Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

I find Twitter to be a waste of consciousness, but the Redhead still frequents it.  She does it with certain Sicilian tendencies: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Occasionally she will read aloud a post that I find interesting.

Last night she asked me “What was the first book you read that changed your life?  The Bible excluded.”

I thought some about that.  Looked at the ceiling.  Stared into space.  A couple of minutes went by.

“I didn’t mean it to be that serious of a question.”

But it was a very serious question, at least to me.  I have read a lot of good books.  But the first that changed my life?  I struggled to recall them all, working backward to childhood.

My first impulse was The Catcher in the Rye.  I read that one in twelfth grade at the urging of my rather eccentric English teacher Mrs. Hammonds.  It is a book that was (and still is) banned in many public schools.  It was on the RESTRICTED list in my school library, which meant it was behind the counter and my momma had to sign a permission slip for me to read it.

Thank God I have a good momma. 

And thank God she never read The Catcher in the Rye.

I can’t say that book changed my life, but it certainly changed my outlook on life.  I knew a lot of characters in that story, especially the narrator.

But I digress.  Read it yourself — but only if your momma allows it.

I knew there had to be a book before that one.  It took another ten minutes or so and I had my answer.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

“What?  I have never even heard of it.  Why?”

I had to admit that I did not recall much about the story, so many years later.  I do remember that it was about a young man who went to a war and came out a very different person.  He had to declare a “separate peace” – a peace with himself.

But that’s not how it changed my life.  It wasn’t the story per se, it was the type – the first “adult” book I remember reading.

If you were properly educated in the English language, you know that all the best childhood stories begin and end with two simple phrases:

“Once upon a time…”

and

“They lived happily ever after.”

There is beauty in that by design.  It is comforting when momma is about to put out the light and you are pretty sure there is a monster under your bed. 

But we soon come to realize that those stories aren’t representative of life in mortal flesh.  At least not the “happily ever after part.”

I had not forgotten how I came to read A Separate Peace.  Miss Klinner, my seventh-grade English teacher, gave our class the book as an assignment.  As incentive, she offered to give a copy to the first student who read it.  I got to keep mine two days later.  It is still in my personal library.  I can put my hands on it right now, with or without the mysterious electrical construct that is “The Cloud.”

Perhaps it was not the book that changed my life so much as it was the teacher.  She taught me the nuts and bolts of a complicated language through diagrammed sentences and conjugated verbs, but she also showed me how to love and appreciate the never-ending pleasure of reading good books.

I have always loved her for that, as I continue to love the written word that imitates life.

And that may be about as close to as “happily ever after” as a man can get.


 [BC1]

Easter Parade

In your Easter bonnet
With all the frills upon it
You’ll be the grandest lady
In the Easter parade

I’ll be all in clover
And when they look you over
I’ll be the proudest fellow
In the Easter parade

We were at the light.  Thirty-five miles away from the church where we would hear the Easter story yet again.

Maybe I should have been thinking holy thoughts on a holy day.  But I wasn’t.  My mind is always in perpetual stream-of-consciousness.  I don’t think that’s “normal,” but then again, it’s the only mind I’ve got, so I don’t know.  I often think I would like to try someone else’s brain for a bit.  Just to see.

What I was thinking at that moment was that I had become complacent.  That I no longer pay attention to life.  Don’t notice that things are going on all around me anymore.  That’s suicide if you write.

She got out on the passenger side and walked in front of the truck.  She didn’t look back.  Started walking back toward town.  Expressionless.

She was wearing white jeans and platform heels.  Blue blouse.  Looked straight out of the ‘70’s.  Out of the every-day fashion then, at least.  Not out of church fashion.  Ladies wore their finery to church in those days.  Pretty spring dresses and hats.  I miss those hats.

But she was dressed for today’s church.  The church that more than half of America doesn’t attend.

I couldn’t help thinking how important it is to always wear comfortable shoes.  Never know when you’ll have to get out and walk away from your family on Easter Sunday.

“I reckon she’s had enough” I say.

“Yep” replied the Redhead.

That’s a benefit of living with someone for nearly forty years.  Economy of words.  Hemingway on steroids.

The man was comical in a dark sort of way.  Looked straight ahead.  Like nothing had just happened.

I look for kids.  Please God, let there be no children in this Easter drama.

“What did you get for Easter? “

“Well I got a chocolate bunny and some colored eggs and mommy jumped out of the truck on the way to church.”

Easter isn’t what it used to be.  But nothing else is either. 

Have you noticed?

A Christmas Memory

It must have been 1968 or ’69. Our neighbors across the road erected the first life-size (or nearly so) Nativity that my little-boy eyes had ever seen.

Today it would be considered tacky, but back then it was quite the spectacle. The stable built with sawmill slabs and floored with hay, all the characters arranged perfectly around the manger.  I am sure it cost a pretty penny, even in ’60’s dollars.

It was a lot like this photo:

I have always wondered why they did it. As far as I know, they weren’t religious in any sense of the word. They could have chosen Santa Claus and his reindeer or a Frosty the Snowman scene just as easily (actually they would add all that over the next few years). All were available in the Sears Wish Book. But the real mystery was why spend all that time, money and effort since we lived so far out in the country? Not much chance anyone was actually going to see it. Except us. We lived right across the road, and it was practically at the end of our driveway.

The crowning touch was that the whole display was wired for sound — full stereo— with a continuous loop of Christmas music playing from speakers carefully hidden in the stable.

The only problem was that there wasn’t a big selection of tunes on that loop.  I am sure there had to be some old standards befitting the solemness of that singular day in history. Maybe Silent Night or Angels We Have Heard on High. But the only song I can remember hearing, over and over and over again, was this one.

It stuck. To this day, I can’t look at a Nativity scene and not hear Buck Owens and the Buckaroos.

Author’s note: I first wrote a version of this piece in 2012. I heard the song today and it brought it back to mind.

The Good Life

for Molly

garden

If you live long enough you gain an appreciation for those who came before you.

When COVID-19 hit and everyone was advised to practice “social distancing,” I was indifferent. “Social distancing?” I invented it. Been practicing it for years.

Then came “shelter in place” and “work from home.”

Unlike most, I could not have been happier. Stay home? Well “please don’t throw me in the briar patch Br’er Fox.”  I packed my possibles and headed to our farm.

I take liberties with the word “farm.”  Not the image the word conjures. Really just woods and a few open acres. The crops are trees and wildlife, not corn and livestock.

Finally, a chance for the good life. The life of my ancestors. A life for which I was surely born.

Now to be clear, I do not have an upper-class pedigree. I did the research. My kin were Irish immigrants and poor white sharecroppers. No royal sap in the family tree. Mostly poor folks who eked out a living with whatever they had on hand.

But I had more.  The pandemic did not take me by surprise. The farmhouse was fully stocked before the initial panic hit. While many rushed to the stores, I just sat back and watched from a distance. I am, after all, a smart man (just ask the Redhead and she will tell you “oh yes, he certainly thinks he’s a smart man”). I am forward-looking. A visionary even. I was never a Boy Scout, but I lived their motto — “Be prepared.”

I had food. I had medicine. I had gas and diesel. Masks, antibacterial wipes, and toilet paper to spare.

I might have even had a gun or two.

I also had creeks for water, trees for firewood, and wild animals for meat.

But most importantly of all, I had seeds for a garden.

I was dug-in like an Alabama tick. Ready for the long haul.

The first three weeks were blissful. I was finally able to get my work done. Almost no calls, no emails, and no visits from anyone to break my chain of thought.

My plan was executed to perfection. I put in my office hours, then headed outside to take leisurely walks and tend my tomato plants.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning I climbed aboard the big John Deere and plowed and planted my garden. It was the same kind of worn-out rocky ground that my ancestors plowed with mules, but no matter.  I could coax that sorry dirt to yield more than they ever dared to dream.

Then came Sunday morning. The storms hit at sunrise. Hail. High winds. Rain by the bucket-load. The lights flickered, then went out.

No worries. I had candles and flashlights with extra batteries. Who needs television or the internet? I had shelves of good books and plenty of paper and pens with which to write.

Paradise.

That night I laid down in sweet solitude. The bedroom windows were open, and the light breeze and the dripping rain the only sounds. My sleep was deep and filled with contented, peaceful dreams.

Monday morning, I decided to take a stroll to survey my kingdom.

Trees down. Trails blocked.  Garden mostly washed away. Creeks out of the banks. Dead battery on the Deere.

Rugged independence? Gone.

That night I blew out the candles and lay in the darkness again. You know you really cannot appreciate true darkness until you are way back in the woods with no lights on a cloudy night. I struggled to find sleep with my troubled thoughts.

As my mind raced through the stillness of that long night it finally hit me. There was nothing romantic about the way my ancestors lived. They could not run to the grocery store when the crops washed away. No cash to buy more seed or supplies or even pay back their shares. No hiding from a pandemic. If the Spanish flu did not kill their children, then cholera just might.

I understand them now. Why they left the “good life” for jobs in the cotton mill towns. Why they traded idyllic farm living for a hot, dusty job where a man might lose a hand in a second or his lungs to the lint in a matter of a few years.

I have no worries. I can start again. I have the means to replant the garden, and the grocery store is only five miles away. I still have my masks and wipes, so I will probably stay untouched by the virus, at least for a while.

I added something to my supplies. Respect for my ancestors.

The “good life” is all high cotton and buttermilk cornbread when you are playing a role in the theater of your mind.  But when you live off the land to survive it is not all it is cracked-up to be.

“The Moving Finger Writes…*

keyboard

In my previous post I mentioned that it takes hours to write one of these little stories.  That’s not exactly true.  It takes minutes to write a story but hours to edit it.  Editing is the real challenge of “trying to get the words right.”

But I confess I have another reason it takes me so long to write a story.  I can’t type.

I am embarrassed to admit that I am strictly a one finger hunt-and-peck man.  Occasionally my left index finger will get involved, but it usually doesn’t get past the “D.”

Then there’s that nasty business with the “Caps lock” key.

It’s not that I am ignorant or untrained.  I took a typing class in high school.  My friend Winfred and I were unfortunate enough to sit front and center in Mrs. Kidd’s little shop of horrors.  Winfred was a great defensive tackle who played some college ball and then went on to become a preacher.  He was my salvation at the time, because he was as bad a typist as I.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager old Winfred writes his sermons by hand.

Mrs. Kidd stood directly in front of us (actually, more like over us) as she gave instructions.  I don’t remember much about her except that she was rather stern and had big nostrils.  Added pressure there.  Ever try to concentrate while looking up at the business end of a double barrel twelve-gauge shotgun?  To make matters worse, she always carried a big wooden ruler, which she regularly applied to my hands when they were in the wrong position.

I went through that entire school year with bruised knuckles.  Told my daddy I got them at football practice.

Once a week we had the dreaded “words per minute” test.  On a good day I might manage 20, and five of those would be misspelled.  But those tests were really the only reprieve I ever got from the tyranny of Mrs. Kidd.   You couldn’t cheat front and center, but a scatterling of cheaters were behind me.

The test would go something like this: “Limber up your fingers.  Type what I’ve written on the board.  We’ll start on my mark in 30 seconds.”

Then, ever so faintly, I’d hear it.  Chick.  Chick.  Chick.  Mrs. Kidd heard it too.  It sent her charging to the rear like a rhino, ready to administer a little corporal punishment to someone else for a change.

I managed to make it through the year.  Think I made a “C” by the skin of my teeth.  But I never attempted to type again.

The other night I asked the Redhead if I was too old to learn to type.  She told me that there were plenty of internet sites that might help.  I looked at a few and thought “maybe I can still do this.”

Then I remembered what a college professor once told me.  “Research has shown that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill.”

If my math is right, that’s 417 days, nonstop.  If I subtract hours for leisure activities like work and sleep, I’d be looking at about five years.

That’s a big commitment.  The way I feel most mornings when I get out of bed, I’m just hoping I live another five years.

I think I’ll just stick with hunt-and-peck typing.  With the time I save I might be able to get that left finger nimble enough to reach the “F.”

 

*and having writ, moves on.”  Omar Khayyam.