Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
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
Thursday, January 08, 2015
Thursday, January 01, 2015
|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
Friday, August 01, 2014
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?"
"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
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.
"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
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.
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.
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.
"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
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 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.
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.