Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Thespians Come to Town" by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly, Indian Territory of "IT"

You young people won't have known this, but way back before the War and in the worst part of the Depression, they used to be these traveling actors that would come into county seat towns and put on plays. Sometimes they'd come of a Friday and put on shows on Friday and a couple of shows on the Saturday following, but sometimes they'd just come and do two or three shows on a Saturday. Of course, Saturdays was the day when we all come to town, to get groceries and feed, go to the picture show, and just visit and catch up on the news.

Well, this traveling troupe of "Thespians" as they called theirselves come to Marietta and set up to put on a play in the courthouse there. Word had got around in the weeks before and they was a mess of people in town on the day of the play. They was all over the place. The courthouse square was covered with people and the streets were lined with cars, wagons, and horses. It was like a county fair. Folks was selling popcorn and boiled peanuts and fried pies. This preacher was holding forth on the corner in front of the First National Bank. He had a little group of people with him to sing and a fat lady to play this little pump organ; she was twice the size of that little pump organ, and that was a funny sight. The old men were sitting in front of Sprouse's hardware store, whittling, and talking, and chewing tobacco, and watching the good looking women- and some that wadn't so good looking. The cafes and saloons was making a killing. And everbody excited about this play, which was called, "Murder at Midnight." Everthang was set to start at one o'clock.

Now by twelve noon they had opened up the main court room, turned on them big ceiling fans, and opened up the tall windows on on either side to get any breeze they could. People had rushed in to get the closest seats on the main floor and in the balcony. It was hot as Dick's hatband and the ladies was fanning themselves with Dodson Funeral Home fans with pictures of the Good Shepherd on them. The men was jist sweating through their overalls and shirts, tugging at their collars buttoned up to the top. They young'ns was restless and whiny like they was in church, saying out loud ever once in while, "How much longer, Mama?" They had shifted the judge's bench and witness stand and other furniture to the side of the main floor and set up their props and furniture for the play. You could almost smell the excitement over the sweat and cheap perfume and pomade.

Well, unbeknownst to the paying crowd there in the main court room of the Love County courthouse, they was this crisis going on down at the Excelsior Hotel. The second main actress had come down with laryngitis and could barely make a squeak. She wadn't the main actress, but she was important to the story of the play, so the troupe was in a state of pure anxiousness- and I do mean anxiousness. They was thinking about all them dimes and quarters they was going to have to refund these people. They was three or four civic leaders with them and they was worried about that bunch of hot, excited folks in the courthouse and what they might do even if their money was refunded.

Finally, (and it was getting on toward 12:30) the head Thespian says, "Is there a woman here in town that could stand in for Eugenie? Somebody with her looks and maybe with a little sassiness that wouldn't mind being in front of a crowd? We could cut the script so she wouldn't have to say but a few lines."

Well, the city fathers got their heads together and finally said, "How much would you be willing to pay?"

"Three dollars. A dollar for each of the three presentations."

Well, that nearly took all the air out of the room as most of them men in the courthouse was working in the fields for a sight less than a dollar a day.

So somebody says, "Go see if you can find Ruthie Fulks."

Well, before long they come back with Ruthie. Now Ruthie was a character and her looks showed it. Lots of makeup, Marcel wave hair do that was a little out of style, and a slinky shift of a dress that covered a fine, if kindly plump, figure. She had a bought cigarette in her hand and the nails were fire engine red. She also had a way about her that kindly made everbody set up and take notice when she came into a room.

So they made her the proposition and she asked, "How much?" When they told her, her eyes got big and she nearly tripped over her own tongue accepting. So the main Thespian starts to tell her what few lines she had to say and when to say them and what else she had to do. The civic leaders left the Hotel and went and got their seats in the courthouse that their wives had been saving up on the front row of the main floor. They set there wiping sweat from their worried brows with starched linen handkerchiefs.

Directly, jist after one o'clock, the main Thespian comes out of the Judge's Chambers behind the stage and the people started to clap and hoot like they was at a New York opera house. He raised his hand and silenced the crowd and explained the emergency that they had jist resolved and told em about Ruthie Fulks and her gracious willingness to help out. Now, at the mention of Ruthie, the crowd sorta sighed and began whispering to each other and the wives of the City Leaders cast some dark looks out of the sides of their eyes at their husbands setting there. But after a short spell and the assurance of the main Thespian that "The Show Must Go On!" they all settled down for the first act, fanning and fidgeting, but trying to behave like the upper crust down at the front.

Now, the first act, went well, and the second. Ruthie made a brief appearance in the second act and had an even briefer set of lines. The third act was where it got interesting.

The scene is a hotel room with a bed and a davenport and such. (They had to move thangs around between acts with the people watching, because that's the best they could do.) The main Thespian is sitting on the davenport with his head hung down, sighing and muttering to himself. Then, in comes Ruthie in a robe and slippers.

"You have wronged me, " says the main Thespian.

"I have not. I have been true," says Ruthie. (The people was quite impressed because she seemed to be a natural actress.)

"I don't believe you anymore. I cannot trust you!" says the main Thespian. Then, he pulls a revolver out of his jacket. The crowd gasps. The women clap their hands over their mouths. The men scoot out on the edge of the pews they are setting on. Several of the smaller children cover their eyes with sweaty, grubby hands.

"Oh, John, no! Please! No! No! No!" says Ruthie, with such conviction that the women have tears in their eyes and some of the men have to swallow down hard.

The main Thespian aims and fires. The shock of the gunfire and the smell of the smoke jist ratchets up the tension. Ruthie slaps her ample bosom and blood starts to come out through her spread fingers, blood the color of them little pretty fingernails of hers. The crowd gasps- I swear you could of hear it out on the courthouse lawn. One old lady began to sob and somebody, a male, was heard to mutter, "Well, I'll be damned." You could cut the tension in that big room with a knife.

The main Thespian drops the revolver as Ruthie drops to the floor and begins to tear at his long, fine hair with both hands, all the while pacing back and forth across the stage. He is saying, over and over again, and each time with greater dramatic effect

"What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?"

By now, they's lots of the women weeping, even some of those grand dames down on the front row. Everybody is tense and kinda cut up. They have forgot that this is a play and have been carried away by the story and the acting. They've even forgot that that is Ruthie Fulks layin' down on the floor there in a pool of blood. The main Thespian continues to pace and to cry out

"What have I done?"

Well, between one of them "What have I dones?" old Grover Daugherty, who has been sucking on his second half pint of Bourbon since his drinking day began earlier that morning, stands up in the balcony. He is not steady on his feet by a long shot, and he is not only drunk, he's tore up and cryin'. Grover wipes his runny nose on his sleeve and hollers out,

"I'll tell ye what ye've done, you Thespian son-of-a-bitch! Ye've done killed the only whore in this town, that's what ye've done!"

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are All the Nuts in Church?

I sometimes think that all the nuts are in churches. But, then, I go to an occasional rock concert, flea market, or Wal-Mart, and realize that nuts are everywhere.

What makes church nuts even nuttier is their piety, intensity, and general humorlessness.

Here is the most recent example of church nuttiness I have come across.

My mother and sister-in-law attend a Baptist church in Oklahoma City. Last Sunday, as they went around greeting and welcoming people, they came upon a stranger visiting the church for the first time.

As my mother-in-law offered her hand in greeting, the female visitor tendered a piece of white bond paper, approximately two inches square, upon which was printed the following message:

"Let me extend to you a WORD
of greeting rather than shaking
hands. In the interest of Public
Health, we have decided to
avoid the practice of public
handshaking. We prefer the
Biblical method of greeting
people, by 'Saluting' as
described in Romans 16:1-16."

Never mind that Paul in Romans 16 says in verse 16 (part of the suggested proof text offered above), "Salute one another with a holy kiss" (KJV).

Oh, well... as they say in Yorkshire, "There's nowt so quair as folk!" (There is nothing so queer as folk!)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Part of a Family, Part III

So, who was this boy the Wynn's invited into their home, into their family? What did they find when they began to discover who I then was?

Ken and Bettye Wynn were in their late twenties at the time. They were idealistic, devout, and committed to their sense of Christian calling. They were loving, self-sacrificing, and generous. I never knew for sure what their income was, but I know that they were living on a very constrained budget. With their talents and education they could have easily had careers where they were making a great deal more money than they would in a second-fiddle role in a medium sized Baptist church. They had three small daughters and there would soon be a fourth. They never asked me to contribute to the family economy, and I am chagrined to say, I never offered to, though I had a considerable amount of discretionary cash because of my preaching junkets and part-time job. O the follies of youth!

Ken was devout, but easy going. He was great fun and had a gentle way about him. Bettye was charming, but her piety had a tougher edge to it than Ken's. We got on wonderfully together. They had a fine sense of style and their home was filled with beautiful things, antique furniture that no one then cared about, pictures, books, and music. Bettye was a wonderful cook.

Here were two people on a limited income who had determined to fill their lives with beauty and style. The girls were what little girls are in a well-ordered home, sweet and happy.

Their taking me into the heart of this family was fraught with Christian idealism and naivete'. They would soon discover what a complex and complicated human being they had taken on. I would soon discover that living as a part of a family was radically different from the life that I had lived for seventeen years. It is a testimony to their faith, patience, and generosity that it succeeded at all, and that it succeeded over a period of two-plus years is nothing short of astonishing.

During those years, I began to learn what it is to be a part of a family. I was challenged and by circumstances, forced, to begin to live in a world where my wants and wishes were not the center of everything. Gently, the Wynns began to exert a discipline upon my life. Schedules, commitments, obligations were to be honored. Doing things with the family in mind became a solemn responsibility. There were inevitable conflicts, and some of them were sharp, but their unfailing love supported and conquered me. They were remarkably forgiving.

After a breakup with a beautiful girl in my junior year, I went into a deep depression and found solace in music. My tastes had broadened to include folk and early rock and I would lose myself in the music and lyrics of Woody Gurthrie, Dylan, and the Seekers. I decided I would go back to a life of rambling around and music, like Woody. I used to sit on the porch of his old house in Okemah and play my guitar and sing. When school ended for the summer, I packed a knapsack, took two hundred dollars from my account (I had a part-time job and preaching honoraria), grabbed my Gibson guitar, and headed to I-40 below the bluff that Okemah sits upon. I was on my way to Boise, Idaho, where my father's brother, Ken, lived. My first lift took me all the way to Gallup, New Mexico. From there I was picked up by a drunk who had been in Gallup with his mistress. He took me north to Shiprock. He kept the needle on one hundred most of the way and I was grateful for the straight highway between Gallup and Shiprock. As I walked on highway 491, I watched the morning sunlight coming down the Shiprock. A Navajo man took me across the northeast corner of Arizona and the Indian Reservation to Monticello, Utah, where I cleaned up in a Sinclair station and had breakfast in a truck stop. I was walking on clouds with happiness. From Monticello, I got a lift to the Junction of U.S. 191 and I-70. From there, a trucker took me all the rest of the way to Boise. I had made the whole trip in twenty-three hours.

I called my uncle from a truck stop there and he came to get me. He and my aunt had no idea that I was coming. When I climbed into the front seat, the first thing he said was, "Get your heart broke by some old girl?" I stayed with them for two weeks, during which time my aunt's father was dying. I had known the old man for some years as I had visited Idaho on two other occasions with my uncle and aunt. We visited him on his death bed on the sage brush flat of Orchard, Idaho. He looked at me with his rheumy eyes and said, "Don't throw your life away, Tommy. Don't waste your life." It went home like a dart through my heart. I walked out on the desert. It had just showered and the smell of petrichore and sage filled the air. I decided I would return to Oklahoma and to the Wynns if they would have me back.

The Wynns had no idea where I was. I had left no note. I had taken the things that meant the most to me and that I could carry. They were frantic with worry for these weeks. In retrospect, I cannot imagine their anxiety, anger, and fear.

When Mr. Reed died in the ensuing days, we were suddenly on our way to Fayetteville, Arkansas where he would be buried. After the funeral, we returned to the family homeplace in Thackerville, where I phoned the Wynn home. Bettye answered the phone and when she heard my voice, she began to sob. "May I come back?" I asked. "You will have to talk to Ken and he is not home right now." When I later spoke to Ken, he was gentle, but firm. I would be welcomed back, but certain things would have to change. On the next day, my grandfather took me to Marietta where I boarded a Greyhound bus for Oklahoma City and Okemah.

The Wynn's received me back like the Prodigal Son that I was. It was an astonishing display of Christian love and forgiveness. I have not forgotten this and hope I never shall.

There were new rules, new restrictions, a new insistence that I consider others as more important than myself. Little by little I began to make progress in living with others and not living solely for myself. Their love supported it all.

My senior year in high school was one of the happiest of my life. I had settled down within the Wynn family, I continued to preach, and I was in a happy relationship with a beautiful, sweet girl who was a true soul-mate. I was popular at school, voted president of the senior class, and took part in the Thespian productions of the English department. I had some very fine teachers and won the regional academic award for art history as well as dabbling in drawing and painting.

After I began my freshman year at Oklahoma Baptist University, the Wynn's moved yet again to Woodward, Oklahoma to serve in the 1st Baptist Church there. I visited them, even had a room in their home for a time, but gradually we saw less and less of one another. I had met the woman who was to be my wife in Tulsa and was spending more time there when away from school.

In the ensuing years, my ties with the Wynns slowly dissolved. There was no bitterness or conflict. I was busy with my new bride and a new career as a pastor in the Tulsa area, and the Wynns were going through some very difficult times of their own. Over the years there were occasional letters and cards, but we lost touch the way people do in this life.

Only recently have I reconnected with members of the Wynn family. I am now in touch with three of the girls and indirectly with their father.

I have written these posts in order to pay my tribute to them for their love and kindness to me. The years I spent with them were formative in making me what I have become. They taught me in a profound way what it means to be a part of a family. They, thus, enabled me to enter with greater wisdom and tact my wife's family. I have also reconnected with the various wings of my own family through the years, and they played a role in this as well. Because of their example, they have enabled me to have my own family. Ours has been a home filled with beautiful things. Ours has been a home where each was expected to consider others as better than himself. Ours has been a home where love and forgiveness are paramount.

I owe much of this to the Family Wynn. I would here offer them my profound thanks.

A Part of a Family, Part II

The summer of 1967 found me in Ontario, California with my maternal grandmother and my aunts and cousins. I had spent summers with them from the mid-fifties on. Once there, I began to haunt record shops looking for old timey music. Through one of these I connected with a man who led a bluegrass band and began playing with them at jams held in his home. This band had cut a record with a label called "Rural Rhythm Records" and was slated to do another that summer. This looked like an early break into a music career. I began playing rhythm guitar and singing lead with this group. They really were an accomplished bunch of amateur musicians. We had a fine banjo picker, a female vocalist, a dobro player, while the leader played upright bass, mandolin, and flat-pick guitar. By this time I had memorized over a hundred songs as well as writing several of my own. Don't misunderstand me, these were not great songs. They were the standard, "you, untrue, blue" variety of country songs. But, some of the melodies were unique and quirky, and this is what record producers are looking for. I met the then owner/producer of RR and performed some of my songs for him. He was mildly impressed, probably in part because I was fifteen years old.

The leader of the band was one of the most disgustingly immoral men I have ever known. He was unscrupulous and manipulative. I was always uneasy with him and this increased as the summer waned. I came to believe he was stealing my songs and promoting them as his own. When I became convinced of this, I walked away. Full stop. This has always been my way of dealing with people I am convinced have betrayed me. I walk away...full stop. In one way, it has been easy for me to do this, given my frequently interrupted young life.

This is not to say I wasn't disappointed. I was crushed. We were weeks away from doing the record which would involve our covering standard bluegrass favorites as well as including one or two of my songs. I was also embarrassed because I had told people at home that I was about to cut a record with this band.

I quit my job, bought a plane ticket (my first), and flew back to Dallas on my way home. When I got home, my grandparents were dismayed. There was no work for me there and I had left a decent job, and they had enjoyed the peace of not having to worry about me and put up with my shenanigans. This only added to my depression and sense of failure.

On the first Sunday after my return, I rose early, cleaned up and dressed in my best music playing clothes, and asked my grandfather to drive me to church. My grandmother nearly floated above the ground she was so pleased.

When I arrived at the little Baptist church there were many whispers and nods. I tried to sing the hymns, which I did not know. I bowed my head when they prayed, stood when they said stand, sat when they said sit. I endured the sermon because my friend, the Rev. Spann was the preacher. He was the reason I was there. I needed a friend. He was a friend, a true friend who could be trusted.

At the end of the sermon he gave the customary Baptist "invitation" for people to come forward "to be saved." I found myself strangely moved and with great deliberateness, went forward.

Over the intervening forty-plus years, I have looked at this experience through every lens available to me. I know it can be explained in purely psychological terms. I was a prime candidate for a "conversion." William James would have smiled wryly at it all and quietly explained it as typical. I would now agree with nearly everything he would have to say.

But, I would go on to say this: That was a watershed day in my life. It was the point from which the rest of my life would take its trajectory. I believe that I encountered God on that hot, July day. I believe he encountered me in that little village and in that ugly little building. I am what I am today because of that encounter. The rest of my life would be spent in living out that initial encounter and trying to understand its ramifications.

Well, I don't have to tell you, if you have followed this story up to this point, that I took hold of this new life the same way I had always taken hold of things: with hammer and tongs.

Soon thereafter, I would "surrender to a call to preach the Gospel," and in the tradition of earlier Southern Baptists, would become a "preacher boy." When I preached my first sermon later that summer the whole place was packed and they had to bring in folding chairs. From that point my preaching career was launched. I began to preach in some little place every weekend.

I was as ignorant as a box of bolts. I was a new convert. But, what I lacked in understanding, not to say wisdom and experience, I made up for with sheer exuberance, zeal, and personality. I had found my place and it had the commendation of God. I had also entered into a very dangerous place, spiritually and morally. It is but for the sheer and tender grace of God that I did not go down in a tragic shipwreck of faith and morals.

It was at this time that I met the Wynn family, the family I would come to live with in Okemah, Oklahoma. They saw my gifts, my potential, and came to love me. They also saw the lack of discipline and oversight in my young life. They were living in Healdton, Oklahoma at the time. Without notice of any kind, I would just show up on their doorstep, having hitchiked the fifty miles or so to get there. During this time they were "called" to Okemah and invited me to go with them. They spent an evening talking with my grandparents and receiving their permission for me to go. Mama and Papa were old and tired by this time, and, while it grieved them to see me leave, I am sure, in one respect, they were relieved to see me go. They also were hopeful that a better school and social situation could improve my future prospects. So, on that warm, sunny November morning, I loaded my rocking chair, my books, and my clothes into Ken Wynn's pickup and headed for a new life.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Part of a Family, Part I

Just after my seventeenth birthday, I was invited to live with a family that I had become friends with during the previous months. This change involved my leaving my own family in southern Oklahoma. They were willing to accede to this change because they saw in it a chance for my own improvement. I will never forget the morning I left the old home-place. I loaded my few belongings and said good-bye to my grandfather, my "Papa." He was not one to demonstrate his emotions, but his eyes were red-rimmed and full of tears when I hugged him and said, "Bye, now."

The young, for the most part, are oblivious to feelings, except their own, and I was no exception to this rule. I know now something of the pain the old couple must have endured and the loneliness of that remote old house in my absence. I now have pain and regrets over the many sorrows I caused them, including this one. But, this same oblivion is what makes the young adventurous and daring, and I was nothing if not adventurous and daring. I was ready for a new start, a new life!

The family I moved in with were a Christian couple with three young daughters. They had moved to another Oklahoma town to be the music/youth director in a Baptist church there. The plan was for me to live in a little cottage behind their church-provided home, but soon, I was ensconced as a member of the family in one of the three bedrooms in the house. This, itself, posed a hardship on the girls, who had to room together in a smallish bedroom. I mention this only to reveal yet another aspect of this family's generosity toward me.

What did they find when they began to discover who I then was? I was warm, personable, gregarious, full of fun. I was talented, gifted, bookish. I was also wild, undisciplined, impulsive, given to extreme mood swings. I could be kind and gracious one minute and carried away in a towering rage the next. In many ways, I was a mess. And, I do mean a mess!

The fact is, I had been on my own in one form or another all my life. After my mother's death, my father traveled the country with me in the front seat of his 1951 Ford sedan. I was thirteen months old. We crisscrossed the country together as he tried to literally drive out his pain and leave his grief behind him. But, pain and grief like his cannot be evaded; they met him whenever he arrived at a new place. Finally, he needed to go to work and he took me to his parent's home, the one I would leave on that November day in 1968. There I lived like a little prince for the next four years. After that, I went to live with my father and his new wife. The next years would be hell on earth, and a part of that hell would be the long hours that I spent alone, even as a small child, while my father and his wife worked. In that loneliness I developed my own inner-world, a world where I could escape, a world where I was king. I would from time to time invite others into this world, but I was always the leader, the defender of my kingdom, and the sole arbiter of that realm. This continued into my early teens.

When I reached my early teens, my life with my step-mother had become so abusive, and her marriage to my father so volatile, that my grandparents feared for my safety and sanity. They pleaded with my father to let me return to them on the pretext that my grandmother needed someone with her when my grandfather worked at his night watchman's job. My father resigned himself to this and I was back at the happiest place on earth to me!

The next two years were idyllic. I was free to roam at will the woods and hills of southern Love County, Oklahoma. I had several rifles and shotguns along with other woodsman's gear: a Hudson's Bay axe, steel traps, a backpack, knives and hatchets of all sorts. When not in school, I was in the woods and on the Red River, in all weathers and at all hours, hunting, trapping, fishing, and just being alone. I learned woodcraft from my grandfather and uncles, from books by Daniel Carter Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton, and from experience- watching, listening, smelling, tasting, touching the wild world. I shudder to think back at some of my exploits, so dangerous and daunting they were for a boy. I once made a trek, through nine or ten inches of snow, that went on for about eight or nine miles, looking for furbearers and their den-trees. I returned in the bitter cold as the sun was setting in the clear reddened sky, my pant's legs frozen like stove pipes from the knees down in the sub-freezing cold. But, I remember, too, the sense of achievement and pride I had in that trek and the joy of coming home to my Mama's hot cooking. I know now that, though they had worried about me, they were proud of me, too.

During this same period, I made friends with two brothers, Eddy and Lonnie Foster, who were also enamored of the woods and woodcraft. We were inseparable, but I was still the leader, though both were older by two or three years. Together, we hunted with hounds- coons, possums, anything with fur on it. We became accomplished at it and were admired in the community for it. Together we made a camp on the spring branch belonging to my grandfather, and at my insistence, built a log cabin on the spot from trees we felled ourselves, notched, and rolled into place. It stood for years on the spot until it rotted away. I still have photographs of it in ruins.

But, despite the friendship, I was often alone in the woods and on the River... thinking. "...and a boy's thoughts are long, long thoughts." My life, though social and in some ways, gregarious, was still an interior life, a life of thinking, reading, exploring, doing...alone. My grandparents were people of the land and of the woods, so they were content to hold their breath and pray, and let me go.

In my fourteen year, I fell in love with bluegrass and old-timey country music. At the same time, my youngest aunt had married a guitar picker who began to teach me to play. I went at it with the same savage, manic fury that I went at everything. My fingers bled from practice in those early days. Little by little I began to be proficient. When I was good enough, I began to play with older pickers and singers at home dance-parties. A child musician-singer is always a wonder to adults, especially one that can perform without nervousness before a crowd. I was such a child.

Soon I was playing at county "hootenannies" and with adult, accomplished pickers. I even started a band of my own called the "Midnight Ramblers." There were three of us, but I was still the leader. The band finally failed because of territory battles between an older member and myself. Finally, I began to play and sing with an adult group, whose leader had been a Nashville session musician. With adults, I was willing to "keep my place," so long as they did not place too stringent demands on me. During this time, my grandparents let me go wherever and whenever I wanted; they could do little else without having me incarcerated. I was willful and wild. I was also popular, with girls and with adults, especially after they had had a few drinks. My group began to sneak me into venues that were strictly adult- bars, joints, VFW clubs.

During this period, my grades suffered and I was often half-there in class because of my midnight ramblings. I adopted cocky, brash, and adult airs. Even those in my family who loved me found me insufferable. They were worried about the company I was keeping and about my time on the road. I couldn't drive and had no car if I could have, so I hitchhiked around the county and beyond. Well they may have worried, and did. They warned me, pleaded with me, and threw up their hands in exasperation. I was on my own- though they were there to feed me, clothe me, and shelter me... and, I now see, to love me. It was a horrible time for them. When I remember my treatment of them, I am full of wonder and shame. There was already talk of "going to Nashville" and making a music career. This was enhanced by the fact that I had already begun to write my own songs.

During this time, I was befriended by my high school English teacher, the Rev. Clyde B. Spann. He was intrigued with my intelligence and, I think, my aplomb. He encouraged my reading and my writing, which I had begun to do seriously. He also prayed for me and remained a true friend to me despite my arrogance and country brashness.

Things were coming to a head in my life and the result would be "wondrous strange," not just to those looking on from the outside, but, even more so, to me, myself.

To be continued...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Don't Worry about the Mule Going Blind" or A Life of Calculated Risk , further thoughts from Ecclesiastes

The human animal, like all animals, is beset with fears. We live in a world that can hurt us, physically and emotionally, and we learn this early on. Whether or not fear is intrinsic to our human nature or is a learned condition is something I will leave for the experts to argue about, but I know from experience that it is known early and continues unabated throughout life.

The fact of fear drives us to seek security in a variety of ways. We protect ourselves and well we might. Whether it is seen in a provident concern for financial or physical security, or the avoidance of people and things that may harm us, we spend a lot of time, money and mental energy creating safe places and comfort zones in our lives. We play it safe.

This is right and good...up to a point. Where it becomes a problem is when it gets in the way of a life well lived, a life fully lived. Thus, for some, the fear of travel and of travel in airplanes is so profound that they refuse to travel. How sad this is and how impoverished their lives compared to those who have seen other lands, tasted other foods, and engaged with other peoples in their own cultures. I am glad that I grew up on the Southern Plains and on the Red River. My childhood was spent in some of the richest historical spots in the United States in terms of the saga of the American West- Young County, Texas and Love County, Oklahoma. But, I am also glad that I have walked the streets of London and Paris by myself and have seen the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I am the richer because of this. I am also less inclined to think that, as much as I love my native country, ours is the only good, beautiful, and culturally rich place on earth. It is not safe (in an absolute sense) to travel, but it does make for a richer, fuller life.

Ecclesiastes in chapter 11 urges his readers to a life of calculated risk. While the Wisdom Tradition of the Bible (Proverbs, Job, the Psalms, along with Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, and the Sermon of the Mount and James in the New) counsels caution and safety in many areas of life, e.g., "In the multitude of counselors is safety," it also challenges us to avoid playing it so safe that we do not open ourselves to the surprises and blessings that come from taking calculated and deliberate risks.

Thus, the writer says, "Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it will return to you." It is generally conceded by scholars that what is being urged here is an investment in goods carried by merchant seamen. Travel on the sea has always been hazardous and risky, and this was especially so in ancient times. The land-locked Israelites seem in particular to have had an aversion to the sea, see Jonah and Psalm 107. So, such counsel as is found here is contrary to human nature and its propensity to play it safe.

Another picture from the Bible comes to mind. It is that of Jocabed, the mother of Moses, placing her endangered little son in an ark of bullrushes and setting him afloat on the Nile, only to have him returned to her as his wet-nurse. The child is risked, he is saved, and he is returned to his mother.

We must try to live our lives with such a resolve: To risk ourselves in a manner that will ultimately enrich us. This calls for a courage, a daring, that is intrepid and undaunted. Whether we think of giving ourselves in service to others who may not appreciate us and may actually hurt us, or the giving of our financial resources to worthy projects, or simply trying new things that will stretch and improve us, such action calls for courage.

The fear factor at this point is compounded by two things mentioned by the Preacher ("Ecclesiastes" means preacher or questor {Eugene Peterson}).

The first group of things are those inevitable things that take place in the world that can literally blow away or smash our lives to pieces. (This would include all the metaphorical things that can do the same.) "If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies. He who watches the wind will not sow, and he who looks at the clouds will not reap" Vv. 3,4. Rain, winds, falling trees... these are things that can and do happen in the world and they can wreak havoc in the lives of those who happen to be in the way.

The point is, we must never let what might happen get in the way of our living. If we do, we shall not live fully and richly. The fear of catastrophe is an impediment to a fully-lived life. Let us be undaunted in the face of storms (literal or metaphorical). Life is worth the risk. The old timers I used to know had a saying that fits this. "Don't worry about the mule going blind, just load the wagon!" Don't worry about the "what ifs," the "could happens," just live!

The second thing that may abridge a fully-lived life is speculation about the purpose of God in our daily affairs. This is a chronic problem among people of faith, especially people of Biblical faith. They are constantly wondering "What is God saying in this?" "What is God's purpose in that?" Pastors are regularly confronted with the anxiety and even the neuroses of the faithful in this regard. To this Ecclesiastes says, "Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of a pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things" V 5. Astonishing! And, liberating!

The fact is (and this, unfortunately, is not "known" by many people of faith) we do not really know at any given moment what God's intention is in the details of our daily lives. We have some understanding of the larger, over-arching purpose of God from such texts as Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:3-14. And I want to emphasize that even this understanding and knowledge is based on faith, not on things that are provable from observation of the details of our lives. But, in terms of the daily details of our lives, we cannot declare with any certainty what God's intentions are. I lost my mother at age thirteen months. Why? Because of sin in her life or my father's life? The thought is repellent. Because God wanted to teach us a lesson? No less repellent. Because... Oh, quit! We do not know and cannot now know. My poor father wasted nearly half his life brooding over such questions. And those "church-people" who presume to declare the "whys" and the "wherefores" of such events are arrogant no-nothings who remind me of Mark Twain's censure of a certain minister, "He was waiting for a vacancy in the Trinity, that he might fill it!"

Brooding and fretting about the purpose of God in the daily troubles and threats of life will only impede daring, risky living.

What we are called to at such a point is faith in God himself. This, too, is a risky thing. Faith always is. One thinks of "Pascal's Wager." I also think of the people of faith described in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. Here are people who risked everything because of their faith in God. They forsook their homelands, they sacrificed fame and fortune, they offered up their very lives in faith. They were undaunted, intrepid, fearless, and courageous. And all of these things were borne of their faith in God.

Jesus calls us to a such a faith and to such a fully-lived life, promising life and abundant life to those who forsake trust in themselves, their own plans, their own devices in order to trust in him.

Armed with such faith, it is possible to live a different kind of life, a life of faith that is undaunted before the "could happen" things of life, a life undiminished by fruitless, futile questions of what God's purpose is in this or that thing. This is the fully-lived life.

It is such a life that is promised in the word of Jesus, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Billy Carlton Overton and the Lost Cow by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory, or "IT"

They used to be this old boy down in Love's Valley named Billy Carlton Overton. He had lived down there all his life and was kin to old Sob Love that the Valley is named for.

Old Sob was a character of biblical proportions, and I ain't exaggerating a thang. He was married to six different women. The story goes that he would sit with a Winchester '73 rifle on the north bank of the Red River at a crossing there and when he would see a wagon coming over with a good lookin' woman on board, he'd shoot the husband and let him float down the river and take the woman as a wife. That's what they said. I couldn't say, but I do know for a fact that I have been to the Love family cemetery and seen the six graves of the wives of old Sob and ever'one of 'um said, "wife of Sob Love, aged about 33 years of age." Some folks said that "Sob" stood for "son-of-a-bitch" and that was that.

Anyhow, old Billy Carlton was a nephew of of Sob and lived his whole life out in the Valley. Farmed and fished and generally got by on a shoestring, if you know what I mean.

Well, one week a cow of Billy's come up missin' and he worried and fretted about it for a spell. Wadn't nothing he could do, either. So he decides to take matters in his own hands and go to the church to announce his loss and ask the people there for their help.

Now, Billy, he wadn't much of a churchman, if you know what I mean, so ever'body was kinda surprised to see him show up on Sunday. Some of 'em was praying for him to git saved and hopin' that the Lord had prepared his heart for the Gospel.

Now, they allus had the announcements at the end of the service, so old Billy says, to the preacher,

"Preacher, I have somethin' to say at then end. I have lost a cow and want the people to help me find her."

He said this with a loud voice, because old Billy couldn't hear hisself fart, he was so hard of hearing.

And the preacher said, "That's jist fine, Billy," and that was that.

So Billy set through the whole service, down to the altar call, and he didn't go up front either, to the consternation of several people who were praying hard for him to see the light.

The preacher finally said the last prayer and began the announcements...

"Mary Lou Smith and Glen Hutchins is getting married next Saturday in the church here..." the preacher began.

Well, Old Billy couldn't hear the details and thought the preacher was talking about his cow, so he hollers out

"Yessir, and the way you can recognize her is she has all the hair pulled outa 'er tail and one tit missin'!"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Crazy for God: How Then Shall We Live? Part III

And then Monday comes, and with it, a new week A new week with new challenges and expectations. A new march of days that will test our faith, hope and love. And with the week comes a whole new assortment of fears, anxieties, and doubts. Life is, after all, life. We are expected to live it, and we are expected to live it as Christians.

How shall we live it? And, how shall we live it without lapsing into the extreme of spiritual craziness on the one hand, or despair or apathy on the other?

Let us live in freedom. Most spiritual insanity, in my experience as a pastor, comes from guilt, fear, or insecurity. People ridden by such things live in a state of dis-ease. When the dis-ease becomes acute enough they lapse into degrees of insanity: disease. The proclamation of the Gospel in the weekly service of God by the faith community declares freedom. We are freed from guilt by the promise that Christ's blood has answered every demand posed by our sins. We are freed from fear by the proclamation of "Fear not! I am with you." We are freed from insecurity by the assurance that our lives are in the hands of a God who works all things according to the purpose of his will and, therefore, is working everything together for our ultimate good. This is a part of the freedom announced every week as the Gospel is placarded in Word and Sacrament. We live best when we live in this freedom. It is ours. It is not something that we must yet achieve. It has been given us in grace. We must affirm it and live in it.

In this freedom, let us work. "Six days shall you work" is not a sentence to drudgery, but a charter of liberty. We are made for work. We are only happy if we have good, sensible work to do. Whatever our work, be it on an assembly line, in an office, on a work site, in a study writing, or in a studio painting, we are engaged in God's own work in the world.

In this freedom, let us play. The play instinct is endemic to the creation. The lambs and puppies all play. The Psalmist celebrates the play of the whales in the sea. Children play and so do their adult counterparts. God has wired us to play, just as he has to work.

In this freedom, let us engage in fellowship with others. We can never be happy or healthy if we are solitary. We are social, even as the Trinity himself is social. We must cultivate our social relationships: in talk and listening, in laughter and mutual tears, in telling and hearing stories, in acts of help and words of encouragement. And, I am not simply talking about Christian fellowship! We must cultivate fellowship (a shared life) with every human person that will permit us to do so. The human qualities of compassion, shared goals, empathy, outrage, humor, etc. are not the sole province of people of faith. Sadly, people of faith (especially the CFG types) are often lacking in these things. This is what made Mark Twain comment, "Heaven for the climate, hell for the company!" Let us nurture friendships, inside and outside of the community of faith.

A caveat here. There is a type of CFG religion that sees such relationships with those outside the faith as a means to an end. We befriend people in order to convert them. There are even books and programs described as how to do "Friendship Evangelism." This is pernicious and mercenary! Rightly, do those who unmask such motivation in Christians despise them for it. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, not to use them or to manipulate them, but for themselves alone.

In the freedom of the Gospel, let us engage in other acts of mercy and help. Let us be rich in good works. Let us be generous. Let us act kindly and compassionately. Let us seek justice and right in our dealings with others. Where possible, let us intervene to prevent and alleviate suffering and unfairness.

In all this, let us live in an environment of prayer. Let us live in praise, for the new day, for the glories of creation, for the blessings of work, play, and friendship. Let us pray for others in their needs, weaknesses, and sins. Let us pray for ourselves in the face of the same things. Let us live in prayer. He who lives in prayer, lives in God. He has bid us come, he has dissolved every impediment to our coming, he loves our fellowship, he delights to engage with us and to answer our prayers.

Let us, in this freedom, live in wonder. "Every day is a god," Annie Dilliard reminds us. And for us who believe, every day is a wonder and a wondrous gift from the God who made it all, directs it all, and will one day redeem it all and bring it into a glory unimaginable to us now. To live in such a "theater of glory" (Calvin) and not be full of wonder is tantamount to being blind, deaf, and utterly senseless. It is one the tragedies of CFG religion that it is so self-absorbed that it cannot appreciate the dappled light upon a trout stream or the chuckle of a six-week old infant who has just discovered laughter. Shame.

Let, us, finally, live in hope. Let us live in hope of the next Lord's Day when we will again experience heaven on earth in covenant renewal. And let us live in hope of the final, great Lord's Day that will usher in an eternal state of rest and peace, unknown and unknowable to us now. In that state, sins will be forever expunged, hopes fulfilled, injustices and violations rectified, "for God himself will wipe away all tears from their eyes."

Then we shall be where we would be.
Then we shall be what we should be.
Things that are not now, nor could be,
Then shall be our own.

This, too me, is the ideal life. It is life that is alive and that lives! It is the categorical opposite of the craziness I have earlier critiqued. It is a reality to me, in that I have experienced it. It is an aspiration to me, in that I never, alas, experience it perfectly. It is a worthy life and a worthy aspiration. Won't you join me in living it and breathing out after it?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crazy for God, the Alternative, Part II

So... What constitutes a sane Christian spirituality? How do we live lives devoted to the Christian God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and yet avoid the "craziness" I have castigated in my earlier post?

Of course, there are those whose think any religious faith, if it is a serious faith, is crazy. I know such people, know where they are coming from, yet continue in my contrarian position: that faith, serious faith, in the God described in the early Christian creeds, is credible and humanizing.

And such faith is is lived out, not solely in my own mental and emotional world. It is not a private faith. It is not a private spirituality. It is public, and that, in at least two ways.

First, it is a public faith in the Church's historical declaration of that faith in the creeds. The Church has declared from ancient times, "I believe...we believe..." What follows is a declaration of faith that is rooted in the historical reality of Jesus Christ and his works. From this historical faith we move to other articles of faith that logically follow this faith in Jesus. This is not an experience, or a feeling, or a self-generated idea. This is the ancient and timeless faith of Christians in community throughout the ages.

Secondly, the faith of Christians is a faith declared and experienced week by week in their public gatherings throughout the world. It is in community that Christians declare and experience their faith. This happens when the following elements are present.

The worship of the true and living God in liturgical sharing.

The confession and forgiveness of sins through the proclamation of the Gospel.

The proclamation of the Word in preaching.

The renewal of the covenant of grace in the sacraments.

The reunion with one another in Christian love.

The blessing of the living God upon the week to come.

Each of these and all of them together ensure a real and vital Christian faith and help to preserve us from the insanity of religious mania. Let me try to unpack each one with a few comments...

We meet for worship. We come together to share our delight in the beauty and glory of God. We come together in the presence of God to acknowledge him in his works of creation, provision, protection, and salvation. We come together to delight ourselves in his faithfulness and love.

This is a communal act. It is not an act of private devotion. It is an act of shared devotion. This is what makes the singing of hymns important. In hymn singing we are expressing our faith, love, and hope in a united act of worship. We are taken out of ourselves. We are saved from ourselves- our moods, troubles, tragedies. We are forced to consider the larger reality, not just of God, but of our being a part of a historical continuum that has existed for centuries and exists now in the worshiping community.

This same principle is what makes liturgy important. The liturgy is, once again, the community acting, speaking, thinking outside the narrow confines of personal failure and victory, sorrow and joy. It is the community joining together in all these things, and others like them, yet doing so in a shared experience of wonder, love, and praise in the presence of God. In the liturgy this shared faith and experience becomes a shared language as we speak together of God and to him.

This shared experience is never more profound and poignant than in the confession and forgiveness of sins. When we publicly and in unison confess our sins and weaknesses, our sorrow and resolve to repent, we are reminded of basic truths and experiences shared by all who join us in this act. The basic truth is we are are all a sorry, tragic mess. In liturgical, shared confession there is no place for one to consider himself better than another. And there is no room for one to consider himself worse than his brother, his sister. We are confessing together, "We have sinned." We are saying to God, to the world, and to one another, "We are miserable sinners." Though sobering, there is something profoundly joyful, even humorous about this.

When we are told in the Gospel that God has mercy on sinners, that he will forgive sin, that he has no delight in judgment, but delights in mercy, we find a corporate, communal relief and joy. Because we have been honest to God, because he has responded in an affirmative "Yes!" through his mercy in Jesus, we can, together, start over. We are, together, given a new beginning, a beginning like the first fresh day in Paradise!

In that freshness, we are ready to hear God speak and he speaks to the gathered faith community in the reading and preaching of his Word, the Bible. As forgiven souls we can hear him speak to us in correction without despair, in instruction without discouragement, in affirmation without pride, and in hope without presumption. This is what preaching is in the hearing community. It is the speech of God informing and fortifying us for a new week in the world.

Having spoken to us, God calls us to share in the mysteries, the rituals of the family. This is the meaning of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Every family has its rituals and the family of God is no exception. In baptism, we are together reminded that our inception in this family is marked by this ritual. We have put on the family dress. We have been clothed with the family insignia. Being dressed for dinner, in the Eucharist we are brought to the family table for a family meal where our Lord presents himself to us as the bread and wine of our sustained life together. Both are marks and seals of his covenant of grace, his pledge to remember us in mercy and faithfulness. And these are shared mysteries. It is not just "Jesus and me," but Jesus and us, and more, Jesus and all who share our faith in heaven and in earth!

In all these acts of worship, humility, and renewal, we are aware of the persons around us. They have faces that we can recognize from a block away, they have stories that have become ours as ours have become theirs, they have graces that encourage us, and they have sins and weakness that aggravate us. But, they are our people, our family. Each time we meet together we are aware of our love for them. Each time they disappoint us, we are challenged to forgive them. When they move or die, we are grieved at our loss of them. When new people appear, they are welcomed in love and anticipation of our shared life together.

Having received our worship, having forgiven our sins, having spoken to us in his sure Word, having renewed his covenant with us in family mysteries, having strengthened us in a revisitation of love, God does more. He sends us out under his benediction of grace and peace to live like real human beings in the world and in a new week replete with possibilities! "The LORD bless thee and keep thee, the LORD make his face to shine upon thee. The LORD be gracious to thee and give thee peace." Whatever the week holds, whether triumph or tragedy, we face it together in the assurance of God's blessing, care, protection, presence, and peace! Not a bad way to start a new week!

Now, it should require no special pleading to make the case that this approach to Christian spirituality is a healthy, happy, and holy alternative to the CFG ("Crazy for God") condition I have denounced earlier. Augustine prayed, "Lord, save me from that evil man, myself!" We need to be saved from our personal evils, but we also need to be saved from our tendencies toward insanity, especially religious insanity. The weekly, communal worship of God is his most important means to effect this aspect of our salvation.

Crazy for God, Part I

My title comes from Frank Schaeffer's tell-all book about his parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Now Frank is frank and that's a fact, and it is clear to all that he has had his "issues" through the years (Haven't we all?). The idolizers of the Schaeffers and L'Abri have been scandalized and the hagiographers have been burning up their keyboards trying to set the record straight. What is missed, it seems to me, is that Frank was there and, whatever his issues, he does have considerable inside information about these things.

I, like so many, owe a great debt to the Schaeffers. It was their written work that saved me from fundamentalism and gave me the beginnings of a Christian world-view. I love their memory and thank God for their legacy (at least most of it). But, "the best of men are men at best," and all idols, even evangelical ones, have feet of clay.

Frank's frank assessment that his parents were "crazy, crazy for God" rings true because I have myself been victim to this condition and have spent most of my life in the company of people who were susceptible to religious mania of one kind or the other. I am not being cute. It has only been during the past few years, when my life has thrown me into the company of non-religious people, that I have come to see how pervasive and pernicious this condition is.

So, I want to venture into this dangerous ground and talk about the marks of being "crazy for God." I do so, not to hurt people. To the contrary, this kind of mania hurts people. It does great harm to the individuals possessed by it. It does great harm to their families. And, it does great harm to the people we are trying to give Christian witness to- the non-religious. It is with the wish to help, rather than hurt, that I write.

I think it is this kind of religious extremism that we are warned against in Ecclesiastes 7:15-18. "Be not righteous over not wicked over much." The writer is warning us against an extremism that eschews moderation and temperance.

The "crazy for God" (hereafter CFG) condition is marked by monomania, that is, an obsessive and inordinate attention to and zeal for one idea or a few ideas clustered around one idea. In our case "God" is the one idea and the cluster may be salvation, death, hell, heaven, the good life, etc., all emanating from "God." This is the God-obsessed soul or the God-intoxicated soul. In either case, whether "obsessed" or "intoxicated," these are not generally considered to be healthy states of mind. And the CFG person is generally not a healthy soul.

It is little wonder that the CFG person would be obsessive even if God were not the obsession. Hence we see personalities like Gary Busey's. He is obsessive about drugs, sex, and alcohol. He experiences a conversion. He becomes CFG. The temperament is already there, the occasion/ideology presents itself, and, Voila!, we have a new soldier of the cross. The same thing happens with this personality type who converts to Islam, to Veganism, or to Amway.

Such people become obsessed, or, perhaps, better: possessed. Their every thought is focused on God-things. Their speech becomes laden with God-talk... They have to be so careful here: There must be no talk of being lucky, or being proud, or being happy. It is not luck, but Providence. It is not pride, but thankfulness. It is not happiness, but joy. The English language itself becomes a mine-field where one must be very careful as to where one puts one's foot. And within the community of the CFG folks, a misstep means correction or rebuke. I once was corrected for announcing a "pot-luck dinner" at church by a CFG lady of some years who primly reminded me that the proper jargon was "pot-Providence." And the "possession" goes to every other aspect of life. Every motive, every thought, every action, every word, every omission, and every ambition is scrutinized with surgical exactness to make sure it is "godly." No wonder people on the outside have little interest in and downright aversion to such a life!

The CFG personality is also driven by the baser passions of the human psyche, such as fear, guilt, shame, triumphalism, and pride. How many people are in professional religious vocations, not because they love God and love what they are doing, but because of these dark little critters hidden under the rocks of their minds. So much of what I have described in the earlier paragraphs of this piece is too often driven by these dark things.

Now, it is a fact that people who are motivated by such darkness often soar off into the darkness of darker things. I have at other times described such people as those who have screwed the lid down so tightly on their darkness that they have broken off the bottle neck and all the dark stuff comes flying out- uncontrollably. Hence the scandals among the faithful, the sex, power, money stuff that comes to the forefront in the lives of people like Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, and the Hiker of the Appalachian Trail. These are all CFG people.

There is another factor in this and it is difficult to discuss because of the subtleties involved in it. Christianity is a evangelical faith, it is one of the world's converting faiths. That is to say, it is concerned, in obedience to its Lord's commission, to "make disciples." The problem arises when the darker triumphalist tendencies of the heart to conquer, to overcome, to dominate replace a living and sharing of the Good News that rests upon the sovereign grace of God to gently and sweetly persuade minds and hearts toward himself. CFG people do not appreciate this distinction. As such it is not surprising that they are in spirit much like the New Atheists in their passion to be right and to make converts. There is little contrast between the spirit of a Pat Robertson and a Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps the one is CFG and the other, CFA (Crazy for Atheism).

Over all, the most glaring trait of the CFG folks is their complete incapacity to enjoy life. The festive, partying, eating, drinking, dancing, laughing, singing, shouting life of the Bible is seldom if ever present among these folks. The boisterous, loud, over-the-top living that affirms life, sex, birth, work, fun, money, possessions, the sun and the moon, the sea and the dry land, and even affliction and death, and on and on and on... This is not possible for the CFG person. He is miserable because-and this is the tragic irony of it all- he is not obsessed with God but with yet another projection of his sad self that he visualizes as God (which itself is a form of idolatry).

I close with a little poem that I cannot find the source of. It has meant the world to me for over thirty years. It is the antidote to the CFG mania and admirably capsulizes the truth of Ecclesiates 7:15-18 (and the rest of the book). Here's how it goes:

Feare God
And bee merrye
And give not for this worlde
A cherrye.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Low Place in the Ground by E. D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory or "IT"

When my Uncle Nat was jist nine, they was building the big fireplace in the big house. Granddaddy Black John had got tired of messing with stoves and wanted him an open fire in the parlor that he could whittle in front of and spit into if he chose to, though Granny Eller would git after him about spitting in the house- even if it was into a fireplace. So on a fine fall day the mason come and they commenced.

The mason was a feller named Ransom J. Stuck and he had two boys who come with him to mix the mortar and carry the hod of bricks. These boys was none too bright and mixing mud and carrying bricks was about all their intelligence was up to. But, they was right smart workers and that makes up for a lot, even limited brains. The old man had them boys digging a pit for the footer of this fireplace while he sawed out an opening in the north wall of the house for the chimney. Once the hole was dug, they broke up all kinds of old bottles and jars in the bottom of it to discourage the gophers and armadillos from digging under the foundation. They poured a good mess of concrete into the hole and reinforced it with junk iron from the old forge north of the house. Then old Stuck got down to laying the bricks. Granddaddy had traded a cow for them bricks and they was good 'uns, too. Red as the Red River in flood. Now, Ransom may have been jist a sight brighter than his boys, but that old booger could lay them bricks- plumb and level as the Pyramids of Egypt. He had got up to about hearth level when he and granddaddy and everbody else was drawn to somebody hollerin' over west of the place. Now, this hollerin' was serious hollerin' and so they all knew that something serious had taken place.

Now, about a mile northwest of Granddaddy's place was a family of share croppers named Hughes. They lived in a little Jenny Lind house with two rooms and a shed for a kitchen. Four or five kids and a worn out old woman in that pitiful house! Old Hughes- Tom, I think was his given name- though everbody always called him "Hughes" or "Old Hughes," he was a character and put on certain airs, though he was as poor as Job's turkey. For instance, he chewed tobacco and ever time he spit, he made a big deal of the thang, spitting and saying "Phooey!" when he did, like some big exclamation mark. Always wore a cheap red bandanna around his neck like a picture-show cowboy. And always wore a big hat and tucked his overalls legs into the top of his boots. When he come into Thackerville, the men would always say, "There comes old Charlie Goodnight," or, "I thought Booger Red was down in Texas." It was kindly pitiful, if the truth be known.

Well, this feller come a hollerin' for somebody to come, so Granddaddy hitched up a sorrel mare to his buggy and off they went over the new plowed ground of the west field, bumping and thumping all the way. Now, unbeknownst to Granddaddy and everbody else, Uncle Nat had crawled up into the luggage hole in the back of the buggy and was holding on for dear life as Granddaddy whipped that mare across that new plowed ground.

Well, they get to the Hughes place and Leland Foster, the foreman for the Gladney Ranch where the Hugheses share cropped is standing in the yard next to Mrs. Hughes who is sitting on an up-turned lard bucket with her face in her hands. When Granddaddy approaches with the feller who'd come a hollerin', Leland jist tosses his head in the direction of a big post oak tree down the hill from that little shack of a house. Granddaddy starts in that direction when he notices Uncle Nat following him.

"Nat, what the hell are you doing here?" he says.

"I jist wanted to see what was goin' on, Papa."

"Well, come on then. You wanted to see, so now you'll see!"

As they come near that old tree they could see Hughes hunched over with his head on his chest like he was asleep or drunk. Only thang is, they was this dark stain all over his chest that went down past the crotch of his overalls. His booted feet were funny, too, with the toes turned out. Uncle Nat suddenly thought about hog-killin' time. In the sandy dirt next to his blood-stained hand was a cut-throat razor, and we're talkin' about it literally, now, son.

Granddaddy squatted down and grabbed a tuft of old Hughes's hair and gently lifted the head.

"Well, the son-of-a-bitch meant business, anyhow," he said in the loud voice that he normally used.

Old Hughes had cut his gullet clean to the neck bone, first on the left side and then on the right. Two cuts. The blood had sprayed in a half circle all over his front and around him on the ground.
At the sight of the wounds and the pale neck muscles drained of blood, Uncle Nat began to retch and turned away.

"I reckon you'll thank twice next time you want to see,'" Granddaddy said.

Well, they got Leland down and the hired hand and carried the body up to the buggy. The hired hand had to hold the head up to keep it from pullin' completely off. They managed to get the body in the baggage hole and Uncle Nat got up front with his daddy for the ride back to the big house. They wasn't any real roads up to the Hughes place, so they went where the sheriff and the undertakers could come and deal with the mess.

When they got him home and out of the baggage hole, they laid him out on the back porch and poured buckets of water over him to kinda clean him up. Uncle Nat carried that water from the well.

Well, the Hugheses moved away- nobody knew where, and the old house finally sagged and caved in. There's a cattle manger there where they feed the cows, and a barn, but apart from that, there's nothing left of the place.

Uncle Nat and me were squirrel hunting over that way one time, years after this had happened- that was long about 1911 or 12, I reckon. Anyhow, that was thirty years or more after that sad thang, and Uncle Nat took me to the tree and told me the story. Leland or somebody had scooped out dirt at the place to cover the old man's blood out of pity for the family, and the low place in the ground was still there. Still is, far as I know, because ever time I am over that way, I look and remember. That low place in the ground is still there.

I remember asking Uncle Nat, "Did that thang bother you any?"

"Bother me? I slept with old Hughes most nights for the best part of the next year!"

"Why'd he do it, you reckon?" I asked.

"Well, they was pore as pore could be, and he had all these big idees," he said, "and the old lady put it this way: 'I expect he jist give out.'"

Ever time I sit in front on Uncle Nat's fireplace with a big hell-roarin' fire in it, I thank about old Hughes and that fine fall day. It's a fine fireplace, too. Old Ransom J. Stuck could make a flue on a fireplace that would draw mighty fine. This one will pull a lady's skirt and petticoat up.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"He Was Loved" by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory or "IT"

They was this family of Burkharts that lived across the Red River in Sivell's Bend. They had a purty fine place over on Fish Creek-had beef cattle and few dairy cows they milked, along with a few crops. It was a rough piece of country with lots of limestone rocks and jist as many rattlesnakes. One of them big rattlers killed one of their hounds one time and the fang marks on the pore devil's head measured two inches across. But, the Burkharts had inherited money from their daddy who had the first dime he ever made. So, all in all, compared to some folks they was purty flush.

They was a half brother in the family, named Blaine. He took his inheritance and invested it and, though he wadn't rich, managed to live purty good without ever having to work very much. Built him a camp down on the Texas side of the River where he batched. Said he never did meet a woman whose company meant more to him than his own, though they was rumors that a woman or two was seen there from time time. Mostly, if he wanted company, he'd call in his buddies and they'd fish and play cards to all hours- and for days on end. And drink this home-brew and corn whiskey that old Blaine always had a-going. That whiskey would pop the top of your head right off, and I ain't speaking from somebody else's reportage, neither. So, to the rest of the family and to most of the people on both sides of the River, Blaine Summerall or "BS" (he enjoyed the irony) was a "ne'er-do-well." Didn't work, liked to have fun, and drank too much. That'll jist about do to describe a "ne'er-do-well" in our part of the country.

And that's the problem that old lady Burkhart had with him. She'd been a Parsons before she married and her old daddy was a Parsons and a parson, which is to say, he was a Baptist preacher. And among the thangs that they positively hated was not working, having fun, and drinking of any kind. Mr. Burkhart, John Daniels or "JD," he sorta took on her line about thangs when he married her, though his convictions didn't run as deep as hers. She was a very handsome woman, especially when she was young, and some men can put up with a lot to have a good-lookin' woman as a bed-partner. So Mizz Burkhart didn't have no time nor patience with half-brother Blaine. JD, on the other hand, kindly felt sorry for BS. He'd lost his daddy when he was jist a shirt-tail kid and always had this lonely, melancholy streak. Truth be told, he kindly envied old BS a little, too, like a lot of hard-working, serious-minded, and mostly tee-total men in the community did.

Ever once in a while JD'd invite the half-brother up to the big house for supper. Mizz Burkhart would be polite and cook the best of meals (Lord, she was a cook!), but her manner would display her disgust for pore old BS (She always address him as "Mister Summerall."). Any time he was around her mouth was so tight it looked like a razor slit. Anyhow, they'd have a big, fine supper and then set on the porch and talk until after dark. Then BS would light his lantern and walk the four or five miles back to his shanty on the River.

One dark night after one of these fine meals, they's settin' and talkin' and there's this lull in the conversation. All of a sudden old BS jist starts to cry. And I don't mean a weepy kind of cryin' neither. He is sobbin' and snortin' with the tears and snot runnin' down over his shirt front. JD and the old lady jist set there astonished because grown men didn't cry in our community unless they was drunk, and the strongest thang they'd drunk that evening was the iced tea. Finally, JD says in a tender voice, because he'd been purty tore up hisself over BS's outburst, "Brother, what is the matter?"

"I was jist thankin' about what's going to be done with me after I die."

"What-a-ya-mean 'after I die'?" says JD.

"I mean where'm I going to be buried?" says BS.

"Why, Brother, you'll be buried right out yonder with Daddy and Mammy and me and all the rest of us, I reckon."

"Are you sure?" asks BS.

"Sure, I'm sure. In fact, I promise it!" says JD.

"Well, Brother, I thank ye!"

After a few minutes, BS pulled himself together, thanked the Mizzus for the fine supper, lit his lantern, and cut a trail for the River camp.

The old couple set in the dark for a spell before she cleared her throat.

"You'll not be burying him in the same place as me!" she declared.

"What on earth do you mean? He's family." JD protested.

"John Daniels Burkhart," she said, raising her voice jist a little, "I will not be buried in the same place as a shiftless, no-good, drunkard!"

And that was that. JD knew better to argue with her when she took on that tone, so he put the whole thang in the back of his mind, though from time to time, he'd study it.

Thang is, the old lady died a few years later and before JD or BS. She kinda burned out the way a lot of these tightly-wound folks do. JD outlived BS, BS being eight year older. They buried Mizzus Burkhart close to JD's momma and daddy, and left a place between them for JD when it come his time.

JD found old Blaine dead one morning down at the camp jist starin' up into the rafters like he was seein' the angels comin' for him. Folks said he'd drunk so much of that corn whiskey that the embalmers would be wastin' their time and the family's money to embalm him.

But, JD remembered his promise and he also remembered the old lady's strong feelings. He'd studied the thang till he had figured out a way to honor both of them.

So, today, if you can find the Burkhart family cemetery- it's all growed-up with weeds and catclaw, and watch out for them rattlesnakes- you'll find JD and his Mizzus laid to rest right like I said before, right next to the old couple. And exactly thirty-three paces (JD paced it off himself, and very carefully) to the North under an old cedar tree and a respectable distance from the rest of them, you'll find BS's stone and these words engraved in it

Blaine Robert Summerall
Brother to John Daniels Burkhart
"He Was Loved"

The Indian Paintbrush blooms on his grave in the spring.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


For years he lived in dark mines, digging in the bowels of the earth. He thought he was mining coal, so dark and nasty his existence was. He despaired and cursed his life and was tempted to curse God. Only when he came back into the air, into the light, under the broad, blue sky, did he see that he covered with gold dust.