Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Little Re-remembering

     For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unexpected; so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening unconsciously down the slippery avenues of eternity.  (Anthony Powell, The Buyers Market, page 274.)

     While recently rummaging around for something, I came across my commonplace book from many years ago.  Though undated, I was able to deduce that I started it in 1996.  The last entry was dated 10 January 2004.  These two dates bookend a number of noteworthy milestones in my life:  my mother's death (the last of my immediate family), the deaths of two much-beloved uncles, our son going off to college, my 2nd-6th trips overseas, the beginning of a side career of teaching, 9/11 and its aftermath, appointment to a position of responsibility at our local church (soon followed by a scandal/crisis), some sobering financial reverses, and most pivotal of all, my encounter with the Orthodox faith in June of 2003. 
     Of the 218 pages in this particular journal, only the last 50 pages or so fall after that aforementioned date.  Reading back over what I had recorded before then was an eye-opener, to say the least, for it raises doubt in my mind as to the self-narrative I have so carefully crafted.  In my telling of it, I have always emphasized the unforeseen nature of being confronted with Orthodoxy--I often say that I "stumbled" into it.  I found the whole "seeker" posture to be too affected, or self-deferential, or narcissistic, and ultimately mostly ridiculous.  In my case, I arrived in the Balkans only half-aware even of their Orthodoxy.  Yep, you might say the Faith blindsided me.
      And while I still believe this to be largely true, this narrative fails to acknowledge just how receptive I was to receiving Orthodoxy.  My jottings from 1996 through 2003 certainly indicate that something was going on.  To be sure, no discernable "Road to Orthodoxy" emerges from these early writings.  My readings were unfocused and undirected, and my writing was equally undisciplined.  But taken as a whole, the restlessness of my intellect during that time is almost palpable.  (I think restlessness is the right word.  I was not disappointed with my life, for I had--and have--a very good one.)  My writings betrayed, however, a gnawing realization that there simply had to be some larger and more significant drama playing-out, one of which I had not even begun to grasp the meaning.  So yes, when Orthodoxy "found" me, you might say that I was primed and ready for it.
     At some point during Holy Week, in the midst of one of those interminable services that run together in our memory, I was doing my regular bit as an altar server.  During one of the processions, in-between chanting and trying not to mess up, I clearly remember thinking to myself, "This is life."  That's all.  "This is life."  In this ritualized worship that is so strange to our region but so alive to me, I am being disciplined, my passions are being worn-down (albeit much too slowly), and yes, I am participating in that larger drama I half-sensed many years ago, the one that transcends time and space. 
     Anthony Powell's passage at the beginning of this post applies to a fictional character, a young man starting out in life.  His words resonate with me, though I was middle-aged even at that time.  No matter.  I have taken them to heart, as I careen--though consciously and intentionally--down the slippery avenues of eternity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

More from Fermor: Finding Orthodoxy in Odd Places (1)

Nothing much beats the satisfaction of finishing a really good read.  Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, (of which I wrote earlier) is simply the best book I have read in quite a long time.  Always a keen observer of the human condition, Fermor’s open, generous spirit made wide allowances for the foibles of others.  The Broken Road takes him from Bulgaria, into Romania, back to Bulgaria, and then on to Mount Athos by way of Constantinople.  These Orthodox lands held a lasting fascination for Fermor, and indeed, he was to live the greater part of his long life there, first in Romania until the war, and then in Greece.

With an ear for languages, Fermor would--with seeming effortlessness--quickly immerse himself into local life.  I was curious to see how he would react to the pervasive Orthodoxy in his midst.  Fermor expressed interest in most anything, and the foreignness of Orthodoxy held an attraction for the inquisitive young man.  He remained appreciative, though not uncritical, of our Liturgy, the church’s iconography and the assortment of saints and scoundrels he met along the way.  He never addressed Orthodoxy systematically, but always as something of a backdrop to the story he was telling, which is the better course anyway.

One of my favorite episodes is the experience at the Savoi-Ritz in Bucharest, though the references to Orthodoxy here are so slight as to be easily missed.  After trudging north from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the glittering Romanian capital proved to be an eye-opener for the nineteen-year old.  The pre-Ceausescu Bucharest was not known as the “Little Paris of the East” without good reason.  Fermor traveled on a shoestring, but in Buchares he did not try for a room in the disreputable outskirts, but instead chose a lodging just over the line into the barely reputable district.  A wooden sign over the door painted “Savoi-Ritz” attracted his attention.  Madame Tania, an elderly, hawk-nosed, French-speaking Bessarabian woman showed him to a surprising well-furnished room upstairs.  Fermor, “hell-bent on the bright lights of the town centre,” quickly washed and combed through his hair, then asked for directions.  The proprietress seemed hurt that he was leaving so soon, remonstrating “on s’amuse bien ici!”  Fermor insisted on attaining the Calea Victoriei, however, so she did not press the point. 

After a night on the town, Fermor returned to the Savoi-Ritz at 2:00 am.  Madame Tania let him in and invited him to join them in the kitchen for a glass of wine “as everyone was having supper.”  In the “cozy kitchen with an ikon in the corner and a chicken and potatoes in a dish,” Fermor found four “rather pretty girls” in dressing gowns or kimonos, setting around the table.  The young man suddenly realized his own naivete, as he had stumbled into a maison de passé instead of a regular hotel.  Madame Tania reassured him that they did, on occasion, take in regular travelers.  Her recounting of his error provoked good-hearted laughter all around the table, and Fermor ended-up spending the rest of the night listening to their relaxed after-work banter, and to the stories they had to tell.  After his arrival, a fifth girl “clattered down the steps on wooden patterns, shook hands, sat down, flung her dark shock of hair back, crossed herself and set to [eating].”  On the morrow, these good-hearted souls would mend and iron his best change of clothes so that he would be more presentable on the Calea Victoriei the following night.   

Fermor thought to ask them about the strange men who seemed to have a monopoly on Bucharest taxicabs.  The women howled with laughter.  Madame Tania explained. 

They belonged to a religious sect widespread in Bessarabia and southern Russia….After marriage and one or two children…the men castrated themselves, hence the beardlessness, the high voice and the expanse, and the general eunuch-like style….(One of their tenets…was the belief that Czar Paul, the murdered son of Catherine the Great, would one day return again as the Messiah.)  ‘They are bad-tempered men,’ Tania was saying, ‘always cross.  I’m not surprised.’  A smile hovered on her face.  ‘Of course, we don’t see much of them here…’

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Son of a Storyteller

I come from a long line of storytellers  I enjoy listening to a good tale, and have some decent stories to pass along myself, if I do say so.  Of course, I have few opportunities to tell anyone around here, as the folks around here are only interested in hearing stories about, well, people around here.  I believe this is what the dictionary would describe as provincialism.  I should not complain, however, for it is only a minor annoyance and given everything else that is going on these days, it hardly qualifies as a real problem.  I do not do nostalgia or cheap sentimentality and so resort to listening mode here in my small town.  But get me around my friends; or better yet, my cousins, and the stories will fly. 

I was talking to my son this morning, hearing the latest goings-on in what might be called Tbilisi café society.  Living as an expat in a foreign capital is not without its adventures, apparently.  But we also discussed the implications of the recent death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.  John wondered how things might have been different if the Hashemites had not been given the shaft by Wilson et al at the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles.  I warmed to this subject, as one of my favorite themes of historical discourse is that most global problems of the twentieth century can be traced back, one way or the other, to Woodrow Wilson.  (And the fact that George W. Bush's foreign policy was often characterized as "Wilsonian" offers a key insight into my animus towards his administration.)

Then John made some offhand remark about the time our Uncle Bill met the king.  I said "What?"  He replied, "you know, the time he met the King of Saudi Arabia."  No, I did not know.  As a 17-year old, my Uncle Bill dropped out of school, hopped a freight train to California and joined the Coast Guard, this being his ticket out of Depression-era Texas.  When the war came, he joined up with the Navy and served 26 years, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer.  He really did see the world during that time, circumnavigating the globe three times.  He had tons of stories, and I liked nothing better than sharing a pot of coffee with him and listening to them roll out.  I had a keen ear for his stories about growing up in central Texas.  The Navy tales, however, ran together in my hearing.  As much as I enjoy hearing of other lands, I did not have an overriding interest in sailing or the sea.

Uncle Bill kept a lot of memorabilia from those days, and I guess I looked through all the pictures at least a half a dozen times through the years.  Yes, I do recall there being one snapshot taken on the ship where Bill and two or three other sailors were relaxing on deck.  One of the men had a monkey on his shoulder.  My son remembered Uncle Bill showing him the same picture, but he thought to ask the obvious question that only a child would know to ask, namely: "Where did the monkey come from?"  To which Uncle Bill replied, "the King gave it to us."  I remember that Uncle Bill spent a lot of time in the Persian Gulf area, and had visited Saudi Arabia more than once.  I'm not exactly sure of the date, so it could have been either Ibn Saud or Saud, but apparently the king had an extra monkey to offer to the crew.

John has a much more precise and exacting memory than I do.  I am pleased (and proud) to realize that he has been there all along, listening, and perhaps salvaging some of the stories I let slip through the cracks.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Charcoaled Samaritans of Gabrovo

I am leisurely reading through Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful posthumously-published A Broken Road.  By early autumn 1934, the nineteen-year old had hiked as far as Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where he lingered in good company.  From there, he pushed north, across the “Valley of the Roses,” up into the Shipka Pass through the Stara Planina range, and down the other side to Gabrovo and then Turnovo.  With a pound note in his pocket, the youth anticipated a £5 replenishment awaiting him at the post office of the latter city.

Fermor stopped at the Shipka Monastery—home to a grandiose, if a bit garish Russian-built church.  He listened to the stories spun by the White Russian refugees residing there, wistfully yearning for the Romanov restoration that never was to come.  A melancholy mood enveloped Paddy as he pushed on alone from Shipka.  Few carts were on the road, and no farmsteads were in view.  The darkening shadows of night were approaching, and a biting wind whistled through the pass.  To top it all off, a nail had worked its way through the sole of his boot, bloodying his toe and making each step a painful endeavor.

A cart with two elderly men pulled alongside Fermor.  He waved them to stop and explained his predicament in halting Bulgaria.  The grinning driver made the universal symbol of avarice—rubbing his thumb and forefinger together—and asked him how much money he had on him.  The youth, thinking this a jest, responded with an incredible figure and then made an effort to alight the cart.  He was astonished when the driver prevented his entry, then cracked his whip and disappeared into the darkness ahead.  A similar scenario played out with the next cart that drew alongside Fermor.  The young adventurer was astonished.  Never in his hike across Europe had he encountered such inhospitality. 

A few miles farther on, Fermor spied a farmhouse near the road, with a small light inside.  He went to the door and knocked, explaining his situation to those inside.  His plea went unanswered, except for muffled whispering behind the door, followed by the blowing-out of the lamp.  Dejected, Paddy limped on down the road, swearing at his fate, “blinded with tears of fury and frustration.”  He wondered “what passion of xenophobia, predatoriness or timidity lurked in this horrible mountain range?”  His fortunes, however, soon took a turn.

After an hour’s tormenting crawl through the windy moonlight, I spied a gleam of light in a wide hollow to the left of the road.  The wind dropped as my track, sinking below the trajectory of its flight, dipped into a quiet dell full of beech trees.  At the end, on the edge of the spinney, tall dark pyres smouldered and an aromatic tang of woodsmoke hung in the air.  Light radiated from the doorway of a hut.  It was cleverly woven of branches, a leafy cave, and inside it, three satanic figures, their rags showing a dusty black by the light of an oil dip, were sitting cross-legged on a carpet of leaves and playing cards with an upturned sieve for a table.  They were charcoal burners.  How different was the welcome here!  All three leapt up, led me to a place in their midst, helped me off with my blood-filled boot, washed the damaged foot with slivovitz and wrapped it in a clean handkerchief, then plied me with slivo for internal use and then with bread and cheese.  Finally, after commiserating over my reverses, they made me a leaf-bed of freshly cut branches and bade me goodnight, as they rolled over to sleep.

            Fermor watched during the night, as his benefactors would check on their pyres, stoking and then damping down “their three great smoldering cones.”  In the morning, one of the men cleverly managed to hammer down the offending nail in the boot sole.  The three men quickly went about their work, cutting and trimming trees before adding them to the charcoal-producing pyres.  As the charcoal burners scrambled up and down the pyres, poking the fires, Fermor noted that his “black benefactors bore the aspect of stokers in hell.”  After a while, Fermor waved goodbye to his Samaritans and climbed back up to the road, “and after a long way of unwinding downhill, reached Gabrovo.”

            Of these lowly charcoal burners, I would say that of such is the citizenship of Heaven.


Thursday, January 08, 2015


In 1969 or so, I got a glimpse of the Big Bend country of Texas, stretched-out in the back of my sister’s little Pontiac station wagon, wedged in between the luggage, picnic supplies and my niece and nephew.  Ever since then, I’ve wanted to return and do it right. 

Forty-five years later, I made good on that resolution.  I recently spent two nights in Marathon, a quiet, low-key place of some 400 souls, located 54 miles southwest of Fort Stockton, 32 miles east of Alpine, and 108 miles north of Terlingua—with nothing in-between any of those destinations. 

This is what people who have never been to Texas think the state looks like.  The topography is certainly breath-taking:  low-lying mountains as a backdrop, with broad fertile basins between—home to real ranches and their vaqueros.  And at night, well, the sky is bright with stars, undimmed by any lights from below, just like that old song says, “the stars at night, are big and bright…”  While I could easily romanticize the region, I also realize how hard it would be to make a living in this rugged locale.  While no doubt some fortunes were augmented, I doubt if any were actually made here.

Edna Ferber’s Giant did as much as anything to lock-in a certain stereotype of Texas and Texans.  In fact, this is in the heart of Giant country—the movie was filmed in the next basin over, on the other side of the Alpine pass.  Marathon itself has something of the mystique of that particular movie.  Alfred Gage, a Vermont-born entrepreneur, founded the town and named it Marathon after a description he had read of the original Greek site.  The town became the headquarters for his ranching operation.  The historical marker said that his ranch encompassed 600 sections.  A section contains 640 acres.  You can do the math.  Gage later went on to San Antonio, where he made his real money—in banking, of course.  He would return to the ranch, however, and in the mid 1920s constructed what is now the Gage Hotel to serve as his residence and ranch headquarters. 

From a commercial standpoint, the hotel is the town.  Take away the hotel, its restaurant, the bar and the small cluster of businesses absolutely dependent on the Gage’s clientele, and there would be no real reason to even slow down while passing through Marathon.  I liked the vibe of the hotel—all done out in 1920s Texas cattle baron grand. 

I have a bad habit of noticing small things and drawing perhaps too large implications from them.  I took breakfast both mornings at Johnny B’s, a small hole-in-the-wall eatery next door:   a simple establishment consisting of six barstools and four tables.   Arriving before sunrise, I was the only Anglo there, joining the cook and two tables of Hispanic cowboys—the real kind, not like those from where I'm from.  What caught my notice was that they had all taken off their hats inside, as gentlemen used to be taught to do.  As I slurped on the coffee and waited on my pancakes and bacon, I realized that I was dining with a classier clientele than most anyplace I would otherwise frequent these days.   

The Gage Hotel is always quiet.  They have no televisions, and consequently weed-out those guests who cannot live without them.  My upstairs room was located on the front of the hotel, facing the railroad tracks across the highway.   After a while, you become accustomed to the occasional plaintive whistle in the night, followed by the rumbling of the tracks as the trains whiz by.  The first night, I heard a train whistle approaching from the west.  I pulled the shutters back, and then raised the window and peered into the darkness outside, as the train's headlight approached Marathon.  This was no ordinary train, however, but the Sunset Limited, carrying passengers from Los Angeles on to New Orleans.  The sleeper cars and the dining car were all alight.  I briefly wondered about these passengers lumbering across West Texas in the night.  And I was reminded of the passage I quoted previously from The Broken Road—of Paddy Fermor hiking across the Rumelian plateau in 1934, stopping to wave at the passengers aboard the Orient Express as it hurried along on its way to Constantinople.  My experience  is not exactly that, but in this diminished age in which we live, it will have to suffice.        


Thursday, January 01, 2015

History in smithereens

Patrick Leigh Fermor At Rila Monastery, 1934


Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor is a good way to start off the new year. Fermor wrote about many things, but his fame stems from his account of a 1933-1934 hike across Europe. He intended a trilogy, and the first two volumes appeared decades ago. Severe writer's block descended on the prospective third volume, however, and Paddy Fermor was still revising his notes two weeks before his death at age 96.  The literary executors proceeded to decipher his legendary unintelligible handwriting and publish the third volume, The Broken Road:  From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, in 2013.  I purchased the book as soon as it was available in England, some months before being on sale in American bookstores.  For a number of reasons, I am only just now really starting to read it.

The account picks up with Fermor leaving the Danube at Vdin and entering Bulgaria, a country of particular and enduring interest to me.  Though hardly over a chapter into the book, I am already highlighting passages.

For historical context, there is this (on the road east out of Sofia):

This as far as history records is the great path from Europe to the Levant: the road to Constantinople and the gates of Asia.  It is the track of a hundred armies and the itinerary of those wonderful caravans from Ragusa that joggled their way to the Black Sea and Anatolia, just as their huge argosies of merchandise--when only Venice surpassed the little walled republic in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  Here, too, the Bulgarian inhabitants were at their most defenceless during the long night of subjection to Turkey.  The Ottoman 'beglerbeg' or viceroy of the Balkans, ranked as a three-tailed pasha, had his court and his garrison at Sofia, and between here and the capital, the Bulgars were powerless; the faintess stirrings would unloose a whirlwind of janissaries and spahis and later on, and perhaps the worst, bashi-bazouks.  They adorned the towns with avenues of gibbets, the burnt villages with pyramids of heads and the roadsides with impaled corpses.  I think it is an Arabian proverb which says, 'Where the Ottoman hoof has struck, the grass never grows again': and it is true that their occupation of the Balkans--in Bulgaria it started before the Wars of the Roses and ended after the Franco-Prussian War--has left desolation behind it.  Everything is still impoverished and haphazard, and history in smithereens.  The Turks were the last but one of the Oriental barbarians to cast their blight over Eastern Europe.

For a taste of pre-Hitlerian Europe, there is this (while walking east as the Orient Expresss passed by):

The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed.  The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs.  I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer.  I wondered who the passengers were--they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople.  The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms' manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau.

Simply put, the man could write!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

John A. Graham's Culture Tours

I do not do New Year's Resolutions, but this may come close to it.  I do plan to resume blogging in 2015, after taking off the better part of a year.  I know of no better topic to begin with than a reminder concerning John Graham's 2015 tours.  Go to his website, here and check out the offerings for 2015.  John is offering a new tour this year, concentrating on the highlands, first in Armenia and then in remote Tusheti.  By all means, check it out.  You know you want to go.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

     2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In The Breaking of Images, noted Baylor scholar and author Philip Jenkins gets a jump on the anticipated flurry of commentary. The occasion of his piece is David Motadel's recent review of "The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam" by James Noye. As Jenkins notes, "the review, and the associated scholarship, raises important questions about how we conceive of the Reformation, how we teach it, and significantly, how we will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the event in 2017." 

     In this article, Jenkins presents two important conclusions. The first one is certainly at variance with the broadly held perception of the Reformation--that is, of course, if any view of the movement (outside of scholarly circles) could said to be broad these days. My evangelical college students are as oblivious to this era and its implications for their beliefs as they are of any other historical period. That is not to say that I made any systematic study of the Reformation back in my Protestant days either. The Reformation personalities never interested me (and still do not). My understanding was the conventional one--that the movement corrected abuses in the Roman Catholic Church and made the Bible available to the common man.  (My particular sect never devoted much attention to the movement, as we believed they did not go nearly far enough, misguidedly emphasizing "reformation" rather than "restoration.")

     Jenkins (and Noye) would counter these comfortable, self-affirming assumptions with the proposition that "Iconoclasm was central to the Reformation experience, not marginal, and not just a regrettable extravagance."  In other words, the main thrust of the Reformation was the destruction of the images.

"For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase. In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively smashed....in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story."

No doubt my reception into Orthodoxy led me to reevaluate the Reformation, this time from the sidelines. Any deeper insight, however, I attribute to Eamon Duffy's brilliant and magisterial The Stripping of the Altars, simply one of the best corrective works of historical scholarship ever written.  

      Jenkins' first proposition may not trouble Reformation apologists, as I doubt many have ever anguished over the rampage against the images. His second observation, however, will be harder to digest, namely:  "Analogies between the European Reformation and contemporary Islamism are much closer than many Protestants would like to admit." Now before the sputtering starts, let's be perfectly clear about what Dr. Jenkins is proposing.  He is not comparing Protestant theology to Wahhabism, for example.  Nor is he addressing the specific truth claims of either body.  To forestall the expected rebuttals, Jenkins states that "I am speaking very specifically about attitudes to images in religious devotion, and the absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions. Could I make that any clearer?"

     Jenkins explains:

"Like Calvinism, Wahhabi Islam urged the destruction of everything that could be seen as a later accretion to the core of the religion, as well as all manifestations of paganism or idolatry.  Since the 1920s, this version of the faith has been the official creed of Saudi Arabia, and variants of it are found among Islam's violent and extreme movements.

For present purposes, it is the Wahhabi tradition that has unleashed the savage destruction of shrines and holy places that has been so widely deplored in the past half-century or so. This includes the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan, the attempted eradication of the glorious shrines and libraries of Timbuktu, and the annihilation of most of the ancient shrines and tombs around Mecca itself. Some Egyptian Islamists fantasize about eradicating all the ruins of pagan ancient Egypt, including the Pyramids themselves. Modern Westerners are rightly appalled by such acts as desecrations of humanity's cultural heritage. But such outrage demonstrates a near-total lack of awareness of the West's own history. Nothing that the Islamists have done in this regard would cause the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to lose a moment's sleep. They would probably have asked to borrow hammers and axes so they could join in."

     Dr. Jenkins also raises an eyebrow or two at the typical Western reaction to Islamist extremism, most often expressed in the hope (and need) for an Islamic "Reformation." Our progressive interpretation of the Christian Reformation as a triumph of reason and moderation over superstition is, in his estimation, "an extremely distorted view." Jenkins finds the movement to be anything but, instead characterized by extremism, violence and destruction.

     And so, the real take-away from this article is that Islam actually is going through its own Reformation, and has been doing so for the last hundred years or so, "exemplified by the Wahhabis and Salafists.  That's the problem."  The destruction of the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah in Iraq by ISIS is only the most recently manifestation of this particular pathology. Jenkins detects similar motivations between such recent barbarism and the iconoclastic rampages of the European Reformation. 

     Most Reformation apologists will simply refuse to accept any legitimate correlation between the two eras. The Reformers saw themselves as stripping away the corrupting accoutrements of the established church, and in so doing returning to the pure faith. How does this rational differ, exactly, from the motivations of today's Islamists? But there is an even more fundamental unity between the two movements. Both adhere to the "absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions." This bibliolatry would not doubt be denied by most heirs of the Reformation. And yet, words do have meaning. The belief and trust in the Bible itself, rather than the Trinity, seeps out from countless hymns, sermons, publications, and the very language of evangelicalism. This is no straw man, as I have observed it up close.

     And so, the Reformation, for better or worse, realigned and reset the Christian faith for many. According to Dr. Jenkins, we may now very well be spectators as Islam undergoes the same wrenching process. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Kennan Diaries--Part 2

This is the second installment of selections from The Kennan Diaries:  George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola.  

The first entry from 1936 naturally caught my attention, as Kennan found himself in the Soviet Republic of Georgia. While I might quibble here and there, I found that his observations largely rang true of this proud and idiosyncratic people.  He accuses Georgians of laziness--perhaps the cardinal sin for someone of Kennan's Midwestern Presbyterian background--but it is a noble laziness.  His account agrees with that written by W.E.D. Allen just a couple of years later.  Both men foresaw that the Georgians would outlast the Russians--just like they had everyone else.

Kennan's entry from 1933 displayed his lifelong pessimism (even at age 28) about the trajectory of his own nation.  He exhibited little patience with the foibles of his countrymen.  Kennan expected the worst, and the broad American culture rarely failed to disappoint.  But an entry from 1939 revealed that he remained at heart, a thoroughly "old" American who sneered at the cheap sentimentality of the British.

Riga, January
     "America, after all, is too broad and confusing a conception to warrant any genuine loyalty. What have I in common with the average southerner, or the New York Jew, or any one of a hundred types? America is hardly a national conception anymore. It is a sort of international entity. The overflow from the entire world has seeped into a great territory and has drowned out the heritage of my fathers. There it lies now, this human overflow, sprawling out over the continent in all its ignorance and all its sordidness, a society conceived in selfishness and dedicated to the proposition that one man's suffering is no other man's business, incapable of regulating its own public life, waiting stupidly for the advent of catastrophe."

The Caucasus, March
     "Kutaisi and Tiflis were too much alike to be described separately. They are essentially oriental cities, cities of the Near East. Hot sunshine, dust, overcrowding, intense street life, poverty, disease, and deceit seemed to be their main characteristics.
     The Georgians are a lazy, dirty, tricky, fiercely proud, and recklessly brave people. They never seem to work unless they have to. The Transcaucasus is the spiritual home of the drug store cowboy. The streets are packed with loafers at all hours of the day.
     Transcaucasian filth is the filth of the Orient. Compared to it, Russian filth seems earthy and wholesome.
     The Georgians claim to have acquired their trickiness from their dealings with the Armenians. However this may be (and to the outsider it seems an idle question), Tiflis and the entire Trans-caucasus seem to be rampant with corruption, speculation, and crookedness. It is commonly believed that every cashier in Tiflis makes an average of two or three hundred rubles a month on the side, by crooked means. Many of the state funds flow into channels other than those for which they were allotted. Arrears in the payment of wages are a chronic evil which not even the best efforts of the state have been able to alleviate. The teachers seem to be the hardest hit in this respect.
     The pride of the Georgian is well known. He looks down on all the neighboring races, with the possible exception of the Turk, for whom he has a certain respect as a fighter. The Armenian he hates virulently, and the Russian he holds in contempt.
     Being an intense individualist, he has a typically romantic conception of honor and dignity. He will stand being cursed better than he will stand being laughed at. He considers that it is better not to live at all than to live with besmirched dignity. He is willing to fight at the suspicion of a sneer or a slight.
     As a result of this same individualism, he shows great daring and spirit in an individual, hand-to-hand encounter, but makes comparatively poor material for a military organization. The Caucasian military units (I understand there are two divisions of locally recruited troops stationed in the Transcaucasus) look sloppy in comparison with Russian units.
     Although the Georgian nationalists do not like Stalin, they have every reason to be thankful to him. They are still the only remaining independent people of any importance in the Soviet Union. This is borne out by thousands of little indications by the faces and behavior of the people, even by the number of loafers and beggars in the Tiflis streets.
     The Georgians have never regarded themselves as having been conquered by the Russians, or as being a subject race. The Russians, in their view, simply bribed their princes and grained access to their towns. Russian soldiers, they told me, had never subjugated the country districts. At the present time, the Russians were only a tool in the hands of one faction of ambitious Georgians. To hell with them.
     Since the Kirov murder, Moscow's grasp on the Transcaucasus has begun to tighten up. It is doubtful whether Stalin, in the face of the consolidation of his power and his economic success in Russia, will be willing to tolerate much longer the laziness, the backwardness, the corruption, and the defiant, romantic nationalism of his compatriots.
     Georgia will be a hard nut to crack. But Stalin's nutcracker has cracked hard nuts before, and at the present moment it is stronger than ever. Outside observers who have had an opportunity to study Georgia at close range for a long time feel that this contraction of the Moscow nutcracker, when it occurs, will be the best thing that ever happened to the Georgians...
     The country was rich with the remnants of every sort of old culture: Roman, Greek, early Christian, every pre-historic. It was evident that man had scratched out a scanty existence on these barren, almost biblical hills for many a century.
     We passed a dam and a hydroelectric station, built some years ago by a German firm. Over it stood a statue of Lenin. The outstretched arm pointed downward, and, local wit had it that he was indicating to the faithful where they should look for his soul.
     One wondered whether some day that electric station and the statue of Lenin would not join the rich assortment of historical ruins and mementos which littered the surface and the bowels of those hills--whether, a thousand years hence, the era of Russian domination might not be recorded by historians as merely a brief and minor link in the long chain of the history of the Caucasus. It was difficult to believe that the crude stamp of Soviet Muscovy would leave a mark deeper than the mighty cultural influences of Greece and Rome."


London, June 11

     "Sunday. Stayed home all morning. Lunched downstairs. Anna Freud came over in the afternoon, a middle-aged woman with tired, deep eyes and a sensitive, intelligent face which, once seen, will not readily be forgotten.
     Later we went downtown. We walked around past Buckingham Palace and past a park where the ponds were beautiful and full of ducks and smelled abominably.... Thence to a big movie house, where we saw Goodbye, Mr. Chips and I was disgusted at the sentimentality and romanticism with which the British upper-class loves to surround itself."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Kennan Diaries: Part 1

I am currently working my way through the recently published The Kennan Diaries:  George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola.  The journals of interesting people make for compelling reading, and so I expect to finish within a few days.  Born in 1905, Kennan recorded his first journal entry at age 11.  He penned his last 88 years later at age 99, two years before his death at 101 years of age.   
I would venture to say that most Americans today have never heard of the man.  History, however, will be kind to Kennan, I think.  In the realm of foreign diplomacy, commentators and scholars increasingly reference him for insight into the particular crisis of the month.  In time, I believe the writings of George F. Kennan will perhaps be to the 20th-century what Toqueville’s are to the 19th. 

Characterized by endless frustrations and set-backs, Kennan’s career in the Foreign Service did not, on first glance, appear particularly successful.  Indeed, in a fit of exasperation, he declared that he was nothing more than a “glorified clerk.”  An intense man, Kennan immersed himself so completely into Soviet Russia during his first posting there that he suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown.  His two ambassadorial postings—to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in 1961—ended disastrously.  For all his brilliance, Kennan had a penchant for the injudicious and careless remark, which torpedoed his ambassadorships.
Kennan’s legacy, however, is to be found in his written word.  He is best known, of course, for the “Long Telegram” of 1946, from which the Cold War policy of Containment evolved.  He advised neither compromise nor confrontation with the Soviet Union, and advocated the strengthening of institutions at home, as well as the rebuilding of Europe (the Marshall Plan was largely his idea.)  Very quickly, however, successive American administrations molded his idea into whatever they wanted it to mean.  And so, Kennan spent much of the last 50 years of his life explaining why the pursuits of particular policies were not at all what he meant.  As a discredited Cassandra, sidelined from any real input into policy, his warnings went generally unheeded. 

The reason Kennan is somewhat back in vogue now is that History has proven him to have been prescient more often than not.  He scorned the notion of an ideological “war on Communism” (as he would later scorn the notion of a “war on terror”).  He was appalled at the arms race and opposed the expansion of nuclear armaments into Europe, advancing the idea of a united and demilitarized Germany.  Kennan spoke out against the Vietnam War early on, and enthusiastically backed Eugene McCarthy in 1968.  He worried that the fall of the Soviet bloc was “too sudden.”  He opposed our intervention into Somalia upon supposedly humanitarian grounds.   Kennan thought the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe to be the worst foreign policy blunder of his lifetime.  This, of course, was before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  At age 97, he and Eugene McCarthy met in Washington to speak out against this folly.  To dismiss him as a simple isolationist is to totally misunderstand the thrust of his arguments.  Kennan believed that the best approach abroad was to strengthen those domestic institutions that would bind the American people together and give meaning and structure to our larger society. 

The great irony of Kennan’s career is that he is credited with articulating our Cold War strategy against Soviet Russia, while concurrently pursuing a lifelong infatuation with all things Russian.    Kennan even liked to think of himself as Russian, writing “my Russian self…is much more genuine than the American one.”  In a letter to his sister, he noted that he would “rather be sent to Siberia among them (which certainly would happen to me …if I were a Soviet citizen) than to live in Park Avenue among our own stuffy folk.”  Kennan despised the Soviet government, but as his journals clearly illustrate, this was not from any ideological opposition to Communism (for he was scathing in his criticism of American capitalism and the bourgeoisie), but rather from the harsh paranoid Soviet policies that limited the contact he so desired with average Russians.

His journals are a rare treat, and I will be posted some excerpts, in chronological order. 

Washington, March 17
     "I pace the city like a man who is lost:  across the viaduct, into the muddy paths of Rock Creek Park where the snow has not yet melted, through the lines of white-pillared houses between Sixteenth Street and the Park.  I know this city as I know my own name, and yet there is something which I cannot find.  Somewhere, in one or another of these quiet streets, there must be genuine beauty and life, to solve the riddle.  Somewhere there must be the hidden key of significance, to unlock the meaning of this preposterous, mocking Sunday afternoon!
     Or is there no key?  Does all the life and purpose of this country flow so relentlessly into its workshops and its offices that on the days when these are closed there is nothing left but a vast, senseless desolation of stone and steel and aimless motion?  A world of lost faces, drifting helplessly in the vacuum of their own restlessness?"

Reval [Tallinn], August 5

     Week-end visit to Carlson at Hapsal.

     "I leave Reval in an execrable humor.  I feel physically tired and repulsive; I hate the world, and the world hates me.  I resent Reveal, and all the people in it; it angers me that I should have to visit Carlson when I do not want to.... It was kind and good of Carlson to ask me.  He meant well by it.  Yet what right have these people to force on me their drab world and their rigorous, middle-class standards?  What right have they, to demand, as they will, that I adapt myself to their conventions, that I play up to their weaknesses and their prejudices?

     We sit a long time at dinner, the Carlson and the Britisher chatting, while I sulk.... And what can these people know of that hope and that mystery, sitting here and chatting their foreign-colony gossip?  Their whole lives have degenerated into foreign colony gossip and they would like to pull mine down to their same level.

     The Britisher asks me if I play bridge.  I say yes, but that I do not intend to play it in Reval.  I say that I expect to do some studying and in general to be pretty busy.

     The Britisher laughs.  'That's what they all say', he replies, 'but before long they are playing around and having as good a time as the rest of them.'

       That makes my blood boil.  Damn him, do I look like the 'rest of them?'. Does he think that I, too, have so little strength of character, so few resources within myself, that I will be forced to seek refuge from boredom, as they have done, in the dull pettiness of foreign-colony social life?

     In the morning I feel stuffy and bilious.  Sunshine floods the cool garden, mocking my bitterness.  At breakfast, I sense the hostility.  I am not surprised.  I deserve it.  Before the others are through eating, Mrs. Carlson suggest that I amuse myself as I see fit.  I take the hint and excuse myself.  As I walk away, I can feel the remarks which I cannot hear.  They are all against me.  I am not their kind."

Reval, September 5

     "I was overcome with an unbearable depression.  It seemed to me that America was full of puzzled young men living tragedies, seeking pitifully in the results of their occupations some excuse for the throwing away of their own lives."

Reval, September 6

     "I feel, sometimes, the temptation to escape from the ordinary futile trend of our times by visiting strange places, doing strange things, seeing strange people.  There is always the allure about the place where no American has ever been, and one feels, when one gets there, that one has shaken off the shackles of his own environment, and has elevated himself above his fellow-citizens who stayed at home.
     It is a dangerous mistake.  The period of discovery is nearing its close.  Scourged by boredom, nitwits pursue the rare and exotic to the ends of the earth.  There is little that remains unseen, undescribed.  Halliburton's travel lecturers, wealthy professors, they all swarm through the few dim regions that have thus far resisted the twentieth century.  Anybody can travel, who has health and persistence.  Talking movies, radio, radio movies, these will soon destroy the few small fragments of the unusual which have still been
preserved from the profane view.
     Where, then, lies the escape from the squirrel-cage?  Where is the opportunity to raise one's self, by sacrifice and hardship, if need be, out of the whirlpool of the commonplace?

     It lies in depth, rather than breadth.  Our civilization is like a body of water which, lacking profundity, spreads out over its own banks and floods the countryside with a thin sheet of stagnant water.  Like a glutton reaching for new and rare morsels, heaving undigested those which he already has, it fastens with fleeing, uncomprehending curiosity on one thing after another, strips each of its coverings, gapes idiotically at it, and finally discards it again in a library or museum.  Always something new, for God's sake, something new.

     Yes, the solution lies only in depth.  There is nothing new under the sun, in the ordinary sense excerpt ourselves.  It is not farther away from all that we are familiar with, that we are going to make discoveries, but rather deeper down in our own selves, about which we know everything, and understand nothing.
 Reval, October 20

     "That's why I am probably always going to be a considerable radical." [After commenting in letter to sister about how much he despised the "boundless optimism" felt by many Americans about their "perpetual prosperity."]


Berlin, May 30
     "I rejected the communists, I said, because of their innate cowardice and their intellectual insolence.

     They had abandoned the ship of Western European civilization like a swarm of rats, when they considered it to be sinking, instead of staying on and trying to keep it afloat.  Abandoning the ship, they had grasped at a theory for economic adjustment, possibly right though somewhat antiquated, and had hoped by means of this theory to cross at a bound the gulf across which the rest of mankind had been struggling through centuries of slow and painful progress.  They had credited their own intelligence with powers far greater than those of all previous generations, had laughed at all the things which have stirred and troubled men for centuries, had called all their forefathers and most of their contemporaries hopeless fools.  I was not a religious man, I said, but this impertinence struck me as a form of sacrilege, cultural and intellectual sacrilege, if you will, as a tremendous blasphemy against all the previous struggling and suffering and sacrificing of the human animal.  I felt that it must some day be punished as all ignorant presumption and egotism must be punished.

     I tried to make it clear that this applied to communism only in its international aspect.  As a purely Russian phenomenon it might have a different meaning; for Russia it might be a constructive necessary development in a certain sense.  For us in the West, though, it could only be regarded as a Untergangserscheinung, a sign of retrogression."


Riga, May 7

     "I returned from London on the George Washington, as I recall.  There were several hundred Rotarians on board.  I find this entry in a notebook:  Several hundred Rotarians on board.  I seek their company, somewhat shyly, not because if affords me any pleasure or profit, but because I want to find something in their way of thought to which I can attach myself.  After all, if I am not an American, then I am nothing at all.
     It strikes me that while they are all nice people, there is not a real lady or gentleman among them.  These are the people whose interests I am supposed to defend.  I am not sorry to do it; they are good naïve people, most of them--kind and generous.  They work hard at home and deserve their place in the sun.  But they are children, and it is a bore to have to protect children from their environment when you cannot discipline them and teach them to protect themselves.

     Also from the notebook:

     Golf is a game for people who like walking but are afraid of being left to their own thoughts.

     Bridge is a game for people who don't even like to walk."

Thursday, March 06, 2014

My Dad

My dad was born 100 years ago today.  Anyone who lives long enough to say this of a parent must themselves consider the lengthening shadows of their own mortality.  But he has now been gone for almost 29 years, and a day does not pass that I do not think of him.  He was my hero.

My dad was born in the Texas Hill Country, on his grandfather’s farm, about 3 miles up Gann’s Creek from where it empties into the Lampasas River at the village of Maxdale.  The second son of Henry and Lillie, he was given the name “John L Henry” after his maternal grandfather and his own father, who himself was named after a favorite uncle.  For those unfamiliar with our state, the Hill Country is a rugged region in central Texas, characterized by rocky hills of cedar and live oaks, idyllic valleys watered by clear running streams, and home to deer and sheep and goats.  It is, frankly, the best part of our state—not necessarily for just the aesthetics, but rather for the quality of its citizens.  They are a straight-forward people who look life head-on, yet seem to appreciate the simple joys of living.  Hill Country folk tend to look west, rather than east, back to the Old South.  Slavery never tainted the region, and the defeatism and class divisions that weigh so heavy in the South find no home here.  From what I can gather, it was an egalitarian culture, with few of the very wealthy or the desperately poor.  Differences in circumstances were measured in number of acres owned, but most everybody lived much the same.  Today it is increasingly home to the elite, who want a ranch hangout or deer lease within easy driving range of Austin or San Antonio.  But back in the day, it was more of a hardscrabble place, where farmers and ranchers had to work hard to pull a living from the rocky soil.  Except for my college years, I have never lived there.  But I have spent my entire life going back there.  In his youth, my son called it "the Old Country." I like that.

My grandparents, Henry and Lillie, were grade school sweethearts, living on either side of the Lampasas River.  They were a perfectly yoked team, you might say, complimenting each other and making a happy home for their offspring. The stories that came down in our family—and those I’ve added from the cousins now long gone—all speak to the good times of a bygone era.  Decades ago, after our family had been gone from this region for many years, I sought out my dad’s kin.  Once these cousins learned I was the grandson of Henry and Lillie, then all doors opened for me, for it seemed that they were everyone’s favorite cousins.

I get the idea that they were interested in the larger world around them, and not just obsessed with getting the crop laid by, as important as that was.  A town aunt enabled my granddad and his sisters to receive an excellent education at the Wedemeyer Academy.  The sisters went on to graduate from college.  My granddad took a keen interest in politics—perhaps too much so.  He was on the school board for the little rural school down the road from their last farm.  My grandmother came from humbler means, and worked in a department store to help support her widowed mother and unmarried sisters.  Quite by chance, I discovered an article she submitted to a journal in 1916.  During the 1920s, they owned a victrola and would occasionally dance around the parlor together at night.  Lillie was a joyous Christian, faithful to her church.  She usually sang while she worked.  She could play the musical instruments available to them—piano, organ, violin, accordion, French harp, etc.  She bobbed her hair in the mid 1920s.

My dad had a lifelong love affair with horses.  My granddad and his sisters sold the farm when my dad was five.  But even at this young age, my granddad would place his son on old Star, the gentle mare that the family had for so long, and then my dad would ride down to Maxdale.  There, one of the men at the general store would bring the mail out to him, and then the little boy and Star would trot back home.  Within a year or two of his death, I remember my dad racing across our big hay meadow on his quarter horse, lariat in hand, after a steer that had peeled away from the corral.  And so, of my dad’s 71 years, at least 66 of them were spent on horseback.

The family moved around a bit after leaving Maxdale, first living on Lillie’s aunt’s place, then near Henry’s uncle.  In about 1928, they purchased a farm of their own in the Harmon community. They raised a number of crops--vegetables, cotton, grain—and had some cattle, dairy and otherwise, as well as hogs and sheep.  The family, at that time, consisted of four boys and an only daughter.  The four boys were a handful, as the saying goes.  I once talked with a woman who went to school with my dad, and whose two sisters married my granddad’s cousins.  I think she had been a little sweet on my dad.  She more or less characterized the oldest brother as the proud one, my dad as the smart one, the third son as the mischievous one, and the fourth son as the good one—and she had them pegged. 

My grandmother doted on her oldest son, which caused him to hold himself aloof from his brothers.  This attitude insured that he would be the brunt of pranks instigated by my dad and his next younger brother.  What one wouldn’t think of, the other would.  Sometimes they would enlist the services of the good-natured fourth brother, though they could just as easily turn their attentions to his discomfort, as well. These stories are legion in the family, but two of them stand out as favorites—and both concern my oldest uncle’s courting days.  One night, my uncle had a female guest over to the house.  The other children were instructed to stay out of the way, and leave the front parlor to the young couple.  My dad and his next younger brother climbed up the ladder into the attic.  They took a cat with them as they went.  There they opened the stovepipe coming up through the attic from the parlor.  As it was warm weather, there was no fire in the store, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to stuff the cat down the stovepipe.  The courting downstairs quickly broke up amidst the screeching cat and the soot.  My dad shimmied down the ladder and out the back door as quick as he could.  His partner, however, was rolling on the floor of the attic, convulsed with laughter.  By the time my uncle had composed himself enough to effect an escape, it was too late.  My granddad was waiting at the foot of the ladder, belt in hand.  Another story had the two brothers sneaking off to the barn as the older brother was preparing to ride off to visit a neighbor girl.  Before their brother could leave, they got a water hose and gave his horse an enema.  The results were as you would expect when my uncle mounted his horse and spurred her on.  And then there was the story I learned only in recent years.  My grandparents and the younger children had gone into town.  Left at home alone, my dad and his younger brother gave each other Mohawk haircuts, stripped down to nothing or next to it, then spent the day galloping around the neighborhood bareback, whooping and hollering as the wild Indians that they were.

My dad was the entrepreneurial one of the bunch.  His father gave him an acre out of the corner of the place where he could raise whatever he wanted and keep the profits for himself.  From this patch my dad raised enough cotton to purchase an old roadster in his teenage years.  My dad wanted to go to Texas A&M and become a county agricultural engineer.  He graduated high school in 1932, but my granddad talked him into working for a year first.  My dad said that by the time that year was up, he knew that there would be no college in his future.  My granddad was, in fact, deeply in debt.  My dad told me once that he never knew they were poor.  The family lived modestly, but Henry and Lillie enjoyed life and each other, so much so that their children never contemplated the fact that they might be poor. 

In the fall of 1933, my dad, his next youngest brother and my granddad went out to the High Plains to pick cotton.  A cousin made good out there and there was work to be had.  My granddad and uncle returned home, but my dad stayed on a while in the Panhandle.   He returned to central Texas just before Christmas, 1933.  He pulled up to the farmstead and received a shock.  The place was empty—no stock in the barns, no chickens and turkeys pecking around the yard, no furniture in the house, no farm equipment of any sort.  My dad’s own personal horse and saddle were gone as well.  At some point, their kindly German neighbor, Mr. Falkenberg, stepped over and explained what happened.  After the stock market crash of 1929, agriculture prices dropped precipitously, and then leveled off.  My grandfather thought that this would be a good time to expand, while prices for equipment and stock were low as well.  The big mercantile establishment (really a bank) in Lampasas outfitted him in new farm equipment and stock.  Of course, the leveling off after the drop in prices turned out to be just a plateau before they plummeted to new depths.  My granddad was never able to pull out of the hole.  Finally, just before Christmas of 1933, the Lampasas firm arrived on the farm and repossessed everything, including my dad’s personal horse and saddle.

I have often thought about this day, my 19-year old dad standing there in the yard of their lost farm, and how it affected him.  I know this: It marked him, as the old country saying goes.  This, and the events that soon followed, marked him for life.

My dad found his family living in a nearby town.  My granddad was able to keep his old truck, and was earning a bit of money here and there by hauling for hire.  Money had to be found somewhere, for my grandmother, at age 44, was expecting their sixth child.  She had not had a child in ten years, though there had been two miscarriages along the way.  Their doctor warned her about becoming pregnant again.  My grandfather tried to borrow money for a hysterectomy, but to no avail.  And so, in late February, she gave birth to my last uncle.  Their regular doctor was unavailable, and Lillie refused the expense of going to the hospital in Temple.  Complications set it and her condition deteriorated.  At last, they took her to the hospital anyway, but it was too late and she soon died.  Her body was taken to her grandparent’s home, from where the funeral was held, followed by burial in the family plot under the live oaks, not 300 feet away.

Times were desperate.  Family members stepped in to help, as much as they could, but my grandfather resisted the breaking-up of the family.  My dad and his next younger brother took action to help the family and provide for their younger siblings still at home.  In April 1934, my dad joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era government assistance program.  Half of his salary would be automatically sent home for the benefit of his family.  Within the last two years, my aunt--the sole surviving sibling--told me with tears in her eyes how it was my dad’s money that had fed them during these tough times.

The Corps transferred my dad to a camp in East Texas, where he was stationed for two and a half years, with temporary postings in the Pecos Mountains and in Oregon as well.  He learned the skill of land surveying in the CCCs.  This would be the profession he would follow for the rest of his life.  Some might say he was a self-made man, and of course, in some sense he was.  But he never loudly made this claim himself.  He never discounted the assistance and training he received from the government during the mean years of the Depression.  In later life, somewhat awash in prosperity, he never complained about having to pay taxes.  He would say, “If I hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have to pay it.”  My dad was a citizen, in the best sense of that word.  And he remained throughout life, a good Democrat (though with one slip.)

While stationed in East Texas, my dad met my mother.  He saw her at work in a field as he drove down a country road.  Today, my nephew owns that very same pasture.  I cannot think of two people as different in background and temperament as my dad and mother.  And yet, they made a good team.  He could put things together and make things happen, while she would see that they hung on to some of it.  In her own way, my mother was a great woman, but this is not her story I’m telling today. 

Her immediate family was poor, though it had not always been so.  Her great-grandfather had been prosperous, a gin-owner with close to 800 acres of land.  But there were many grandchildren, and so this turned out to be of no great advantage to my mother’s father.  He compounded things by marrying—at age 16—the daughter of one of his grandfather’s sharecroppers.  My mother’s father was a quiet man, peculiar in the peculiar ways of his very peculiar family.  His new bride was of a different sort—domineering, opinionated, stubborn, and not a little crazy.  The well was poisoned early in her relations with her mother-in-law, and with six children in nine years, their lives never rose above the bleakness of a Southern sharecropper’s life.  Unlike my dad’s family, there are no stories of good times or amusing anecdotes—only the struggle to live. 

My mother’s mother doted on the two youngest children, and more or less ignored the others, including my mother.  My mother’s next youngest brother was best of the lot, and the only one who emerged from that family seemingly unscathed.  He was a prince of a man, who died all too soon.  The others—including my mother—carried the scars of their upbringing.  She was not particularly self-reflective, and was often deeply suspicious of those outside her immediate family circle.  She did not understand people that were different from herself.  Looking back, this is such a contrast with my dad’s open and easy manner with everyone.  Only after his death did I fully realize the extent that he had moderated her inclinations.  But like I say, they were a good team.  And if I am still living and blogging in five years, I will tell her story more fully, and (I trust) more sympathetically. 

Her mother never liked my dad.  As my mother was packed and leaving home to make a life with with my dad, her mother followed her daughter out to his roadster, telling my mother that if she left with that man, then not to ever come back.  He was twenty-two, she seventeen.  The newlyweds returned to Central Texas at first, but my dad soon discovered that conditions were even worse there than in East Texas. And so, they did return to my mother’s home—my dad with no visible prospects.  My mother’s mother worried about this no-good son-in-law.  Her solution was to sew him a cotton-picking sack.  He took one look at it and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know I’m not going to do that.”  He realized that there was no future in it, as they say.  His mother-in-law took it that he was too good to pick cotton.  She quipped to a kinsman, “I don’t know what John is going to do.  We already have a President and a Governor.”  No, she never warmed up to him, not even when she died in the house he built her, cared for by the daughter she ignored.  I doubt she would have changed her mind had she lived to see him end up supporting the better part of her family, at one time or another, for the rest of his life.

My dad got a job as a surveyor with an engineering company based in Tyler, Texas.  Soon, he was managing their operations in Arkansas.  My dad always had on-going side ventures.  He built or remodeled a couple of houses in Arkansas, moving his dad and sister and youngest brother into one and renting the other.  He purchased a Lion gas station and grocery story.  My mother ran the store and pumped gas while he was surveying.  Back home in East Texas, he starting running a few cows on my mother’s family place (actually owned by her grandmother.)  One by one, he also started buying out all the heirs.  By the time he was 29, he and my mother owned the entire 200 acre farm that her great-grandfather had given her grandfather.  Other farms have come and gone, but this one—known simply as “the Old Place”—is sacrosanct. 

In 1946, my dad and mother moved back from Arkansas.  In that year, he founded his own land surveying business, with this August marking our 68th year in operation.  He was a hard worker and his company grew quickly.  The 1950s and 1960s were the period of greatest expansion, with surveying crews working in a number of states.  His largest project involved surveying a pipeline route from the outskirts of Philadelphia to the outskirts of Chicago.  My dad gained a reputation as a fair man who treated everyone with respect.  He enjoyed poking fun at pretense, and always dressed in plain work khakis, or in later years, jeans.  He commanded great loyalty from his co-workers and never asked them to do anything that they did not see him do first.  He was my great example of how one is to treat their fellow man.

My dad loved his work, and he pursued it relentlessly.  But at heart, he was a cowboy.  And so, our lives revolved around the farms, cattle, and the feeding and care of same.  In 1962, he purchased his last farm, which we simply referenced as the “the big place.”  He spent the last 20+ years of his life, working on this ranch, first part-time, and then full-time in his “retirement.”  Unlike most, this was a real working ranch.  Most of the time I spent with my dad was in going back and forth to these farms, feeding or just checking on the cattle.  For someone who grew up around cattle all their life, I know as little about them as anybody.  I was never interested, and it simply never “took” with me.  I did, however, relish the time spent with my dad and the conversations we would have along the way.  I would have been happy with far fewer cows and more of my dad.  This is not to criticize him, for he could not have been anybody else than who he was.  He and my brother were closer, I would think.  But for the last ten years of his life, at least, I was the one who was with my dad more.  And in the last year of his life, after my brother's death, I think we came to understand each other better than we ever had.

On occasion, I have had people tell me that I remind them of my dad in some way.  This is getting more and more infrequent as time passes, as there are fewer people living who knew him.  Any commonality is probably accidental at best, as I can never be the man he was.  But I would always smile and thank them, not admitting that this was, in fact, the greatest compliment I could ever receive, nor could I admit that I would always choke-up a bit inside, as well.

Memory Eternal, Dad.