with me. Much of this was the rather expansive notion that anything was possible. This expansiveness was promoted here, with so much unfettered space all around. It's just easier to "think I can" with so much room to do it in. Far easier than it had appeared in the comparative restriction of home. I recalled that the hills of northwest Arkansas, when I first experienced them upon moving there at the age of twelve, impressed me as constricting, and apt to foster a short-sighted, conservative, "tunnelized" point of view which I seemed to encounter in some people I met there.
The following evening, on Sunday, we were all held in captive fascination as we drove west to the setting sun, nearing Flagstaff, Arizona. We watched in an absorbed silence while old Sol presented, as though just for our enjoyment as we rolled along the interstate, his evening spectacular.
Early next morning we left Flagstaff, bound now to join the tourist throngs at Grand Canyon. At stops along the route we examined such novelties (to Southerners) as an Aspen grove (Missy's "eye-trees") and Swiss-cheesy pumice rocks, which prompted Missy to make inquiry regarding origins. The notion of the presence of lava flows left her with a fear that Mount Humphries, towering and snow-capped in the distance, might prove to be a still-living volcano.
At last we arrived at Mather Point, where the majority of visitors first encounter the awesome Canyon of the Colorado River. Our own reactions were varied and private; as we merged quietly with the gathering spectators, I was drawn on, and in, by what I beheld, when I heard a gasp from somewhere below my waist. Our little one, clinging to my hand, had just caught her first glimpse of the view, and had turned in rejection and disbelief to press her face against my knee.
Within hours, though, it was her parents who were gasping in horror as she cavorted gleefully at the rim.
We asked, on a lark, about accommodations at legendary El Tovar, knowing that reservations were booked months in advance, and fearing the rates. We were hardly prepared for the delights of the third-floor suite, with balcony overlooking the Canyon, and it was within our budget. That night we lay wrapped in blankets, thrilling in the chill night so unlike that we knew we were missing at home, gazing at the biggest star-filled sky any of us had ever imagined. Before leaving the day after, we explored some distance down Bright Angel Trail, with its angular, narrow switch-backs and fine, steadily rising dust from our footsteps which brought pungent, "horsey" odors, causing us to fear an encounter with horses or mules. I remember the elation I felt as we returned to the rim; I played mule for a weary tot who sat astride my shoulders for a trot up the trail.........
We had eventually planned, and acted, of course. Then I would not have imagined the course down which those actions took us. I'd not have thought to have found a spot in my own Arkansas which could make me think of my beloved West, but this night we were again on our way home to the gently rolling hillside pastures which afforded me that space I'd craved. Beside me in the dark my last teen-ager continued our duet, "....and little lamsey- divey..."
This apparently meaningless little ditty had stayed with me from the days when it swept a nation in the midst of World War II, reflecting and capturing that irrepressible American spirit bent so inexorably to its struggle for survival, but always ready for the "shoring up", or comic relief, such things gave it. This became, for me, a war song, because it was so much a part of the time. And it so amused my mother to invite her first-born toddler to sing with her, "Kittle-de-divey-doo, wouldn't you?" She continued, bending close to my face and beaming me a smile, "If the words sound queer, and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey...."
I can see this spirit still alive and well here. My new neighbors are an industrious lot, and I admire their independence and tenacity. They've been unobtrusively, quietly accepting and friendly as they go about their business. Those nearest are dairy farmers, like my Uncle Dick long ago. They are lean and fast, always on the move. And here, no one sits and waits for someone else to "do it." Never do I hear, "the County ought'ta grade this road." Instead, each patches and fills holes and ruts in front of his own property-"no time at all with a scraping blade" - so that the road seems to survive by self-maintenance. I'm proud to be a part of it. Not long ago, I came to a stop behind a neighbor's truck in the middle of the lane. I spied him at the side of the road, dragging a fallen limb toward his vehicle. "I'll be out of the way in a minute," he called. "The county grader will be here tomorrow, and we want it all ready for him, don't we?" He was elderly, tall and lank; his movements showed the stiffness of age, but his strength was obvious. Dressed in shabby, mud-spattered overalls, he looked every inch the old hill-billy; I'm told he is a retiree from New York......
"Just sing, Mares-eat-oats
And we're home again.
This little black-and-white spotted colt had been a bit enigmatic from the time of our first sighting of, and infatuation with, him; he had been a scrawny, spindly-legged, shaggy-maned six- month-old when first we watched him racing ahead of the other colts in his owner's field. As far as we could tell (always from a considerable distance-he was very skittish) his conformation was outstanding, and he showed a very fine head, with wide, gentle eyes. When finally, about a year later, we felt we were indeed in the market for a young stallion with the characteristics we had seen in him, we asked old Otis when the colt would be for sale.
"Soon as we can catch him. Let me try keeping him in a stall for a week-get him used to being handled. He's never let anyone but me near him."
My trepidations grew as, over the course of several visits to the stall to which he had been enticed, he refused to approach us at all. This was really shaping up as a "pig in a poke" deal. But still, I had little reason to stop at this point; Otis assured us that we would wind up being pleased, and his recommendation carried weight with us. We had dealt with him for several years now, and I'd never known him to err in judgement-at least not where a horse was involved-and we'd learned just about how much "salt" needed to be applied to the tales he was so fond of telling. I was, among other things, concerned about the colt's gaits. Though he moved with a long-striding animated looseness, I'd not observed anything but walk, trot-and run-with-the-wind gallop. But Otis said, "If he don't gait, don't keep him. His grandaddy was a fine walking horse, and you know his daddy."
I did, and I'd long suspected that "grandaddy" had been Old Glory, a one-time World Champion Otis had trained and handled as a two-year-old; but Otis never identified this "fine" horse.
Soon came the day Otis felt we "might as well try it. He's not gettin' any better."
On that encouraging note, we prepared a chute ending in the bed of Otis' truck, and released the frightened youngster in its direction. His dash for freedom ended with a rope dropped about his neck and securely snugged against a rail of the truck bed. After a brief bout of desperate thrashing, our new colt stood as dejectedly as an old traveller ready to return home. We followed down the road in order to watch. Rounding a curve, he fought wildly for a moment, losing his footing completely and crashing to the bed of the truck. We stopped and looked him over, but he refused to stand again, and there appeared to be no damage. Otis checked the rope, and pronounced, "He's not in a bind. We'll be able to tell more at your house."
By the time we reached home, young Bill was finally standing - and beginning to look defiant. We all felt like watching each other for a while; it just seemed the thing to do, and Bill stared his agreement. Eventually Otis said, "That's a stout rope. It's yours. I wouldn't take it off his neck for a while."
Otis released the rope from the truck rail, and I took the end firmly. When I felt I was ready to follow this steed of Satan back to Hades, I told Otis to open the gate-panel. Suddenly the colt was flying across a small field, going directly for a tree. I raced desperately behind at the "end of my rope" for the other side of the tree. I made it. Giving the rope three good twists around the tree-trunk, I gasped an inaudible "He's mine," and held up my hands in the rodeo calf-roper's "tie" sign. Otis and my wife Jane approached casually-so casually-both grinning shamelessly.
"Looks like you've got a new colt. I'd keep him just like that for a day or two."
I did exactly that. I brought feed and water to the tree several times a day, and always as I approached Bill circled the tree to keep his head in my direction. I saw intelligence and acceptance growing in the dark brown eyes until, on the third day, I brought a halter and another sturdy rope with me. He didn't struggle as I slipped the halter over his ears; I wondered whether he might be waiting out his big chance. But as I finally released him from his tree-house he followed sheepishly around the field. I found, though, I couldn't get behind him; wherever I went, he kept his head pointed directly toward me.
Set free in a small enclosure, Bill now seemed willing to be approached and haltered. I felt we'd reached a truce, but I still "gave lessons" at the standing-tree, until a few days later he stood quietly with saddle and bridle in place. He looked small, but formidable. With Jean's hand on the lead-rope still attached to the halter, I carefully climbed into the saddle. The rope was still tied at the tree, and standing there contemplating the ground for a while seemed a good thing to do. After a few mount- and-dismount cycles, though, I was getting anxious to move, so we tried a session of "leading under saddle." This time he pitched slightly, then tried to "reach for the sky." He apparently didn't care for the feeling of being unbalanced, however, and thereafter kept his feet on the ground.
A few weeks later Bill was a responsive, sensitive, intelligent little gent (we dubbed him alternately "Curly Bill" for his long, wavy mane, and "Gentleman Bill", because of his suddenly kindly disposition. But I knew the little rascal wasn't gaited. However, I was now going to keep him until he was well-broke, and sell him for a profit as a handsome "Pinto" stallion.
He walked flat-footed with all the characteristics of a walking horse; long, loose overstriding steps with a vigorous nodding of the head. But always, at the same point in his gait, he would tighten up and trot. I couldn't seem to persuade him to do otherwise; I'd tried pushing him on suddenly, or jerking him down from a fast trot and slow canter, but always it had been flat- walk or trot.
I often started my rides down the steep drive leading from our house to the road, and this morning I nudged him impatiently in the flank as I mounted. Bill jerked into a surprised, shuffling pace as he ambled down the driveway, and when we reached the road at the bottom, he steadied into a smooth, fast running walk. Within fifteen yards he was trotting again, so I stopped him immediately and reversed course for the driveway. The cat (or horse) was out of the bag now. Bill's trotting days were past.
And they were. I was then always able to start him downhill at a pace, then bring him into a good, square-sounding running-walk, which gradually became sustained. In a short time, we were able to forget the pace, and I never knew Bill to trot under saddle again. He became known as one of the finest "natural" grade walking horses, and he sired two equally fine (and naturally gaited) colts for us.
This was one of my lessons in the nature of perseverance, and in the nature of the learning process. Bill, as a youngster, was full of surprises, but most of them had to do with his unique ways of coping with new situations. Under Bill's guidance, I found that perseverance is always looking for a new twist, a slight deviation which may yet lead to the goal. It's stubbornness, on the other hand, that "digs in," says "No, this is the way," and usually just makes ruts in the ground.
Persevering requires finding means to an end, and is always rewarded with, at the very least, a good lesson. Mindlessly clutching the "status quo" is just plain stubborn, and teaches or advances nothing.
"I don't consider myself a coward and I never thought I was easily spooked" (we all nodded assent, recalling other stories of his heroism in the European theatre) "but I tell you, my hair stood on end" (again, easy to believe - Father Tighe wore his hair in a stiff crew cut) when I heard it this time. Third night in a row, the organ suddenly boomed out next door, and I heard the chanting in that oddly familiar voice. As I rushed to the rectory porch, I could see every light in the church was on again. You know me, tight as I am, my next thought was that the light bill was going to get out of hand - so I was more mad than frightened this time as I opened the side door. I was determined to catch the rascal now. But, just as on each of the last three nights, when I stepped into the sacristy the music and singing stopped and the church was dark - and I was scared again. I could feel a presence which, after a few moments, didn't seem threatening, but I was still very uneasy. Then I hollered at him - I was sure by now it was a 'him'."
"What are you doing to my church?"
"It isn't your church! It belongs to the Lord and His people, and you're their servant!"
"The voice was firm and authoritative, and still strangely familiar. It seemed to be coming from the choir now. I raced back and climbed the stairs, and still saw no one. As I stood in the loft looking toward the darkened sanctuary below, I also recalled that I'd never heard any footsteps but my own. I thought this fellow was awfully quick and quiet."
There was nothing quiet about Father Tighe. He was a robust, forceful little man with a booming voice which never needed amplification, even in the big old church to which he came as pastor at the end of the War. He still looked every inch (all five-foot-four of his inches) the soldier; his bearing was erect, his manner confident and commanding. We heard he'd been a major in the Chaplain's Corps, and the tales of his innovation and daring in following his sheep to battle began to surface around town. The only ones we heard from him, though, were the humorous anecdotes which made his memories of this horror bearable for him.
St. John's had been a bit neglected during the war years, and restoration was sadly and urgently needed. The roof leaked, the beautiful murals and the gold etchings were showing signs of fading and staining; the loudspeaker system didn't work. Sermons had gone virtually unheard for many a Sunday.
Father Tighe's first Sunday put an end to that. An altar boy had warned him about the dead microphones and told him he'd have to "speak up." That was an unnecessary thing to say. One thing that didn't get refurbished during Father Tighe's stay at St. Peter's was the loudspeaker system - and no one dozed comfortably through another sermon!
"As I stood there in the choir," he continued, "I forgot about the intruder for a minute and saw the old church as your grandparents must've wanted it to be when they had it built. In the dark, I couldn't see the stains on the walls, the faded carpets, and the broken chandeliers, and for the first time I recognized that, though this wasn't my kind of beauty, it was beautiful, and had been dedicated with the best of intentions to the same God we all love and come here to worship. I knew then I couldn't force my plans on the parish. That's how you got your church restored instead of replaced, kids. I thought at the time that may have been what my 'intruder' was trying to tell me. I was wrong, though; maybe that was part of it, but boy, did I find out the next night!"
He tapped the pointer against the toe of his shoe as he stopped his pacing and thought for a second - still looking like a staff officer delivering a briefing - and glanced at his watch.
"Gosh, look at the time! Sorry, kids, I've got to go give a talk at the Lion's Club downtown. I'll come back tomorrow and finish the story, this time for sure, I promise!"
In a flash, he was gone, like the "intruder" in his tale, and we all sat stunned for a moment before Sister Josepha, our principal and sixth-seventh-eighth grade teacher, regained her own composure and control of the classroom.
Sister Josepha and Father Tighe had, over the seven years of their acquaintance, arrived at an amicable parceling of their shared authority as only two benign despots can do - with a great deal of behind-the-scenes ranting and canting, and the growth of strong bonds of admiration, understanding and mutual respect. As a result, Father didn't "mess" with her school (well, not much, anyhow) and she'd come to enjoy these little weekly "intrusions" of his as much as we did - as long as she knew of their timing in advance, anyway. And she had come to realize that his stories, even his rendition of "Peter and the Wolf", complete with the musical score, had a purpose. It was an unconscious thing with him. Everything he did had a purpose, and that purpose invariably expressed his dedication to his calling. He was, in every moment of his life, a soldier of The Lord.
During the afternoon recess a group of us fell into a discussion of the story. L.J., the new kid, didn't understand about the restoration of the church; I remembered it well, though I'd been only six at the time of the furor, so I explained.
My stay in town coincided almost exactly with Father Tighe's. My family had arrived a few months before he did, and were thus "settled" parishioners able to share the shock when "The Major" showed up to replace staid old Father Brogan. It was only a few weeks later when he announced, tiptoeing in the pulpit to lean out over the lectern as he did when he wanted to be sure his voice would be thrust against the back walls of the sanctuary (he always looked satisfied when the echoes filled the few pauses in his brisk, staccato delivery), that he had obtained the Bishop's permission, along with the promise of an extensive line of credit, for a project to remodel St. Peter's. He had, he said, new things in mind, many of which were still controversial in the Church, but we were to become an experimental model. Rumblings began, in the back where the "elders" sat in judgement. He went on to say that his experience at the front had taught him that the Lord's service belonged to the Lord's people, and he now felt that he should be facing the congregation at all times - not just to be giving sermons! This meant, of course, that the huge, ornate, and now rather decrepit-looking, old altar at the front of the church would come down. The rumblings became an uproar.
For the first time, I heard a pastor interrupted in his Sunday sermon. A voice, echoing as resoundingly as his own, pierced my ears. "My father paid his own way to Salerno to find an architect for that altar! It stays right where it is, or we all go! Or you go!" Father Tighe waited quietly, but I could see the flush of his face progress from its normal Sunday ruddiness to a livid purple. "Ed, we'll continue this-this discussion at the parish council meeting this afternoon. The meeting is open - everyone who's concerned about this better be there!"
Everyone was there. It was then that Father Tighe learned how strongly - and why - his flock felt as they did about their church-building.
Dedicating a new Sanctuary to their God was, in this rugged coal-mining frontier town shortly before the turn of the century, the very special force which finally united these brawling, sprawling, ambitious Irishmen in a common cause for their new wealth. A truly fine church would inspire the proper awe and reverence - and announce to the old fogies over in Kansas City that civilization had arrived! Therefore, only the finest in the Old-world tradition would do. Architects were consulted, plans and pictures were studied, and finally a photograph of an elegant, granite-block structure, supposedly somewhere in Italy not too far from the Holy See in Rome itself, found its way to the top of the heap.
The fascination became so intense that a group was detailed to Europe to study the dimensions and construction of this building. Arrangements were at last made to duplicate it exactly! Even the altar was to be the same, and would be fashioned in the old country by the descendants of the same Italian craftsmen who had built the original.
The fiercely protective pride in the finished product was passed on to the next generation, who nursed the parish through hard times, during the Depression and the spreading persecutions propagated in the Southwest by the Ku Klux Klan; through it all, their church stood for their faith and their cultural heritage, and they protected it as it sheltered them. They would not let it be destroyed from the inside, by an upstart young priest.
Father Tighe, whether or not it was in a supernatural revelation as he suggested years later in his story, came to see that a tradition was there to be preserved, and he agreed to use the funds to restore the structure to its former stateliness, rather than to destroy its spirit. One thing - as I've mentioned - he didn't do, however, was repair the speaker system; the boxes continued to hang in disuse.
The battle over, it was apparent no one had lost. Father Tighe had, by acceding gracefully, conquered his parish, and even the older members soon were expressing the possessive pride in their fiery and fervent new pastor they had previously reserved for their old establishment. We never knew or, having guessed, saw what frustrations he might've harbored over the incident.
This combination of gusto and sensitivity to the rightful needs of others characterized all Father Tighe did in the ensuing seven years. His reputation as a witty, bright and provocative speaker broadened his base among the populace, and went a long way toward relieving the burden of the prevailing prejudices, which had popularized an image of the local Catholic community as a "bunch of rowdy dumb Micks." The fact that his "purpose" (recognized by Sister Josepha) also came through in all his activities and relationships did nothing to diminish his popularity. It was generally accepted that he was an inveterate "missionary"; it was something that couldn't be helped, any more than it could be avoided. He was God's man; it was part of his nature. He lived and breathed his mission in all that he was and did, and he accomplished it in a way that was never tiresome, overly serious, or obtrusive, because it was just him. Whatever he did, the Lord seemed to be peeping over his shoulder. It was refreshing indeed to see that a man could enjoy life as heartily as did Father Tighe, without a sense of shame or a feeling that something should be hidden. He drank his beer with our families - but never to excess. Perhaps his most abusive habit was the perpetual maintenance of his "stogie"; he was rarely to be seen without a cigar, in his hand or in his mouth, and unless it was mentioned, it never seemed to occur to him that there could be anything at all offensive about it. I learned to like the aroma of cigar-smoke. It announced his arrival as surely as his hearty greeting.
Father Tighe and my dad may have been, as they say, "kindred spirits", each an articulate individual possessing a facile and active intellect, and a natural salesmanship which made their encounters a delightful challenge, both for themselves and any who might happen to be in hearing. They became fast friends, each respecting the realm of the other. Father always offered the hope of conversion; as I said, he couldn't help it. Dad always resisted, but didn't resent. He was himself a fairly accomplished theologian, and far more knowledgeable about Catholic dogma than were most of its practitioners. It was he who tested but never ridiculed the faith of a young boy. He reviewed my Catechetical lessons with me, and always demanded a great deal more than the simple rote of the textbook. Each chapter became a springboard for more reading and discussion; Dad didn't criticize, but he said he wanted me to be able to defend my religion intelligently if I insisted on the right to practice it. My mother took me to church, but my father saw to it I had good reason to go. He didn't take promises lightly, and he had vowed before his wedding that his children would be educated in their mother's creed.
He made it clear that he wasn't himself a practitioner, but took an active part in that education. Shortly before we all left town, Father Tighe participated in a pilgrimage to Rome. He came calling a few days after his return, bearing gifts, as promised. He had a rosary, "Blessed by Pope Pius himself," he said, for each member of my family - including Dad. "You don't have to pray with it, Frank. Just keep it handy. Can't hurt to have the Church on your side, you know." Dad acted annoyed, but I think he was as tickled with this simple gift as I was.
A few weeks later, when Father found out we were leaving, he came to our house again. "Frank, I only need one thing to finish my own mission here - let me baptize you!"
Dad laughed, and answered, "Father, I've already been dunked by the experts - I'm a Baptist!"
Father looked a bit pensive; he chewed his cigar butt for a few seconds, then said, "You're right; you ought to make it to heaven just for going through that. And as long as you believe it, I do too. So why don't you just go ahead and start your instructions for communion?"
He wasn't a quitter!
Father came early to school the next day, right after morning services. "Where was I?" He prompted. "In the choir loft with the lights out!" Mary Katherine replied. "Oh, yeah. Well, there was no one there, either. I went back to bed, but I couldn't sleep. I knew that voice from somewhere, and it - pardon the expression - haunted me. I decided to set a trap the next night. Seemed like everything started at midnight, so I decided I was going to be behind the altar at eleven o'clock. It stayed on my mind all day, and I didn't get much rest. I was tired and nervous, but I was there waiting at the stroke of midnight. Sure enough, the organ rumbled into life, and all the lights came on. I couldn't see from where I was, but I heard that voice again, 'Introibo ad altare Dei ...' - suddenly I was an altar boy again. Something made me respond - what did I say, Dennie?"
"Ad Deum, Qui laetficat juventutam meam." I guessed.
"Right. First things the priest and his servers say at the foot of the altar - 'I go in to the altar of God,' and, 'To God, Who gives joy to my youth.' As I stepped in front of the altar, I saw walking toward me my own first pastor and mentor in my vocation - old Father Murphy! But of course it couldn't be, because he's been dead twenty years! Still, he - or whatever it was - stopped and said to me 'I've been waiting for you, Arthur. This is why I've been using your church for my penance; God's allowing you to see it to let me help you avoid the same fate.
You know I told you the priesthood wasn't an easy road to Heaven? Well, look at me now - I'm the living - well, maybe not living as you might think - proof. I'm in Purgatory now, and I'll stay until I've said one thousand complete masses in one thousand different churches for each special request I neglected or forgot in my life as a priest. Don't forget your parishioners, Arthur. If you serve them faithfully, they may not beat you to Heaven by too much.'
"You see, this 'spook story' of mine has a moral, after all. It's for those of you who might be thinking about the religious life. I couldn't think of a more rewarding way to be spending my own life, but the obligations are, if anything, stricter than any you'll find elsewhere. If you want to try it - you'll never see a more exciting challenge!"
That "purpose" was always there. But so was the suspense in the thriller-chiller he'd just told us. He had a way of taking us into the story that made me feel I had been in the church that night, and met old Father What's-his-name myself.
We were junior-high aged then, poised, as Father Tighe knew, at the brink of adulthood. This was one of his "lessons in parables" with which he sought to help ease our passage. He was telling us, in his way, that we would soon be facing adult responsibilities and that, like himself, we would find the strength, or "grace", within us to meet them successfully, and to cheerfully make them a part of us -as he had done.
That summer, after I finished the seventh grade, we moved to Arkansas. Father Tighe left, too. He went to Kansas City where he was assigned another parish with an old, run-down church-building. "Ever'thin's up-t-date in Kansas City", as we're told in the musical, "Oklahoma".
Next spring, I saw his picture in the national publication for parochial schools - "The Weekly Reader" - beside the front door of a futuristic, round building with jutting roof-lines; he had built "his" church now, with a low altar in the front open from the sanctuary, where he would be visible to the entire congregation, arced in a semi-circle around him as he celebrated his Mass. This was still only 1953, many years before this church and its pastor's innovations would become the prototype for the reforms in American Catholicism that eventually permitted worshippers to enter their own services with the celebrants. I'm sure, too, Father Tighe didn't forget the intentions and requests of his parishioners. It was still the house of the Lord and His people, and Father Tighe was their servant.
"Hi, there! My name's John Kenneth Roberts, Jr., but my friends call me Buddy."
The wide smile on his open face and his huge extended palm both expressed the sincerity inherent in this greeting.
What happened to my "cloak of invisibility"? He saw me!
I was the "new kid" that day; it was my first day in a new school, it was eighth grade, I was thirteen. It was demeaning. I didn't want to be there, with all those grubby little kids in a blur of unfamiliar faces. I was too good for this; I was a teen-ager now. Where's the respect?
Instead of respect, I was getting the usual "fast-shuffle" from the nuns who, as was their habit, herded the "little ones" (Me?? Little??) with aloof, alphabetized, unchallenged authority. And, it seemed, issued "invisibility tickets" to us "new kids" at the head of the stairs to the play-ground.
It must be true. I was invisible. They all rushed past me in rapt eagerness for that first fifteen-minute taste of freedom known as "morning recess", so needed after the first few hours' confinement at the end of summer vacation. And it was still hot; summer was in the air, and there was no air conditioning in the old frame school-building.
I heard the voices; shrill, young, tumbling together in a hash of shared summer experiences. "How I spent my summer vacation", playground-style. I was totally lost. I knew no one, and I couldn't think of an approach that would break through the din.
I saw, gravitating toward a fenced corner at the far end of the lot, the small group of boys among whom I'd been seated (Parochial school, you know - boys on one side, girls on the other - no talking!), and I drifted in their direction. It was easy getting through the milling mass of smaller bodies; after all, I was invisible!
Then I heard, over my shoulder, that incredibly un-affected, completely comfortable - and comforting - call of greeting -
"Hi, there! My name's John Kenneth Roberts, Jr., but my friends call me Buddy."
In moments, we knew one another's life history, elicited in the process of the terse, stereotyped, kid-style interview/exchange; "How tall are ya?" "Got brothers and sisters?" "What does your Dad do?"
I was on my way through the "school survival course." Sister Mary Joseph, the principal, was hard-nosed but soft-hearted, the twins were pushy but dumb, and the good-looking blonde sitting on the back porch thought she was too good. John, the seventh-grader coming toward us, would probably try to hit me on the shoulder, but I shouldn't get mad; he did that to be friendly. And so on.
By the time we reached the other boys, I rated an introduction.
"Listen up, guys. This here's 'ol Dave Bowen. He's a pretty good 'ol boy."
An endorsement from Buddy was a sure cancellation of my invisibility ticket.
This was the only time, other than at formal occasions, in the thirty-five years I knew Buddy that I heard his given name. The period between first acquaintance and friendship has been invariably too brief to permit that. Everyone was Buddy's friend. I soon found that everyone on the small schoolyard, teachers and, already, myself included, knew this tall, raw-boned, tough-as-rawhide bundle of energy as "Buddy." He was the sort who stood out by physical characteristics alone. I was tall, but Buddy was taller. I was lean and angular, but Buddy seemed a Picasso study in perpetual motion. Even when he wasn't, he seemed to be moving, and it was only natural for an observer's eye to be drawn to him. I suppose this made it impossible for him to "get away" with many of the things the rest of us, even in a tiny eighth-grade class of eight students in a little parochial school housed in a once-stately old frame home, were able to enjoy; it undoubtedly contributed, as well, to his philosophically placid acceptance of the attention he received, and his unquestioning assurance that such was his due, the outcome of which would inevitably be turned to the good. It may seem, in these jaded times, facetious to characterize him as a "good" person, but that's what he was. He was a force for good. It wasn't that he was without fault, or annoying habits, or that he managed to avoid adversity; it's just that he was most successful in turning such things to advantage-without trying! He was, as you've seen by now, a very "people-oriented" and caring sort, but was also highly competitive. I learned my most serious lessons about rebounding under the basketball goal from Buddy's knifelike elbows; as we played the game in those days, this wasn't fouling, but simple self-preservation. I learned to protect myself, but I rarely got the rebound if Buddy was nearby. I could never quit nor become discouraged-Buddy was always there with something new for me to try. It never seemed to work against him, though, but we often made a good team.....
I've wondered since whether this was just a highly unique individual or his sort of confident ingenuousness has simply been stamped out of existence. I've never again felt myself approached in quite the same "I'm O.K.-you're O.K. until you prove otherwise" way; most of us stand behind a self-protective veil, watching to see what the other will do first-or trying to move first ourselves. Such are the bizarre thoughts that occupy me as I pass through the downtown streets of our city; I walk, as I frequently do, mainly because it's the most efficient way to travel, with parking a scarce commodity. It's easier, as well as cheaper, to take advantage of the space provided by my employer, and walk the few short blocks to a downtown destination. This also affords me time, as does my travel-time when I go to one of our field sites, for thinking and observing. Even in the city, where I never feel at ease, there is much to observe. As I pass people on the street, I get the feeling, again, of being in the zoo watching the captive animals, and the strange pastimes they've devised to protect themselves from, or to express, the insanity of their caged lives. Everyone I meet (and I'm sure I do, too), has a "caged" look. Facial expressions are never natural and, with gestures and attire, seem contrived with an unknown (and, by assumption, critical) audience in mind. Unconscious habits of movement, of expression-a "set" grimace, a "hitching" gait-remind me of my studies in comparative psychology of the so-called "superstitious" behaviors of animals in an artificial environment; the extraneous behaviors which become accidentally associated with reinforcements in an experimenter's attempts to manipulate behavior. Our more colorful "street people", bless 'em, provide the best illustrations, in their rags-and-tatters, or outlandish get-ups, shuffling about with their bags and packs, searching trash bins, or making passionate speeches to no one-remember the fellow who was arrested for draping himself in an American flag? I miss him; he had some interesting points to make. That flag didn't protect his free speech, though.
I've talked about this before, haven't I? I'm sure I have; it's one of my pet peeves. But I really am disgusted with what we've done to our lives in cities. What we do here has so little substance, hinging as it must on only an insubstantial social structure. We govern our lives by the clock because we've lost touch with nature's timetable; for most of us, our lifework is measured by the clock. We look busy when the schedule dictates, and we quit when it allows. What a relief it is for me to be able to devote myself to a task of my own choosing, because I've chosen to do it or because the time is right, and to stay with it until it's done or in a stage at which it can be suspended. This makes simple things very satisfying; my wife brought me her pleasure at something so trivial as digging a post-hole. She found this a strangely delightful activity, just because she could work at her own pace, and see it through to completion. We miss this in our work; so often it's open-ended drudgery, an endlessly repeated chore which is picked up and put down because it's time for it. My secretary knows the next chapter will be there for her in the morning, and typing it will hold no greater fascination than did today's chapter.
But-it's springtime now, with all the usual "new beginnings" in evidence. The thrill of new birth, or rebirth, is echoed in the rompings of this year's calf crop at the nearby dairy farm; the air is alive with the strident "cheeps" of the new chicks in the henhouse, and Missy has learned to enjoy feeding the two kids with which one of our doe-goats has already presented us. Spring chores are vying for attention. Our garden has its own schedule; seedlings push through the earth when they're good and ready, and the sprouting grass between rows bespeaks the need for another run-through with the cultivator. That's O.K. too; I relish an opportunity to climb aboard my tractor. I need to guard against over-working the soil, though. It's already a hot and dry spring, and I don't want to waste moisture. It seems strange to be concerned about that, after the unusually wet late winter and early spring; we're still several inches ahead on rainfall, but this follows two summers of intense drought, and already I can see the water level falling in the pond at the bottom of the horse pasture. It's time also to start irrigating the blueberries, with their shallow root systems, and I wonder whether the untested well will hold up to the task. Ground water is available here, but not plentiful. Still, we're in better shape than the Arkansas Grand Prairie, to our southeast, where big-time farming, with its need for irrigation, and increasing settlement in the small towns scattered about the area, have already created a crisis. Many of these places are facing annual curtailments of water use, and are making long-range plans for importation of water. I don't know where it'll come from; other states are looking to us for water, too. There should be rain soon; it's not in the forecast, but last night, the golden spring moon hung on the horizon across from the setting sun, and Jane and I have a standing joke about full moons getting "drowned" in Arkansas. The clouds always come before its three nights are gone. But for now I can recall the thrill of the sun and moon visible at either hand; I've lived no place else where I might be able to experience this. These wide-open skies still offer new thrills. The night was calm, as my nights in the country have been, and quiet enough for all the night-sounds to penetrate. The year is still too young for the frog-and-cricket chorus, so the whippoorwill in the woods puts his all into his interminable enthusiastic solo. The repetition becomes, soothing, reassuring....
Machinery can be irritating. It took a while to get the tractor going; the battery cables are old, like everything else around here, and the generator hadn't been charging. A little cleaning and splicing got it all going again, and all I have to do is concentrate on keeping between the rows; easy enough to let my mind drift back to that first day of school in 1952, in my new eighth grade in a new town......
It was lunch-time, finally, on that first interminable day, and this time I was the one who "caught up" with Buddy as we left the church-basement cafeteria, to begin the wait for a group large enough to start a soft-ball game.
"What's it like, growing up Catholic, around here?"
"Probably like where you come from, I bet; ya don't wanna brag about it. I don't talk religion until I know folks pretty well", was Buddy's reasoned reply.
Sure, I thought. Like five minutes, maybe?
"And then...", he hesitated.
"Then what?" What revelation was coming? New state, new town, new school, new people - I was really anxious to learn the "ins' of survival here.
"Well, then, there's the arsenal..."
Great tension-breaker, that one. I exploded in a relieved laughing spasm.
"They tell the 'arsenal' story here too, do they? Back home, I remember during the War, the KKK kept trying to get together a "posse" to confiscate the cannons we had in the Knights of Columbus Hall."
It was true; I was old enough to remember neighbors, during World War II, who avoided us because they were convinced the American Catholic Church had a secret weapons-supply route to Nazi Germany. I'd been over every inch of every church-owned structure in that town, and I couldn't image a hiding-place for a single gun.
Buddy took on a furtive look as he steered me away from the kids we were approaching.
His voice was almost a whisper now. "Can I trust ya? Those KKK guys were after the wrong bunch, that's all. If we can sneak back into the kitchen I'll show you something that'll make your hair stand on end!"
We slipped in the screen door in the back of the kitchen, and were greeted by one of the women.
"Hi, Buddy - come to check your guns?"
I couldn't believe it! Everyone knew?? What kind of place - what kind of people were these?
Buddy marched straight to a tall cabinet, opened the door, and reached toward the back of a high shelf.
"Yep, still there. See for yourself." He reported.
I put my hand on the shelf and groped. I felt something small, plastic; I pulled into view - a little plastic water pistol!
"There are three more just like it up there," said Mrs. Schultz, behind us. "Sister Hermana took 'em away from Buddy and the boys in fourth grade, and said they'd stay here as long as she did. She's still teaching fourth grade, too."
What Buddy obviously lacked was a sense of humor!
That year passed quickly for me, and it seemed Buddy was always there to make things go a little easier. I learned a lot about dealing with life as I learned about Buddy. I found, as I got to know him better, that his optimism and enthusiasm were not the products of soft living; instead, his childhood had been a much harsher one than I felt I myself could have tolerated. His disabled father, when I met him, proved to be bitter and withdrawn, and old before his time. His mother supported the family as a housekeeper at the church rectory. Buddy always had the resources to meet his challenges, though, and seemed to come off the better for each experience. Maybe God does give us only the trials we can bear; if so, Buddy bore enough for the rest of us.
His blessings have continued to be mixed; while he wasn't able to finish college with the rest of us (he wanted to be an engineer) his strength, loyalty, and reliability soon brought him to a position of leadership with the company to which he has devoted his career. He lost his wife early to cancer, but his children have been faithful to their remaining parent. And, when something really needs to be done, "Hey, Buddy" is still automatic.
Too bad there isn't a "Buddy" for everyone.
"No time like the present!" How many times have I heard that old saw? "Jump in there and do it-time waits for no man!"
"No present like the time," I say. Give me a little time, give time a chance to work. Sometimes it works magic. It isn't always an enemy to be beaten.
This has a familiar ring to it, I'm sure. If you've heard me at all before, chances are you've heard one of my discourses on time-or rather on the abuses we've created around our uses of, and prepossession with the measurement of, time.
Listen to this-I'm no less preoccupied with the subject, myself, am I? It may just be that my perception of time is a little bit different, a little skewed. As long as I can remember, I've measured time not in the passage of empty space but in the results of some activity; "How long?" is answered, to me, by "This is what's done." This may be the "primitive" in me; I think it's always close to the surface. The "civilized man" really is a veneer, and probably a thin one, at best. The primitive requires more substance-concrete evidence of attainment. Maybe we've become too civilized for achievement?
I've had an opportunity to think about it again, on a delightfully cool, still-pleasant, rainy spring morning. Forced inactivity-not such a bad punishment, really. The rain has been toying with us for a couple of days, with threats and promises, and a bit of drizzle-just enough to encourage a good start at something before it becomes necessary to scurry about rescuing things from an unwanted soaking. Now it's coming straight down in drenching sheets, very quietly, with an occasional drifting rumble of thunder, as though to let you know "we're not kidding around any more." Soothing-"sleeping weather." That's what the girls are doing-sleeping in! A sensible use of time, this time. The rain is opportune; ideal for the garden, which is making some headway now. In mid-May, our early labors are showing fruition. Potatoes are blooming, small peppers and tomatoes are recognizable. "Best year ever for fescue." I've been hearing. I certainly can't argue. I've never seen it so thick and tall in the fields this early. The showers are delaying my hay-cutting, but will keep things green and waiting for me, so I don't have much to complain about. All around me, my neighbors have been busy all week, cutting and bailing the first haying of the season. It's usually not good hay, full of weeds, and grass with more water than nutrients, but this year, as I said, is an exception. This is a good hay crop. Memories of last year's drought, with the threat of continuance ominous in the hot-dry spell last month, make the odors from the cuttings the sweeter.
"It's the pits, isn't it?" I heard, close over my left shoulder. The voice was calm, quiet but distinct, yet it sent a chill up my spine, because I'd thought I was alone. I hadn't heard Luigi approach behind me, as I stood in the middle of the huge, empty dormitory, looking wistfully down at the pitifully discolored, slightly lumpy, lifeless-looking, and more than slightly aromatic, mattress on the cot which had been assigned me, as "junior man" of the whole institution, sitting as though on display in the midst of the large, bare room that served as sleeping-quarters for the thirty-or-so lower-class residents of the military school at which I was newly arrived.
"Sorry about the smell." He said, as I turned in haste; my face must still have shown the distaste which had been accumulating in the pit of my stomach, and boiling upward to become an unvoiced scream of rejection. "I couldn't get rid of it last year. I think that mattress has been saved for 'junior man' for the last couple of hundred years, or however long this place has been here. I was the 'Junior' last year. Name's Luigi Garotti." I forgot my despair for a moment, grasping the wide mitt thrust toward my middle; I felt, as I'm sure he'd intended, as though I were reaching toward rescue from drowning. The offer came from the surest source of safety-a survivor of the same fate! The grin on his broad, impossibly-ugly face looming over my own projected comforting assurance as well as self-satisfied amusement.
Luigi was tall, lean-but-wide, and, well, not handsome....a shapeless shock of neutral-tan hair appropriately capped the somewhat comic appearance of this gentle giant who was to become friend, mentor, and companion throughout the boyhood adventures of my time in this place.
"My name's Luigi," he said again, sensing, no doubt, my numbness as the novel sensations began to swirl dizzyingly together. "Around here they call me Speedy. You'll find out why," he beamed smugly. At this point I couldn't imagine why; the nickname seemed something of a puzzle. Nothing about Speedy was speedy. He spoke in a measured, immature bass with an occasional treble overtone; his movements were slow and unusually casual. I mused later that it perhaps had something to do with his surprise appearance; maybe he moved so fast-or so slowly (!) that I was often unaware of any movement! One moment he was behind me, then beside me, then again in front, and I was conscious only of present position, without being able to recall how these changes came about.
I'm sure, on looking back to those days, my notions about time must bear Speedy's influence, as well. Speedy was an embodiment of a kind of theory of relativity. To him, "now" was all-important and all-consuming. I found he couldn't be distracted-once his aimless wanderings had focused on a purpose-"Speedy, it's time to get back for-" I might begin, only to be interrupted, as though I hadn't spoken at all, with-"Look at that baby-you ever see a flatbox like that? I got to have a new guitar; let's go see how much it costs!" I looked, entranced, caught in his enthusiasm. Naturally, we went in to "see how much it costs," with no more thought of the approaching-and then passing-dinner-curfew hour. We were late again, but it didn't bother Speedy. He'd never been on time for anything in his life, and I finally understood the tongue-in-cheek character of his nickname. It was fast (oops-I didn't say that!) being extended to me, as well-"Speedy and Junior"-but I couldn't resist the pull of Speedy's insatiable curiosity. In no time (sorry-I'm doing it again) I was, for my classmates, the source of information about the surrounding city, which had been unfamiliar to us all-because I'd already been there with Speedy! He knew all the short-cuts, too-"If you're slow as I am, you got to know short-cuts, right?" he would wink.
"Gentlemen! AAAAAT EEEEEEASE IN THE DINING HALL!" The voice of the student commander rang in my ears as I whisked, hopefully (but unsuccessfully) inconspicuously to my empty seat. "Now that our junior man has 'graced' us with his presence, he will lead us in grace over our supper; with your permission, sir, we'll begin-now, please?" No one noticed Speedy. It was my fault the meal was delayed. I wondered how he did this; it was as though he became invisible when the spotlight of attention came our way. This wasn't actually the case, of course; it was just that, after a year, the occurrence of offense, and the inevitability of ensuing punishment, were accepted with casual indifference by all, as they were by Speedy himself. Later, in the kitchen, we worked with an efficiency that had come with familiarity-"Kitchen Police" was the customary duty accruing to our tardiness-loading trays of dishes and utensils onto the track which fed into "Stanley Steamer", as we called the old, ever-failing dish-washing unit whose nightly break-downs regularly delayed our departure-and had once again caused our exclusion from the evening movie in the Rec Hall. It was working smoothly again, though, and I paused to watch Speedy hovering in an appearance of virtual motionlessness as his tray seemed to fill itself-twice as rapidly as my own, in spite of my fumbling efforts to keep pace. He looked across the conveyor belt at me, stopping to daub at the perspiration over his eyes. The reassuring smile had become so familiar; "Don't sweat the movie," he yelled over the hiss of steam, "it's a re-run, one of those 'educational' things at that, and those guys can't leave 'till it's over, remember-they lock the doors-we don't have to sit through it!"
"Time," Luigi began; we sat on the back steps, breathing in the freshness in the fall air, another day of classes over and time at our disposal again, "time can be so important, or so meaningless. And people seem to confuse which is which. The least meaningful things that time can cause, people can turn into the most significant. Like you being Junior Man, like I was last year. How important can it be that you're the youngest kid in the whole school? Just because of that, you're somebody to pick on. Ever feel like they're trying to drive you out? That's how I felt last year, 'till I figured out that it was a 'pecking-order' thing."
He stopped, and sat a while in rapt concentration, watching a perfectly ordinary-looking cloud meander across the sky. "What do you mean, 'pecking-order'?" I asked. "Just like chickens," he said, "somehow you have to decide how everybody ranks, from top to bottom, so you'll know who to pick on. Chickens look for one that's weaker, or slower, or crippled. With people, it's harder to tell. So around here, they make it official. If you're younger, you're supposed to be weaker, or smaller, or something, right? So they do it by age. That way they can ignore what's real if they want to. I mean, look at me. I was youngest last year, right? But I'm biggest and strongest in my class. I can beat up any of them. I know-I had to!"
Speedy's lesson has lasted, over time. Time is relative; "seems like only yesterday" we sat on those steps together, though it was thirty-five years ago. I left school, never to return, the following spring; maybe I couldn't take the "pecking"-I don't really know why I left. So much of it I enjoyed. In a place so strong on tradition, basic academics-math, languages, history, were stressed; my fascination with history, and with the development of music, have been perpetuated from my experiences there, under the tutelage of good, and sometimes inspired, teachers; and I still have Luigi, calmly but insistently urging patience, and exploration of alternatives. I haven't heard from Luigi since, but the memories are still there when I need them.
Accidents are, by definition, sudden, unexpected, disruptions; I had plans, lots planned. I always do. There's never enough time for everything I want to do. I've never felt a need to find things to fill my days. Free time is a blessing, when it comes. I don't have to ask myself what to do with it. Today, though, I found myself face-to-face with the prospect of more of it than I would know what to do with. As I bent over the chicken-pen, pouring feed, I felt a burning, tearing pain ripping through my left side as I reached just a bit too far, to fill all the trough. I remembered, too late again, that I have a rather temperamental back-I'd done it again! My vision blurred, my head seemed to reel, I lost vertical orientation. I knew I needed to get up, but I couldn't remember which way was up. I felt myself crawling, climbing as though from a deep hole, as I looked around for familiar objects-they were there, but they seemed to be swimming around, with a sickening motion. I reached out for the front end of "Big Marv", my new tractor; I needed something really solid to hang onto. I stood up-by careful degrees-to find that my feet wouldn't move! I held onto that old tractor for a while, then shifted to a nearby fence-post for support. Patience took a new perspective then; I really understood patience, for a moment. "It's still morning; I could make the back porch by lunch." Bizarre images blended in my mind; weeds sprouted and twined in my fences, as I struggled, legless, to attack them on a tractor I couldn't control. I looked toward the ground to see grass sprouting between my feet, but I could only watch it grow. In the garden, I saw tomatoes rotting on their vines, but I couldn't reach them. I wondered how Speedy would deal with this. I began to realize that I was close, very close, to a major alteration in my life-style. How easy it would be to lose the use of my legs. What would I do then?
I see people, in my practice, who have to face something like this; how would I do it? Speedy was saying, "Don't sweat it-you'll make it to the house, all right. Then won't you have a story for the kids!" I wanted to laugh at the thought, but the pain wouldn't let me. I looked up, and there was Jane, my wife, my sustenance-handing me a cane! I propped myself on it, as I dragged myself, still unable to lift my feet clear of the ground, across the lawn.
I'm lucky this time. I'm sore, but I can move my legs again. I won't be doing anything from my "chore list", even after the rains quit, but that's no matter. I've got a sedentary chore list now. It'll make a full day.
This is what I call the "Down-in-the back" syndrome; I've seen folks whose lives have become dominated by it, and I can understand why. You never know when it'll strike you down; with me, it's not a question of "overdoing" in the usual sense, as in lifting too much, pulling too hard. I just twist too far, and there I am! Down-in-the-back! It's a condition, like "whip-lash", that gets kicked around a lot by the legal profession. It's a court-room favorite, because it's something with vague, or non-evidential, physiological correlates, making medical diagnosis difficult, and often questionable. It's an especially frustrating thing, therefore, for its victims, because it can be so easily "faked", or exaggerated, or taken advantage of. I lump it with those I consider "lawyer diseases" because they so often result in some sort of legal intervention which then requires "staging" for a court "presentation". Visible appliances are favored as some physical manifestation, and hence are sometimes clung to long after their usefulness is gone, simply because of the extension of the legal process; hence the proliferation of walkers, canes, and neck-braces, cast aside the day a settlement is reached.
But for now, at least, I'll still be able to work my customary physical activities back into my plans, not forgetting the relative and tentative nature of such things. "It depends-" on my sustained good health, on whims of the weather, on the availability of equipment-on whether everything works, and in the necessary sequence! I still have a hay-field to be cut, baled, and barned, an irrigation system to be installed on "Blueberry Hill"........
I still don't have all the equipment I need to get these jobs done, either. That's another headache. I've observed quite a bit of "cooperative farming" in the neighborhood; my neighbors work one another's fields, in tandem, going from one to the next. One farmer will mow, his son behind on another tractor, raking the grass almost as it falls. Someone from down the road comes along the next day with a baler. I remember, in my youth, the grass was left on the ground to "cure", but that practice was abandoned when the "round" baler made it possible to pack the hay into huge rolls which could be left to cure in the field, if need be.
I'm still something of a newcomer around here, though. It takes time to get "worked into" the rotation. I don't have that much to contribute, yet. Time will tell.........
"Patience," Speedy Luigi would urge. It's all relative. I know I'll get what I need, and do what needs to be done. It's just that I don't always know what that entails until the moment comes........
THE CARETAKER By Dennis Boyer-Center Ridge, Ar 72027
Figure 1 With wife Pauline, abt. 1959 Figure 2 - Family safety built, 1976
The clock strikes again! Once again I'm struck by the inequity of it-struck hard-like a rap on the head! I was doing just fine without a schedule; it was the sudden recollection of scheduled obligations that distracted me for a moment, broke my concentration, and struck down my unsuspecting, innocent, little tomato plant. Bright green with optimism and expectancy, heavy with new leaf, bloom, and tiny fruit, it felt its hopes and future yanked unceremoniously with its roots from the earth as the tines of my momentarily misguided tiller entangled themselves in the wire of one of the ingenious "cages" with which my wife has surrounded each of her precious beauties. It all happened suddenly, just as the thought of congratulating her on the utility of these constructions had crossed my mind. In what seemed the same moment, I glanced at my watch, which rewarded me with the unpleasant reminder that I was out of time. Then I felt the handles of the tiller being yanked from my grasp. This only fueled my sense of frustration-always ready to surface, anyway-with the ever-present schedule. I've been told I have a one-track mind; I think this is just the only way it works. I just have one track to run on at a time. I prefer to do a thing 'till it's done, and now I had done a thing 'till it was time to quit. Hours later, the tiller sat unmoving in the middle of the garden, mutely challenging and mocking me; it's like my computer, unconcerned with schedules, or the passing of time. It can wait patiently until I'm ready to put it to back to work. "As soon as I can find the time," I promise.I did, of course, find the time, eventually, to repair the damage and finish the job. That little vine stands tall in its place with the rest now, all heavy with shiny red (or yellow!) tomatoes. It's been a good year for early garden crops, unusually wet and cool. This weather makes its own special demands on the garden-tender, though, creating an especially hospitable environment for insect pests, grasses, fungi, and spores which are so adept at rapid destruction. For some people, tending and nurturing seem to be second nature; they appear able to go about such business with a minimum of bother, and much success. Not so with me; I haven't the patience. I get bored easily, I don't like to stay with a thing too long, or, for that matter, to stay in one place too long. I also don't respond too well to dependency. I cringe at the cry, mute or expressed, "Take care of me," or "Do for me." I enjoy progress and growth, and I get my satisfaction in seeing that I've arranged things in a way that will foster this occurrence. I like to see young things, plants or animals-or people-"take off" and make the most of themselves. The fun in gardening, for me, comes in making the preparations-ripping open the ground, making it fertile and workable. My interest tends to fade with the approach of harvest-time. No, I don't like to clean fish, either. I'm content to catch them and toss them back for another try. Clarence ”Dutch” Eans was a caretaker. Every life he touched prospered under contact with his strength and serenity. He patiently and meticulously cleared and tended his land; the pasture opening to the east was rocky woodland when I first saw it. Now a huge vine-covered cairn stands at the foot of a hill to which “Dutch” and his wife carried stones as they created this place. Many years ago, in 1951, he foresaw a grove of tall pines on the slope below his house, and he dreamed of the comforting sound of the breezes sighing in their upper branches. I remember those saplings; I remember thinking that a pointless and futile project, with an uncertain fruition so far in the future. Yet last week I stood hidden in the midst of those slender giants, listening to the soothing whisper of the winds; they say now the trees draw the breezes, and keep the air stirring against the heat of summer. There was comfort in the realization that “Dutch” had heard these sounds in his mind long before they were possible, and had been finally able to sit in the evening shadows and enjoy the peace of his vision's fulfillment. Through the years, melons and tomatoes from his prolific gardens have enriched the table of friends and family; sturdy and gracefully crafted wood-works have become readily recognizable to other recipients of his gifts-"Oh, “Dutch” made that for you, didn't he?" He gave and didn't ask, and when came his time of need we all felt inadequate, superfluous, and a little guilty. This was a man on whom so many depended, and who accepted his role with a natural grace. It was awfully easy to "Let “Dutch” do it," and Clarence was usually proud to be able, anyhow. Many an old clunker in our neighborhood was kept in service long past any reasonable life expectancy because of his mechanical skills, donated with his spare time after his hours of doing the same thing at the Chrysler shop in town. It sounds trite and naive, in these times, to describe anyone as a "good" man, but that's what he was. His values were clear, uncompromised, and enduring. He did the "right" thing with a placid conviction which avoided the harshness and rigidity of the self-righteousness born of doubt or insincerity. He valued doing for others, and doing what he could to make the world a better and more beautiful place; this earned him, without his seeking it, ungrudging good will. No one I knew dreaded his coming, or felt ill-at-ease in his presence; my children passed many happy hours in their younger days following in his footsteps as he fed his stock, milked a goat or cow, tended his garden, or hammered away at one of his "projects". They delighted at occasionally being permitted to pull one of his prized catfish from his pond. Clarence was a hulking, raw-boned, powerful man who spoke softly in the incongruously high-pitched voice which nature must often use to soften the impact of such beings so they may approach others with a measure of equality. His Nordic temperament was reflected in a superficial complacency which often belied an iron-willed determination. Not one easily "riled", he was also not a person who could be moved from his convictions. His respect for the law was unquestioned, but the story is told that he once contested a traffic violation because he "knew" the ticketing officer was in error-and the charge was dismissed on being heard. "That deputy was right behind me. He knew there was no yellow line where I pulled out to pass, and you could see all the way past the bridge. He had no business giving me a ticket for crossing a yellow line to pass a car. I crossed that yellow line to get back, not to get out. The judge finally told the officer, too. It cost more than any traffic ticket, but I was right all along. And they didn't raise my insurance, either." It's Spring, the time of renewal, of new life. Death seems especially far removed, and the more tragic when it occurs in the spring. A man died Saturday. We buried him Monday. That says it. Unadorned, straightforward, simple, just as he himself was. He was an ordinary person, the only kind I can tell you about, because this is the only kind I know. Someone like you and me, with special gifts and qualities which made him unique and irreplaceable. He faced death as he did everything else in his life, with strong-willed, matter-of-fact determination and acceptance, making all the necessary preparations, and then getting on with the business of it. He enjoyed his last breakfast, then drifted into the final struggle with that unknown we all dread. He didn't want to die, and did all he knew to cling to life; hence his dying was a dreadful, excruciating process, because he possessed strength and patience sufficient for several lifetimes. It seemed a horrible, punishing experience for those around him, the sort which engenders anger and resentment which will lead us to question the intent of our Maker. We were all struck with the unfairness and irony of what became his lot, so out of keeping with the way of life which had little deserved such an unjust reward. We see this so often, don't we? The greatest suffering is visited on those, it seems, who are entitled to the opposite. We rationalize it irrationally, attempting to make it an example, to find a place for it in our own lives, never able to accept the possibility of a cause-effect relationship which may well be there. Yet, clearly, here was an individual who, by all that's reasonable, must've been above the devastation of the disease process which inexorably debilitated him, drained him of his great physical strength, and left him helpless and dependent in his last days. Many years later, 9 Aug 2016, the 70th wedding anniversary of Clarence Eans and Pauline Thornsberry Eans was celebrated with family and neighbors at the Eans family home, with many shared memories.
Figure 3 L-R; daughter Shirley; Pauline; niece Jean Boyer; sister Wilma
Census Records | Vital Records | Family Trees & Communities | Immigration Records | Military Records Directories & Member Lists | Family & Local Histories | Newspapers & Periodicals | Court, Land & Probate | Finding Aids