Friday, February 28, 2014

ok, that didn't work, something new....

 (I tried to edit this and send it again. That didn't work. The point is, as you can see, a week from tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of my blog. I wanted to send you the first one tonight and next week I'll send you the 7 most viewed blogs over that time. Just my little way of celebrating that I've actually had the focus and patience to do this for five years....Enjoy....)



Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sitting under the Castor Oil Tree

The character in the Bible I have always been drawn to in Jonah. I identify with his story. Like Jonah, I have experienced being taken where I didn't want to go by God and I've been disgruntled with the way things went. The belly of a big old fish isn't a pleasant means of travel either!

The story ends (in case you don't know it) with Jonah upset and complaining on a hillside over the city of Nineva, which God has saved through Jonah. Jonah didn't want to go there to start with--hence the ride in the fish stomach--and predicted that God would save the city though it should have been destroyed for its wickedness. "You dragged me half way around the world," he tells God, "and didn't destroy the city....I knew it would turn out this way. I'm angry, so angry I could die!"

God causes a tree to grow to shade Jonah from the sun (scholars think it might have been a castor oil tree--the impications are astonishing!). Then God sends a worm to kill the tree. Well, that sets Jonah off! "How dare you kill my tree?" he challanges the creator. "I'm so angry I could die...."

God simply reminds him that he is upset at the death of a tree he didn't plant or nurture and yet he doesn't see the value of saving all the people of the great city Ninivah...along with their cattle and beasts.

And the story ends. No resolution. Jonah simply left to ponder all that. There's no sequel either--no "Jonah II" or "Jonah: the next chapter", nothing like that. It's just Jonah, sitting under the bare branches of the dead tree, pondering.

What I want to do is use this blog to do simply that, ponder about things. I've been an Episcopal priest for over 30 years. I'm approaching a time to retire and I've got a lot of pondering left to do--about God, about the church, about religion, about life and death and everything involved in that. Before the big fish swallowed me up and carried me to my own Nineva (ordination in the Episcopal Church) I had intended a vastly different life. I was going to write "The Great American Novel" for starters and get a Ph.D. in American Literature and disappear into some small liberal arts college, most likely in the Mid-Atlantic states and teach people like me--rural people, Appalachians and southerners, simple people, deep thinkers though slow talkers...lovely for all that--to love words and write words themselves.

God (I suppose, though I even ponder that...) had other ideas and I ended up spending the lion's share of my priesthood in the wilds of two cities in Connecticut (of all places) among tribes so foreign to me I scarcly understood their language and whose customs confounded me. And I found myself often among people (The Episcopal Cult) who made me axious by their very being. Which is why I stuck to urban churches, I suppose--being a priest in Greenwich would have sent me into some form of I would have driven them to hypertension at the least.

I am one who 'ponders' quite a bit and hoped this might be a way to 'ponder in print' for anyone else who might be leaning in that direction to read.

Ever so often, someone calls my bluff when I go into my "I'm just a boy from the mountains of West Virginia" persona. And I know they're right. I've lived too long among the heathens of New England to be able to avoid absorbing some of their alien customs and ways of thinking. Plus, I've been involved in too much education to pretend to be a rube from the hills. But I do, from time to time, miss that boy who grew up in a part of the world as foreign as Albania to most people, where the lush and endless mountains pressed down so majestically that there were few places, where I lived, that were flat in an area wider than a football field. That boy knew secrets I am only beginning, having entered my sixth decade of the journey toward the Lover of Souls, to remember and cherish.

My maternal grandmother, who had as much influence on me as anyone I know, used to say--"Jimmy, don't get above your raisin'". I probably have done that, in more ways that I'm able to recognize, but I ponder that part of me--buried deeply below layer after layer of living (as the mountains were layer after layer of long-ago life).

Sometimes I get a fleeting glimpse of him, running madly into the woods that surrounded him on all sides, spending hours seeking paths through the deep tangles of forest, climbing upward, ever upward until he found a place to sit and look down on the little town where he lived--spread out like a toy village to him--so he could ponder, alone and undisturbed, for a while.

When I was in high school, I wrote a regular colemn for the school newspaper call "The Outsider". As I ponder my life, I realize that has been a constant: I've always felt just beyond the fringe wherever I was. I've watched much more than I've participated. And I've pondered many things.

So, what I've decided to do is sit here on the hillside for a while, beneath the ruins of the castor oil tree and ponder somemore. And, if you wish, share my ponderings with you--whoever you are out there in cyber-Land.

Two caveates: I'm pretty much a Luddite when it comes to technology--probably smart enough to learn about it but never very interested, so this blog is an adventure for me. My friend Sandy is helping me so it shouldn't be too much of a mess. Secondly, I've realized writing this that there is no 'spell check' on the blog. Either I can get a dictionary or ask your forgiveness for my spelling. I'm a magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa ENGLISH major (WVU '69) who never could conquer spelling all the words I longed to write.

I supose I'll just ask your tolerance.

my favorite photo

It's down to the right of our kitchen fireplace. It is a photo of my daughter, Mimi, taken, I think by her fiancee, Tim.

It is a photo of her face--or half of it anyway, the right half.

Her face is up, the way your face goes up when you are amused. She is smiling. You can see the right side of her face and she is smiling greatly and her right eye is closed. Her blonde/brown hair is shoulder length.

And what you see, on one side of her face, a a deep, two inch long, comma shaped dimple.

Mimi has dimples to die for and in this photo you see the right one in all it's glory.

My second cousin, Kim, pulled me aside when she was a child and Mimi was a teen and said to me, solemnly and with great concern, "Mimi has holes in her face!"

And she does. They are wondrous. They give me joy, as this photo of one of them does....

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Finding Kyle

Charles, one of my friends who reads my blog found the obituary for Kyle's father, Harry Kyle Parks Sr., on a web site called '' or something like that. Really, is that a website people besides Charles and Fred and Bill (three members of my group I go to every Tuesday morning--who between them, I've come to believe, know Everything About Everything) actually know about?

Anyway, the 2001 obit said his surviving son, Harry Kyle Parks, Jr, lived in Bluefield, West Virginia--a town of 25,000 when I was growing up, probably much less then because the 'business' of Bluefield was to be the 'city' for the coal field and the coal field isn't there anymore. We went to Bluefield (which is called 'nature's air conditioned city' and lemonade is freely given out by the Chamber of Commerce when the temperature reached 90 degrees...I never got free lemonade all the time I was there) when we wanted to 'shop'. It was 25 miles away from Anawalt, where Kyle and I grew up, across either Peel Chestnut or Elkhorn mountain. Either way it was almost an hour's drive since the mountains were significant and the roads across them were full of KYA ('kiss your ass') turns and curves. Either way you went through Bluewell, where Lindy's Drive In was located. No one ever went to Bluefield with out stopping at Lindy's where the hot dogs with chilli and slaw were the specialty. I still long for a Lindy's hot dog.

So I emailed Charles to thank him for actually finding Kyle when I couldn't and told him I'd try to find him if he was still in Bluefield. Of course, I couldn't. But Charles emailed me back with Kyle's address and phone number. I'm not sure what web site he used (Jim' perhaps) but I am delighted.

I plan to write Kyle a letter tonight, since even Charles couldn't provide his email address and see if he'd like to be in contact. I'll send the picture that started all this. Kyle and I haven't spoken or seen each other since we were 21 or 22, so it's a ghost from the past 44 or so years. Who knows how he will react. We didn't part on bad terms in any way--our life journeys were just leading in different directions: his to the military and mine to the protest movement.

I've thought and thought of who I've known (who weren't family) longer than I knew Kyle. Surely Mike Miano who started all this non-sense of searching for a long lost friend who I've known where he was and have had sporadic contact with since High School and College. And maybe Mike Lawless, though the last 10 years haven't been a 'contact time' for the two of us. And then there is John in New Haven who I met when Bern and I lived in Morgantown and he was in graduate school, or maybe even when we were both in college. And since the years since college have been many more than the years before college, John is surely the person I've know longest and still relate with often and always (he goes on vacation with Bern and Mimi and Tim and Sherry--who I've know since 1980--and me).

But this Kyle thing has gotten under my skin. I'm going to write tonight. I'll let you know what happens....

Don't let your boyfriend show you how safe guns are....

A 36 year old man in Michigan was demonstrating how safe unloaded guns are to his girlfriend and fatally shot himself in the head. Three children under 12 were in the house but, thankfully, did not witness the shooting.

Nor is this the first instance of a gun safety resulting in the death of the demonstrator. Two such accidents were reported in 2013 according to the Huffington Post.

It is a tragic irony that even demonstrations of gun safety can result in gun deaths.

None of what I'm saying is meant to make light of tragedies. Quite the contrary, I just want to mourn the senseless deaths of these 3 men and contend that a gun, by it's very nature, is unsafe. Guns are meant to kill. Many people use them safely and for sporting purposes, but by the very nature of guns they are not 'safe' in any understanding I have of that word.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned why I don't own a gun though I grew up in a gun culture in the mountains of West Virginia. I don't own a gun because I know I would use it if I ever felt threatened by someone and, to paraphrase what Kurt Vonnegut once said about nuclear weapons, "I'd rather be the poor, innocent, unfortunate son-of-a bitch that got short than the mean, awful, nasty son-of-a-bitch who did the shooting." Really.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Searching for Kyle

I wrote here a week or so ago about a photo my friend, Mike Miano sent met.

Since then I've started getting obsessed about finding Kyle Parks, who was my best friend from, I don't know, age 5 until a year into college. He's in the picture as well, sitting with Jane Jasper, who I always thought was really cool and pretty and sweet but never asked out.

But I googled 'Harry Kyle Parks, Jr.' and then 'Kyle Parks' and got nothing, not one thing. I didn't think you could avoid being found these days but apparently you can.

I'll go back when I finish this and try a search with stuff I know about him--like he was a Navy pilot and went to Virginia Tech. But I'm not hopeful.

He's someone I shared my life with for longer than anyone except Bern and Josh and Mimi and I'd like to find him and get in touch now that we are in our mid-60's and see what comes of that, if anything.

Maybe I'm just getting old and searching for the past.

I don't know about that. But I would like to find Kyle.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Pepperoni Cure-All

(This was written for a Junior Year in college Creative Writing Class. I've worked on it some since. The ironic thing is that Dr. Ross McDonald, the professor, said the thing about the duck and the State Policeman 'didn't ring true'. In fact, that scene is the only thing that is 'true'. I saw it happen when I was about the age of the protagonist of the story. Really. Don't tell me 'irony' isn't everywhere all the time.)

The Pepperoni Cure-All

Everything would have been alright, Richard told himself, standing in the whispy, Christmas night snow, if Luther hadn't danced with the duck. Then he remembered telling himself earlier, everthing would have been alright, if I hadn't sat on that rickety stool and talked to Stacy. And before that, everything would have been alright if Dom hadn't wrecked his car trying to screw Jackie Martin.

And it all led back, no matter how many times Richard went over it in his memory, to his uncle. If Richard's uncle hadn't died like that, on Christmas Eve in some immaculate Florida hospital....Yes, that's it, Richard thought, if Uncle Dale hadn't died, everything would have really, truly been alright.


(I remember being five. I remember some things before that, but more clearly than anything—my first, clearest memory—I remember being five and running across a long green field in summer...running toward Uncle Dale and letting him lift me up high and take away his hands for just a moment, long enough to give the feeling, the illusion of falling...falling-without-really-falling, because he tightened his arms again and held me and I was looking down into his face, laughing and him laughing an then, after falling another second or so, he spun me around—a swirl of sky and field, green/blue/green/blue—an rubbed my face with his rough, bearded face and it was was like nothing has been since.)



Father and son sat in a darkened room—completely dark because no one had turned on any lights since the call came. The call had come in daylight, where there had been no need for light. So Vernon and Richard sat in a dark room and Susan, Vernon's wife and Richard's mother, was upstairs, where there was light, packing.

Vernon was crying softly. Richard wished some lights were on, even if it were only the lights on the white pine Christmas tree in the corner. It was simply too dark. There needed to be some light for Richard to tell his father that he was not going with him to Florida for Dale's funeral.

Up above their heads, father and son could hear Susan crossing the room, walking fast, gathering clothes, knowing they must leave at dawn.

In the darkness, Richard could smell the white pine and the lime after-shave his father used. The lime was spoiled by the smell of travel. Vernon had driven all night from Florida and arrived just in time to discover that the brother he had left in that immaculate hospital had died while he was driving across North Carolina.

As soon as Vernon was in the door and had the news, he slumped in his favorite chair. He had not moved for three hours. Now, he sat in darkness, mourning his brother. He did not yet know Richard wasn't going to the funeral. Vernon had simply assumed Richard would.

You know,” Vernon said to Richie and the darkness, “even if I had known Dale was going to die before I got home...Even if I could have known that, the ride back with George would have been worth it. We talked, Richie, my older brother George and I talked...really talked...for the first time in years, the first time ever, maybe. About Dale and us growing up and lots of things. It was good, I don't know if you understand, it was so good....”

If the Christmas tree lights had been on, Richard would have seen his father's wet face creased with reds and greens and blues. But there was no light. Father and son sat in the dark and listened to the foot-falls above them. Susan packing. She called down the stairs, “Richie, will you pack for yourself or should I do it?”

Richard was 19—27 days from 20—he was a college sophomore home for Christmas break. And he had months ago decided, even before his father and uncle George left for the first trip to Florida, that he was not going to Dale's funeral. He simply was not going. And nothing could make him, not even his father's soft, invisible tears in the darkness. Not even his mother calling down the stairs. Nothing in heaven or on earth would make him go to Florida for that sad, meaningless ritual of putting his uncle Dale in the ground.

Vernon blew his nose into an already soaked handkerchief. Richie sat in darkness and wished that he could, by force of will, turn on a light. Susan stood at the top of the stairs, waiting, and called again--”Richard, did you hear me?”

It was then that Richard said, out loud in the darkness, “I'm not going, mother.”

After that, Vernon rose from his chair and turned on a light to enlighten the argument that did not good. Richard was not going.


(When I was small, long before Uncle Dale sold his Esso station to Poppy Erskin and moved to Florida to be near his daughter and her family...sometimes he would eat lunch at our house. He would get up from the table and tear a package of Red Man in half and put half of it in his mouth and lay down on our couch for a nap. He always put The Welch Daily News on the couch beneath him to keep from getting car grease on the fabric. I would watch him sleep and wonder if he swallowed the tobacco juice. He never seemed to spit—whether he was asleep or awakek—and when I asked him about it he told me he had pockets in his cheeks, just like a squirrel and when I was older he'd take me hunting and we'd kill some squirrels and he'd show me the pockets in their cheeks. But he never did, because he knew I'd hate hunting and knew that he was lying anyway. He simply swallowed the tobacco juice and didn't get sick.)



They left at dawn—Vernon and Susan and George—driving in Vernon's new 1966 black Ford Fairlaine 500.

Vernon put his hand on Richard's shoulder and started to speak, but just nodded and got in to drive the first 300 miles. Richard stood in the dim cold for a long time after they were gone, just looking down the street where they had driven. Then he went to the basement of their house and banked the furnace with fresh coal. That had been his final argument about staying home.

Someone has got to keep the finance going, Daddy,” he had said. “Or all the pipes will freeze in the cold.”

Susan had been involved by that time. “I've already asked Mr. Short across the street. I'll give him and key and he can come in whenever...”, she said.

Vernon had raised his hand and she stopped talking. He looked directly into his son's eyes as he spoke, “Richard will stay here and keep the furnace going.”

That is all he said. And his son felt deeply moved, profoundly close to his father in those words.

After the furnace was tended to, Richard went to his room and slept until just past noon. He had no dreams and woke full of pain and not hungry at all.

At 12/22 p.m., he turned on the Christmas tree lights and opened a present from his mother's sister in Charleston. It was a brown sweater with a darker brown corduroy front. He imagined it would itch. He put it back in the box and crumbled the paper—red and green with swirling snow flakes—to take to the basement and put in the furnace when he gave it more coal.

As he passed the kitchen phone, it rang. It was Mrs. Short from next door. After pleasantries and sympathy, she said, “Delbert was going to tend to your furnace, but then your mother called and asked if we would look out for you instead.”

Richard nodded, but even though he could see the short house's kitchen window from his own, he knew she couldn't see him nod. So he said, “yes m'am”.

So...” she said, very uncertainly, because Richard had always been a strange and dreamy boy and she didn't know him very well, “I thought you should come for Christmas dinner with us about 4 o'clock....”

Thank you Mrs. Short,” Richard said, as polite as could be, “but I won't be eating a big dinner today. I want to be alone.”

There was a long silence on the phone. Then Mrs. Short said, “I know how upset you must be, Richard, but life goes on, you know, and you really shouldn't miss a Christmas dinner.”

By the time she finished talking, Richard knew that his mother's hand was heavy in this concern. He said, as sincerely as he could, “if I change my mind and need to eat, I'll sure be there Mrs. Short. But don't expect me and don't wait on me. I really think I'll want to be alone.”

After hanging up, Richard went to his room and slept until almost four o'clock.


(When I was eight, Uncle Dale bought me a first baseman's mitt. I remember how red my hand would get when we played catch on the railroad tracks behind my house. The glove said “Ferris Fain” on it and though I didn't know who he was, Uncle Dale told me he was 'a superior fielder' and I could 'do worse' than have Ferris Fain's name on my mitt. Every warm day we would toss until it was so dark that all you could do was throw pop-ups and listen to the crickets singing down by the creek behind the Short's house. I always wished my mitt had been signed by Bill Skowren or Orlando Cepeda.)



George Lucas had left his three year old Buick Electra for Richard to use. Just past four o'clock, with 3 eggs he had boiled, a napkin and a salt shaker, Richard went to the alley and sat in the Buick, listening to sad country music—George Jones and Tammy Wynette—and eating the eggs. When he was finished, he carefully folded the egg shells into the napkin and sat in the car watching it grow dark.

He looked over at the mountains behind the creek. There were no pine trees on that particular mountain so everything was brown, turning gray in the winter twilight. He tried to remember what happened to his first baseman's mitt with Ferris Fain's name on it and remember for the life of him. Near the top of the brown-turning-gray mountain, he could see a strip mine where the trees and earth had been torn away. He noticed how the earth was peeled away to reveal rounded patterns of different colored rocks beneath. All the rocks, in that light, were brown, turning gray.

Richard wondered why he was so cold, even with the Buick's heater on high.

Then it started to snow.

Back in his house, he sat by the front window for a few hours, watching the snow. The Christmas tree to his left was on as he sat by the window and he counted the lights on the tree: first the red ones, then the green, then the blue, then the white.

When he finished counting, the phone rang.



You, Dom?”

Yes, I need help.”


Long story, can you come and get me?”

Talk louder, Dom, I can hardly hear you.”

Listen, I'm at old man Barker's house on Peel Chestnut Mountain. I wrecked my old man's car, dropped it in a hole on an off road. Do you know where I mean, the Barker place?”


Come and get me.”

Dominic Rizzo was crazy. Richard knew that, even without Vernon's testimony and his father was Dom's boss on the hoot-owl shift at French #2 mine. But Dom was his friend. So even though his Uncle Dale was dead and cold in Florida, and even though the snow was sticking to the road, and even though he hadn't checked the furnace since the morning, Richard pulled out of the alley in his Uncle George's car to go get Dom.

When he got to old man Barker's place it was snowing like mad and Dom was outside waiting. When Dom saw it was Richard, he ran back to the house and brought out a girl, all bundled against the cold. She slid into the middle of the front seat beside of Richard and Dom followed her in.

Let's get the hell out of here,” Dom said. “I need a beer.”

Richard searched his memory and found that the girl's name was Jackie Martin. She was probably little more than fifteen and Dom should know better. She had a lot of makeup and it was obvious she'd been crying. But nobody was talking and Richard was driving so he drove to a roadside cafe and pulled into the red dog parking lot. It was snowing so hard that the Christmas lights around the windows of the cafe were eerie and shimmering.


(Once, two years before he died, Uncle Dale and his family were visiting West Virginia. Uncle Dale was sitting in a lawn chair in our front yard. It was autumn and the mountains were burning red and orange and yellow. Uncle Dale's grandson, Marty, came around the corner of our house, grinning like crazy, with his pant's pockets bulging. I asked him what he had in his pockets and he nearly laughed as he told me, “rocks!” His face was smeared with coal dirt. Uncle Dale put his hands behind his head and leaned back in the chair, crossing his feet in front of him. “There are no rocks in Florida,” he said to me. I laughed. Then I remembered the only time I'd been to Florida, the first time I'd seen the ocean. I remember standing on the beach, looking out at a storm gathering on the horizon and almost crying out with aching. The ocean was gray and ominous and I was 13 and it was so big, so infinitely big, and I felt so infinitesimally small. I remembered that and then Uncle Dale looked at me and said, once he knew I was listening: “Really, I'm not kidding. There are no rocks in Florida. Just sand. Not a single rock. I hate it. It's going to kill me.



Dom bolted from the car and ran into the cafe through the snow. He almost fell, slipping on the snow covered gravel. “God-damn!” Richard heard him say. Jackie Martin was sniffing, rubbing her nose with a balled up Kleenex.

You want to go in,” Richard asked.

No,” she said, between sniffs. “But you go on, just leave the motor on so I'll be warm.”

You're sure?” He said.

Sure, I'm sure,” she said, with some anger.

Inside the Monarch Cafe there were four red booths, two against the front wall, one in the back corner and one in the middle of the room. There were three pinball machines and a long bar with rickety stools across the back wall. Dom was already on a stool, drinking a beer and Richard noticed that Luther Barker, old man Barker's oldest son was in the back booth with a large, black-haired woman who wore blood red lipstick. She had enormous breasts and was laughing very hard. Between them, on the table, was a duck—fat and white—with a string around it's neck. The woman and Luther seemed to be laughing at the duck.

Tammy Wynette was singing a sad song from the jukebox about losing her lover.

Richard went straight to the bathroom. On the way he noticed there were cheap Christmas ornaments hanging from the lights and all around the edges of the room. There was an enormous bread company calendar hanging on the men's room's door with a picture of pine trees and a snowy church with the messages “Happy Holidays” and “Betsy Ross Means Good Bread.”

The bathroom smelled of cheap whiskey (out of bottles in brown paper bags since only beer could be sold by the drink in West Virginia) and stale urine. The walls were painted a dying-grass green. Above the urinal there was a crude drawing of a naked woman, on her back with her knees almost behind her ears. She was pushing a long, thin dildo into her vagina. Beneath the picture, written with a much sharper pencil, was the title: THE PEPERONI CURE-ALL.

As Richard left the bathroom, he was thinking about the missing 'p' in 'pepperoni'. When he got back to the bar, Brenda Lee was singing “Jingle-bell Rock” and two more people were there. There was a tall State Policeman in a khaki jacket, too small and unzipped. He was talking to Lou, the man who ran the Monarch Cafe. And Stacy Jame Ebel, a high school classmate of Richard and Dom's was sitting beside Dom drinking Miller High Life from a clear bottle.

Richard sat beside Stacy and listened to Dom's story.

God, Jackie is tight,” he was saying, eyes already glazed from two quickly drunk beers. “I must have tried to get into her six times and she started yelling, 'it's too big, too big!' and crying like crazy. I was so pissed I tried to turn around on that narrow road and dropped my old man's car right into a hole. No way to get the damn thing out tonight.”

Dom motioned for another beer. He was grinning and saying, in a high pitched voice to no one in particular, “it's too big! Too big! Jesus!”

Lou was moving toward the beer cooler but the State Policeman called him back and whispered something in Lou's ear. They both laughed.

Stacy James told Richard that he'd been fired from the shipyard in Newport News where he made really good money and was now working at a can factory in Baltimore. “Here's my job,” he said, shaking his head, “I push a god-damned button and this big ass sheet of aluminum gets cut in half and goes on down the belt. Down the line somewhere it gets turned into cans. I don't know how.”

Do you like it?” Richard asked, trying to picture the sheets of aluminum and the shiny cans at the other end of the line.

Stacy sniffed, “it's a job,” he said. “I live in a rented room and drink a lot of beer.” Stacy was pale and melancholy. He spun his stool and looked right at Richard. His voice was beery. “How about you, my man,” he said, “how's college?”

Fine,” Richard said. “Really fine. But my uncle died yesterday.”

Dom glanced over, a Falstaff in a dark bottle half-way to his mouth, poised. “Which one?” he asked.

Uncle Dale,” Richard told him. “The one in Florida.”

Dom took a long swallow and stared at the bottle rings on the counter. “Damn,” he said, “that's a shame.”

He used to run the Esso?” Stacy said, still looking into Richard's eyes. Richard nodded. “One time I was in there at night,” Stacy continued, “I don't remember why, and Gene Kelly's boy, the really dark kid, was trying to borrow money from you uncle. What was his name—big nigger—Potter, that was it. Anyway, your uncle told him no and Potter pulled this big knife on him. I almost jumped over the Coke machine when I saw that knife.” Stacy laughed, remembering.

You'd look good on a Coke machine,” Dom said. He got up and wandered over to the silent jukebox and fed it two quarters. The machine whirled and clicked and George Jones starts singing a fast, honky-tonk sounding country song, a song about drinking and running around.

Anyway,” Stacy went on, leaning against the counter, speaking softly, “your uncle got up, real calm like and something like, 'Potter, you're just drunk, you don't want to do this,' and quicker than anything, Dale took that knife away from that big nigger, twice your uncle's size, and twisted Potter's arm behind him and threw him out into the road before anyone besides me knew what was happening.”

Richard leaned in, listening, but Stacy paused. He took an unfiltered Camel from a pack on the counter and lit it with an aluminum lighter. As he let the smoke out through his nose, he said, “next day your uncle gave Potter a job pumping gas and washing cars.”

Richard smiled, almost laughed and then almost wept.

Wasn't that the damnest thing?” Stacy asked in what seemed to be genuine amazement.

Dom had been standing, absent-mindedly in the middle of the room. Just as Stacy finished his story, Dom yelled out, above the twanging steel guitar of the record, “God-damn, look at this!”

Luther Barker was up on the floor, dancing around the duck, holding its string in one hand. The duck went in a circle as Luther danced around and around, and the sting tightened on the duck's neck. Luther was stumbling drunkenly as he danced and the woman in the booth laughed so hard she was about to fall out of the booth. She put her elbows on the table and tried to hold her head, but she rocked sideways with laughter.

The State Policeman, who Richard didn't recognize, shook his head with disgust and started toward Luther. Richard saw it all in his mind before any of it happened and there was nothing he could do. He couldn't move a muscle. He was paralyzed on his stool. He tried to close his eyes and look away. Dom was laughing now and Stacy was laughing and the State Policeman was grabbing Luther by the shirt and hitting him hard in the face with the back of his right hand. Once, twice, three times he hit him and then let him go and Luther fell backwards and struck his head on the edge of the table where the fat woman held her head in her hands. Blood spurted from Luther's lip and nose and suddenly no one was laughing. The duck staggered toward the front door, choking, and vomited some green bile on the floor.

The record had ended and everything was silent except for the whirling and clicking of the jukebox, finding the next record. Richard was suddenly free from his paralysis and ran across the room, bumping Dom on the way, making him spill some beer.

Hey, watch it....”, Richard heard Dom yell after him, but the door of the bathroom slammed shut and Richard threw up what was left of the eggs into the toilet and gagged until his eyes watered.

When he looked up, he saw the picture of 'the peperoni cure-all' and, through tears of mourning and relief, all he could think of was wishing he had a pencil so he could put in the missing 'p'. Through the bathroom door, he could hear the State Policeman yelling obscenities at Luther and a country singer whining, intentionally out of tune, “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...just like the ones I used to know....”


(The last time I saw my Uncle Dale, we were sitting on Uncle George's porch and it was spring and we were arguing about religion. I can't remember how it started but he was being stubborn and telling me that anyone who hadn't accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior—including Jews and Roman Catholics—was going to hell. I knew he didn't even believe in hell, that he didn't believe in anything much, that he was a comfortable agnostic. But he went on saying it, knowing it was making me crazy. He sat there with his hands behind his head and his legs stretched out and his feet crossed, like he always sat, being stubborn and baiting me. I got mad and stormed off the porch. He called out to me, “I'm going back to Florida tomorrow morning, Richie, don't forget to write.” And even as mad as I was with him, I had to laugh. We both knew we'd never written each other a letter in our lives and never would. It was early Spring, I was home on Spring break and it seemed to me he always planned his trips to West Virginia around my breaks from college. The robins were digging in my Uncle George's front yard. That October, Dale got sick and on Christmas Eve he died.)



Dom decided to have Stacy take him home, so Richard drove Jackie Martin back alone. He hadn't tried to explain where Dom was since he knew Jackie hadn't expected him back anyway. She nodded at Richard sadly when he slid under the driver's steering wheel and said, “sure is snowing hard.”

Richard turned on the wipers. Ice was beginning to stick to the Buick's windshield and he drove slowly, peering out a clear space surrounded by gathering ice.

When Richard stopped the car outside Jackie Martin's house, nothing happened. She didn't open the door and get out. Instead, she sat, stone still and stared at her hands.

After a long while, Richard said, “Jackie, you're home.”

Nothing much happened, even then. She stared at her hands and then looked out the window. “Here's the truth,” she said, very softly, much more like a mannered, mature woman than little more than a girl, “the worst thing about this night is that you had to know about what happened, how Dom and I were parking up on the mountain and....” Her voice trailed off into silence.

Finally, she looked at him, her large, over-made-up eyes, puffy from crying, looked directly into his heart, his soul. “I'm so terribly sorry your uncle died,” she said. “Mr. Barker told me while we were waiting for you to come. I know how awful that has made your Christmas—even more awful than mine.”

Jackie leaned across and kissed Richard softly on the lips, her fingers gently touching the back of his neck. Richard thought it was one of the softest kisses he'd ever had.

Thank you,” he said. Then she got out and ran through the snow to her house.

When he parked the car in the alley behind his house, he noticed Jackie had left a balled up Kleenex on the front seat. He took it with him and as he stood in the alley he knew the snow would stop soon. It was turning colder and the snow would stop. He tried to imagine his parents and George taking turns driving through southern Georgia, almost to the Florida state line. He walked to the front of the house and noticed the only lights were the Christmas tree lights he'd left on all day. They were green and red and blue and white. He smiled and rubbed the last, dying flakes of snow from his face with Jackie's Kleenex. He could smell her face powder on it.

As he opened the front door, he shivered. It was cold inside and he knew the furnace had gone out.

Monday, February 24, 2014

In case you haven't heard...

The annual list of the 10 most satisfied states and the 10 most dissatisfied states has just been released by the Gallup Poll people.

A new #1--North Dakota, where the average satisfaction--between 0 and 100--is 70.1. Hawaii had been on top for years. I guess all that oil money and the boom in North Dakota's economy means a lot more to people there than warm breezes an the Pacific ocean.

(I once knew a priest in CT who was from North Dakota. Once, when he told someone that at a diocesan meeting somewhere, the other person said {I swear they did!} "Oh, didn't you miss the ocean?" My friend replied, "since we haven't had one for over a billion years we've sort of got used to it." People on the east coast can sometimes be dim--it's like that old New Yorker cover where not much exists west of the Hudson.)

The most dissatisfied state is, for the fifth year running ('drum roll....) West Virginia. I guess 300,000 people not yet knowing whether they can drink their water and Multi-national corporations knocking the top off of your mountains and ruining you valleys can be a bit dissatisfying.

One thing I did notice though--7 of the top 10 are blue states and only one of the bottom 10 is. Just me noticing stuff.

Connecticut must be somewhere in the middle 30, though the full results weren't listed. Besides all that, North Dakota was 70.1 and West Virginia was 60.1, so the other 48 were all within 10 of being the top or bottom. Close, I'd say.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


So Bern and I are watching Downton Abbey tonight--loving it all, especially the Americans that are making the whole thing so un-British and messy and the messy stuff about the Prince of Wales and the wondering if Bates killed the man who raped Anna. Typical Downton stuff--great, all the way down.

Then it ends and some Masterpiece voice says it's the end of season Four.

Bummer. Season Four seemed to have just started.

And it takes a  year to ratchet up a whole other season.

I'm bummed. I don't watch a lot of TV but I love Downton Abbey and Sherlock and the Voice.

As I was about to go into a melt-down worthy of the end of Dowton Abbey, Bern said, " do you know what starts tomorrow night?"

And I replied, "if it's The Voice, I won't kill myself',"

She smiled and nodded. Shakira and Usher are back as coaches this year.

All is well, all is well and all manner of thing will be well.....

Saturday, February 22, 2014


OK, so my allergies are so bad I blood test enough horrible to receive Xolaire--two injections every two weeks. I've had five now, and if you asked me I'd say I don't feel any different at all. I still have lots of chest congestion going on and cough a lot and spit stuff up.

I go to my Allergist Monday and I want to tell him the truth: that I don't feel any better, 10 weeks into these 2 injections every two weeks.

I want to get better. That is the God's truth. But I'm not feeling it yet and he's going to suggest I stop my evening pill tomorrow, I just know he is.

All Fall and Winter I've felt one dusty room away from needing a round of prednisone. And I don't feel that much better now.

I can walk 40 minutes on the treadmill, reading a book, 4 times a week, but shoveling snow or trying to run upstairs doesn't work.

I get out of breath. Not enough to take a puff of my inhaler, but enough to stop and take deep breaths.

I'm perfectly functional, so I don't have 'bad news' to tell my doctor--Dr. Randolph, who is a gem--but I don't feel any better 10 weeks in and I want to.

What next is what I want to know and what I'll ask Dr. Randolph on Monday.

Glad for Gladys

(OK, I guess I'm going keep posting stuff I find sifting through the writings of my past. This short story, unlike most of the stuff has a date on it though most of the stuff I have only a vague place in time for, this is for sure: July 28, 1974. I would have been living in Alexandria Virginia, driving every day with Sister Jeremy and Brother Roger to a huge mental hospital in Maryland to do Clinical Pastoral Education. CPE was required for Episcopal Seminarians in the summer before their final year and of some Roman Catholics who were working on advance degrees. Jeremy was a Sister of  Mercy and Roger was a Franciscan brother. We were a merry trio that summer, driving up to Spring Grove Mental hospital and pretending we knew how to talk to people with mental illness. My reaction to madness is to be sucked into it and sometimes I would keep my hand on the keys to the locked wards to remind me I would be able to leave. I just saw Jeremy last year in Baltimore when we were visiting Josh and Cathy and the girls. She came to their house and I fixed lunch. Jeremy has done a lot of ministries in her day and is a fierce feminist of a nun, but I'm not sure if she was used to being around three little girls for a meal. I lost track of Roger years ago. I liked and trusted them both emmensely.

So, "Glad for Gladys" was written during that time of my life. Odd to know that and have no idea why I wrote it. But, here it is.)


Gladys Spinnet is dying. Not that it matters much to anyone, but she's dying and that should be worth something. It should matter--make a difference somehow.

Elsie Flowers told me today--about Gladys dying. Walking down the main road in Conklintown, along Mrs. Flowers' fence, I saw her out in her garden and she hooted me over. She asked if it were hot enough for me and since it was, I told her, "yes, plenty warm, thank you." She brought her hoe over to the fence and wanted to hear all about me and what I was doing. When I told her I was working on my doctorate, she thought I was in Med School. so I explained I wouldn't be that kind of doctor, not the kind that looks down your throat. Then she talked about her cabbages and politics and all sorts of things, and, right in the middle of something else, she said, "O, ya' know don't ya' 'bout how Gladys Spinnet is dyin'?"

I stood there, trying to remember who Gladys Spinnet was and feeling profoundly sad that knowing someone was dying didn't matter much to me, no more than Mrs. Flowers' cabbages or Senator Jennings Randolph, who she found too liberal.

She leaned on her hoe, as if to make it final, and said, "she is....Really....Dying."

A thin necklace of dirt ringed Mrs. Flowers' neck. Her garden and her sweat gave her a necklace like kids get playing ball on a hot dusty day. It reminded me of Julia, a little black girl I'd seen that morning wearing a necklace of the pop-tops from soda cans. I took her picture and asked if the tops ever cut her neck. "Jist sometimes," she said, "but I don't mind much."

I wanted a picture of Mrs. Flowers with the necklace of dirt around her neck, thinking how it would look beside Julia's picture. Julia had been leaning on her bike and Mrs. Flowers was leaning on her hoe. I imagined the photos, in identical black frames, stark against the white of my study's walls. I was on the verge of asking to take her picture when Mrs. Flowers said, "Cancer, rite here," pointing to the beads of wet dirt on her neck. "Too late to 'ketch it and she'll be dead 'for winter. It'll eat up to that little part of the brain with the long name. Jason tol' me what that's called, but I forgit. Anyways, when it does, Gladys'll  die, quick like."

I almost said, "You can't 'catch' cancer," since I thought she meant 'catching it' like the measles or a bad cold. Luckily, I paused long enough to realize she meant, "it can't be treated." Then I caught myself about to say that the part of the brain she meant was the medulla oblongata, but with Gladys Spinnet dying, that didn't seem important enough to mention. Suddenly, all I could think of was that the next time there were cabbages in Mrs. Flowers garden or a Senatorial election so she could vote for the Republican, there wouldn't be Gladys Spinnet.

And as hard as I tried, I couldn't make it matter.

"Gladys Spinnet," Mrs. Flowers told me, "went to Charlottesville las' month." Going to Charlottesville--to the University of Virginia Hospital--was the kiss of death where I grew up. You only 'went to Charlottesville' when no one in southern West Virginia had any answers. And Charlottesville didn't have answers either. In Charlottesville they did research on things without answers.

Mrs. Flowers rambled on about how her niece worked at the University of Virginia Hospital and what a good job it was and how beautiful the mountains were there in fall, "there bein' lots more maple trees there and maple turnin' bright red." While she talked, I thought about Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, about the big calendar clock that covers a wall of that house, keeping perfect time after all these years, counting out the moments of Gladys Spinnet's life.

When I got away from Mrs. Flowers, carrying three Big-boy tomatoes in a brown paper sack for my Uncle, I stopped at a road side grocery to buy a Dr. Pepper from a fat women whose name I couldn't remember just then. Her name is Mrs. Goins, or Mrs. Cones, or something like that, ans she asked me about her bursitis, since I was studying to be a doctor.

I stood in the middle of the store, drinking my soda, when Sam came in, his hands greasy black from working on cars, to buy some Lucky Strikes. Sam is my age--a little league teammate who dropped out of the high school where I excelled.  He asked where I'd been and what I was doing and how I came to be visiting 'home', and then he told me, matter of factly, like everything else he had said, "ain't it sumthin' 'bout Gladys Spinnit dyin'?"

For Sam, she was already dead. There's something about cancer, something about how much we fear it, something about how some people--Sam, for one--call it 'the Big C", that makes the diagnosis final, a death warrant.

"The big C'll get you, Richie," Sam told me, solemnly, "never fear. Never fear."

I was on the verge of saying that 'fear' seemed an appropriate reaction toward cancer and death and about to tell Sam that I couldn't remember the last time I was around someone who smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes when, without warning, a picture of Gladys Spinnet jumped into my mind.

I saw her, clear as day, running down the main road in winter, ignoring the icy patches on the pavement and the snow piled up almost as high as mail boxes on the shoulders. She was running like mad, in my unexpected memory, coat-less--running to her retarded brother, Casdy, who was sitting in the middle of the road, playing with something he'd found there: a small animal, a chipmunk or something, dead.

I remembered Gladys' face then. It was a soft, round, mountain face--like my mother's, like mine beneath my beard--with small eyes and thick brows, full lips and a weak chin. Sam's face...and Mrs. Goins' face, Mrs. Flowers' face, and Julia's--though her face was Black. Gladys Spinnet's face lept into my memory, as if out of the mirror in my uncle's house's bathroom.

Someone once told me that Gladys changed Casdy's diapers even though he was almost fifty and weighed over 250 pounds. I also remember hearing that Gladys' other two brothers--one not much brighter than Casdy and the other a jack-legged preacher of some kind--wouldn't lift a finger to help. And the father and mother were both long dead--Able Spinnit climbed out on the roof of his porch and died, gossip had it, in a rainstorm. So Gladys Spinnit changed Casdy's diapers and took the dead things he collected out of his pockets each night.

I remember Casdy Spinnit the way you remember a bad dream. He was so large and so retarded, drooling a lot, that he frightened the wits out of me as a child. I even remembered the dead things he carried around in his pockets. Dead things are usually frightening to little kids...or fascinating. I don't remember which it was. Or, maybe it was both at once.

Standing there, talking to Sam, I remembered how Casdy wasn't afraid of dead mice or frogs at all. Casdy would take dead things out of his pockets to show you like he was showing you something glowing, or a shiny quarter he had to buy some gum.

My 'killing time' at home with Uncle George, back where I grew up, suddenly seemed pointless. I wanted a few weeks away from my apartment and my thesis, a few weeks to try out my new camera and sleep late and walk the mountain roads without thinking or reading or writing. Instead, I happened onto the drama of Gladys Spinnet's death--a drama that depressed me because it didn't seem to matter much.

I'm going back to Princeton tomorrow. I've decided I actually want to be near the library. There are several things I need to know about Stephen Crane before I can finish what I've been working on. I won't find out those things here. All I can find out here is more about how Gladys Spinnit is dying. I realize there is nothing I can do to prevent that, or even make it matter much to me.

Gladys' dying may matter to Casdy. Someone else, after all--probably someone less gentle and loving--will have to change his diapers. But he'll most likely think of Gladys as one more dead thing he found and wish he could put her in his pocket.

I'd like to write Gladys a note, but it would be maudlin and vain and she wouldn't remember me or understand. I'd like to tell her, somehow, if I only could--"O God, Gladys, I am sorry." But for all my good intentions, it still wouldn't matter much.

What would matter is if I could tell her something hopeful, joyous, wondrous, glorious.

Like I was glad for her.


Friday, February 21, 2014

baseball...after pondering it...

When I read the post I published today about baseball, I realized how different it is to be 13 than it is to be 66.

Today I would have done things all differently. I would have told my father why I was quitting Little League. I would have told my teammates. I would have told Benny Graham's mother and she would have told all the parents of kids on the Comet's and Jimmy Newsome would have been removed as manager of our team and we would have gone on to play in the play-offs under someone else's guidance and still lost to Gary in the championship game.

But what I realize now is that at 13 I was more concerned about causing my father pain and my teammates confusion than I would be now.

Jimmy Newsome should not have been given such intimate contact with children he did not respect. Someone should have brought him to justice, brought him down. I would do that today without hesitation. I would have probably done it at 20 or 30 and all the years since.

But I was 13 and my understanding of abuse and injustice was not finely honed.

Instead I didn't want my father and my teammates to know what I knew and live with that reality.

I wanted to protect them and live with it alone.

No wonder it is hard for children to call adults into account for their misdeeds.

I understand that now.

Ice cycles

Ice cycles for those of you who live in the Northeast (or most anywhere this winter) form when snow and ice are melting in nearly freezing conditions.

We had some enormous ones lately since we've had periods of melting between the snow storms. All have fallen from our house (one fell off the roof above our back porch roof and glanced down to knock over our trash can, but nothing was in the trash can and I don't have to drag it out to the road before next Tuesday) except one bigger than me on the roof over the side of our semi-wrap around front porch. It could fall tomorrow or the next day and crash through the roof and shatter my bicycle that is out there, except that there's several feet of ice on the roof and the Jim-sized ice cycle will probably glance off and fall harmlessly on our side walk (unless I'm taking out the trash and it crushes me!)

The other still existing ice-cycle is outside the east facing window of our bedroom. I could open the window and break off that 6 foot long, but not broad enough to be Jim-sized, ice-cycle but it might fall on my car in the driveway below. If it drops of it's own volition it will go straight down and not hit the car.

A four foot ice-cycle on the back and west facing side of the house dropped just as our Puli dog was going down the stairs to the snow covered back yard and missed him by 6 inches or so. Bern and I saw it fall and rushed across the deck to see if it impaled Bela. He just looked over his shoulder at it and then licked it and then peed in the poop patch.

Puli's, it seems, don't consider the danger of falling ice like humans do.


(looking through these old writings is making me aware of how bad my memory is. This piece--"Baseball"--was written before my father died in 1988 and I don't remember writing it. But I will share it with you here.....)

My father played baseball as a young man in a rag-tag country league that covered three or four counties of southeastern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Actually it is a misnomer to call what my father played in a 'league', even a 'rag-tag' one. It was more like a network of young men from scattered farm communities who knew each other from logging jobs, county fairs and cattle sales. Each of those young men would go back to their community and fire up enough enthusiasm to schedule a two Sunday double-header, home and away, during the summers. They  would play on rough hewn ball fields beside local schools or on the makeshift diamonds in the middle of some one's cow field. They would assemble early, strutting their farm grown stuff, the 1930's equivalent of "macho", drinking lots of half-fermented homemade moonshine, playing a little baseball that would end in a fight.

The next Sunday they'd do it all again on the other team's field.

I knew the names of the places these rough farm boys grew up. There were place like Waitville (my father's home), Paint Branch, Sweet Springs, Gap Mills, Union, Laural Branch, Rock Camp, Peterstown, Greenville and Wayside: names I knew from my father and because, in my boyhood, I had been there. And in all those places, according to my father, there were raw, rough, harsh, sunburned farm boys itching for sunny weekends, home brew and baseball. Not to mention it was a good way to meet the girls from other towns.

The girls would come in their home-made dresses or summer things from Montgomery Ward, full of freckles and giggles, hiding their faces behind their hands, but their eyes were sharp, focused, sizing up farm boys that weren't boringly familiar. The girls would sit in the shade of the school house or under trees on the edges of the pasture, always shaded, remote from the action but fully involved. Dreaming dreams, I imagine, that farm girls have always dreamed.

I have disappointed my father in many ways, but now two as profound as not playing baseball, beyond backyards and two years of Little League and by not being a Republican. All the other disappointments and betrayals pale beside those two. And now, in the last of the ninth of his life, with Nixon in the White House, who even confounded my father in the last months before the intricacies and failures of his own body and mind began to be his only confusion, it was my not playing baseball that causes me the most guilt.

He has never understood my not playing baseball after 13. I was 'promising'. I played first base with a grace and effortlessness that still surprises me when I pass ball with my son and daughter. I was, in the language of the game, a 'glove'. And in batting practice or in softball, I scattered hits to all fields and showed occasional power to right-center. But when the game began, when Ray Smith was on the mound for Gary and I was at the plate, people went for sodas. "All field, no bat" was my scouting report when I was 12 and 13. But everyone thought I would 'come around'. People who had seen me in practice knew it was just a matter of time and timing and all those sharply hit liners just outside first base would be landing in the alley and I'd be standing on second before anyone knew what happened. I had one year of Little League to go and people in Anawalt were counting on me to 'develop' into a hitter. I'd back second, right behind Danny Taylor, who led the league in hitting and was a constant threat to steal a base, even with the strict, no leading off rules. Danny would get on base more than half the time and the worried pitcher would serve me up some fat ones. Danny would score from first on all those doubles to right center. The Anawalt Comets would, at long last, be winners.

Then, with one game left in the 1960 season and the Comets securely in second place behind Gary, preparing for the play-offs, I quit. I walked off the field after turning a brilliant unassisted double-play that ended a 16-3 rout of the Elbert Aces in which even I had two hits, and, never explaining, turned in my uniform.

There was one out and a runner on first--one of the Subrick boys, I think, and Leo Kroll, the only decent hitter Elbert had was batting. He hit left-handed and I was guarding the bag, holding the runner on. Arnold Butler was pitching, which showed the disgust in which we held the Aces--Arnold only pitched against Elbert, allowing us to save Danny Taylor or Bobby LaFon to pitch against first place Gary. Leo dried his hands, spit into them, dried them again. We were ahead by 13 runs and most of the parents were anxious to go home to TV. Benny Graham's mother started hooting at Leo Kroll, questioning his manhood (or at least his boyhood). Benny Graham scraped the dirt around third base with his foot, hanging his head as he always did when his mother embarrassed him, which was often. Leo stepped in and hit Arnold's pitiful fastball about a foot off the ground six feet to the left of first base.

I don't remember thinking what to do. Obviously, I didn't think at all but threw my body to the right, leaving my feet as I had done so many time playing catch with my uncle Del in my uncle Russel's yard, and caught the ball in the air. The runner was already half-way to second base and not looking back. Nevertheless, I pulled myself to my knees and dived back to first, slapping my Ferris Fain mitt on the base for the game ending double play.

The crowd, whether delighted by my fielding or merely glad to be able to go home (or a little of both) cheered and cheered. Someone picked me up and suddenly the arms of my friends were lifting me up on Benny Graham's and Arnold Butler's shoulders. I was carried off the field for the first and last time in my life. They put me down into the waiting arms of my Daddy and he carried me, all 110 pounds of me, almost to the car. Half-way home down the winding mountain roads, I told him I was quitting.

There was no noise save the whizzing of the tires on the cooling pavement and the cracking of my father's heart. He said nothing. We rode in silence. When I got home, neither of us told my mother about my two Texas League singles, my run scored, my miraculous double play. My father went to the coal house, where he kept his liquor, for a shot of bourbon and I folded my uniform, #7, just like Mickey Mantle, for the last time.

(I never told  my father why I quit Little League a day and a year before I had too. I never told him because it was because of our manager, Jimmy Newsome, who my father admired greatly. Before the game, when we were taking infield, Jimmy {long dead now, I imagine, since he was 20 years older than us back then} was standing in the first base coaching box talking to one of this drinking buddies. He was commenting on the members of the team. He told his friend about me ['all glove, no bat'] but then he moved to Billy Bridgeman at second base and called him 'a good player but a f*cking thug'. Danny Taylor was at short and Jimmy Newsome praised his athletic ability but said he had 's*it for brains'. Jimmy called Benny Goodman's mother 'a foul mouth whore' and said Arnold Butler 'wouldn't know where to put his d*ck except in the assh*ole of a dog'. The worst was for Mousy Macroski, the catcher. "That little Pollock," our manager said of Mousy, "can catch, but he's a bastard and smells like a Pollock."

This was a man I looked up to, admired, wanted to emulate. And as 12 and 13 year old boys were taking grounders and throwing to me at first base, he was defaming and abusing us in coarse language and without an ounce of respect. We, on the other hand, were wanting to win the game to make Coach Newsome praise us. We looked up to him like a minor deity. I don't know what was the worse conclusion: that he didn't think I could hear what he was saying or didn't care if I did.

I knew I could never play again for him, not after that night. All the naivete of childhood was over for me. Since that evening when we beat Elbert 16-3 and I had my first and only glory on a playing field, I've never trusted authority. I drove teachers and scout leaders and professors and bishops wild by making them prove beyond doubt that they could be trusted. Never again did I willingly accept that the person in 'authority' was worthy of respect and obedience.

I never told any of my team mates why I quit even though they resented me for it. I didn't want to rip the admiration and adoration of Jimmy Newsome from their hearts and mind. I became, on that night, folding up my Little League uniform for the last time, an 'outsider', immune from slavishly accepting 'the way things were' and became, for always, a skeptic and a rebel. Jimmy Newsome broke my heart and gave me the identity I have to this day.

On one level I resent him mightily for robbing me of my innocence. On a deeper level I appreciate that he gave me, early on, a bull-sh*t detector that seldom fails me.

I started once to tell my father in the nursing home this story. But he wouldn't have known what I was talking about and why would I put that on him in the bottom of the ninth of his life....?)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reclaiming the deck

Today's warmth caused most of the ice cycles to fall from our roof, but not all. Some huge one's still remain over the front porch.

But we reclaimed the deck.

Bern had hear on TV of a deck collapsing from the weight of snow and ice. So she move foot after foot of snow. There's still lots of snow on the deck but I don't think it will be falling down any time soon.

Small victories in the midst of a harsh winter are 'major' in some way.

We got the deck back today and I heard water in the drains, running downwards and not froze in the gutters for the first time for weeks.

Small victories matter in a winter like this.

They really do.

Wood visible on the deck, the sound of water in a drain. How can Spring be so far away?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A tad off in the season, but anyway....

Bo's Gift

Mattie knew that Paul was having heavy days. He had always been prone to brooding but it had gotten worse once Bo Freeman came home and even worse since the job interview at St. Martin's down in the capitol city. Initially, Paul had been so excited about the possibility of a new position. He had come home after the initial interview telling her what a good chance he thought he had, how he believed he had impressed the committee, how he could already imagine himself Rector of a thriving parish in a real city.
Mattie listened joyfully, so pleased at Paul's pleasure. But the moment fell apart when he said, “at last we can get out of this two-bit town.” Mattie made sure not to react, but it dawned on Paul what he had said and the thrill went out of him. He talked a bit more, with much less enthusiasm and Mattie knew he had been struck by guilt for what he said. After all, it was 'her' two-bit town, not his.
Mattie had grown up in Deep Valley, as had her parents before her. Paul was from the capitol, a big-city boy as things went in that small New England state. She imagined he didn't even know where Deep Valley was until he was hired to be the priest at St. Luke's straight out of seminary. Though, in all the years, he never said so, she knew he had seen it as a brief stop, a few years before moving on to bigger and bigger churches, perhaps even to be elected bishop some day, like his father had been. But, as Mattie's mother used to say whenever plans were thwarted, “considerations got in the way”.
In fact, Mattie was the consideration that came between Paul and his ambitions. She had always told him she would go wherever he needed to go, but either he hadn't believed her or knew it would grieve her to leave the little town while her aging parents still lived. So, in the first decade or so, he patiently waiting, putting his longings for a more prestigious parish on hold. First he waited until Bo finally had to go to the state hospital 50 miles north. Then he waited for Mattie to get pregnant, discovering through that wait that it was his fault she didn't conceive. Finally, he waited for her parents to pass on—first her father and then, five years later, her mother. Before he knew it he had been at. St. Luke's , Deep Valley for nearly 25 years. And, Mattie knew he had already waited too long.
Then, like a unsuspected marvel, Bo Freeman came home and Paul had to wait until the new realities of that homecoming settled down. But now, finally accustomed to having Bo be the child they never had, he felt free to apply for positions in larger places. But by that time he was already over 50 and the sad truth was that churches were always looking for younger priests rather than mature ones. The final interview at St. Martin's had not gone well—had gone horrendously bad, in fact, and hope was lost. Paul told Mattie that in so many words when he got back late at night. She had waited up for him—praying as she prayed...more like thinking hopeful thoughts...that the news would be good. That, his waiting finally over, Paul could pursue his dreams.
But he was morose when he arrived. His eyes were red and swollen and she pictured him in her mind, weeping as he drove home. He said very little, sentence fragments really...”too long in a small parish”...”never showed ambition”...”younger, more exciting candidates”...”our family situation”...”I'm not my father”...”looking for someone who could stay longer....”
Mattie was holding his hands in hers on the kitchen table where they often sat and talked into the night. She was so deeply, profoundly sorry for him, distressed to see him so deflated, longing to be able to give comfort, when those three little words jumped out of the jumble of his self-accusations: “our family situation”. Mattie could imagine it all, the closed door conversations of the vestry at St. Martin's, those doctors and lawyers and university professors and business men and women who made decisions for the largest church in the diocese. Their city ways, their busy lives, their attention to the 'image' of St. Martin's--”Fr. Harden is a good man, a solid priest, and we know how successful his father was here. It might just work, but he is older than we'd hoped for and, well, the family situation....”
They would have never said it out loud, too conscious of political correctness, but they would have thought it and it would have weighed heavy on their minds. How could a priest be Rector of our St. Martin's whose only child was a retarded adult that didn't really belong to he or his wife. No they would have never said it out loud, but Mattie was sure Paul had read between the lines. And though Paul loved her too much to ever hurt her with the idea, Mattie knew it must be true. How hadn't either of them anticipated it? Had they simply become blind to how 'things must look' to strangers? Not that it was the only reason, Paul had been passed over, but it would have entered in. Somehow it was Bo Freeman's fault that Paul was not moving on to receive the much delayed reward for all his loving patience. Mattie's eyes clouded with tears. She thought her heart might break. In the end she was what had kept Paul waiting, her devotion to her parents, her love of Deep Valley, and now, finally her 30 year old promise to 'look after Bo....”

Bo Freeman had been the reason for the first conversation Paul and Mattie ever had, that and church music. Mattie had been the organist at St. Luke's for two years before Fr. Harden arrived. She made an appointment and went in to play for him two days after his furniture had arrived at the Rectory so he could decide if he wanted to keep her on the staff. He stood smiling as she played through a few hymns and a Bach prelude. He started smiling as soon as she hit the first notes and asked her how St. Luke's, such a small church, afforded her.
“Oh,” Mattie said, not so much flattered as intrigued at the 'light up the night' smile of the seemingly somber and serious young priest, “I teach at the elementary school and live with my parents, so I don't expect to get rich on St. Luke's ....”
“Well, you certainly won't,” Paul said, still smiling.
They talked for a while about music matters—Fr. Barnes before him had left hymn selection up to Mattie, using The Choirmaster's Guide to help her. Paul wanted more imput—but so he would, being young and energetic. Dear Fr. Barnes had been with them for 30 odd years—he'd baptized Mattie—and didn't need to 'put his stamp' on the music. That was the term Fr. Harden had used. Mattie found it amusing. So, in the end they agreed she would keep playing and Paul promised to try to give her a raise in the next year.
She was about to go, when he said, “If there's anything I can ever do for you, let me know.” And she realized there was. She got off the organ bench and they sat together in a pew while she tried to explain about Bo Freeman and the promise she had made.
“Sally Freeman and I grew up together. We were inseparable from first grade on,” she told him. “People referred as 'S & M', like the shoe store in the mall. We were planning to go to college together, room together and come back to teach school here in Deep Valley. But none of that happened....”
She went on to explain that during the summer of their Senior year at the regional high school, Sally met a 'big city boy' and he got her pregnant and disappeared. She stopped and apologized, remembering suddenly that Paul Harden was a 'big city boy'. He waved away her apology and she continued.
“It all fell apart, Sally's hopes and dreams,” Mattie told him, “plus, her parents—very strict people—threw her out. She lives in the little apartment above my parents' grocery store with Bo.”
Paul was already familiar with “Holmes' Market”, the only grocery store in town. It was small but well stocked and saved a drive out to the Big Y on the Interstate.
“Then Bo was born,” Mattie went on. “It was clear from the beginning that something was very wrong with him. He's not Downs Syndrome, but it is in that genus of conditions....”
Paul missed the next sentence or two since he was so shocked to find a young women, a product of the small town of Deep Valley, who used the word 'genus' so casually. He knew she was a remarkable musician from hearing her play, but now she was getting interesting.
What came out in the next five minutes was that Sally (the S in the 'S & M' girls—although Paul repented thinking momentarily of the other SM, it obvious hadn't occurred to Mattie) had moved heaven and earth to keep Bo with her. She worked in Mattie's parents store, offered art classes at the local library (“I was the musician and Sally was the artist,” Mattie said.) Paul noticed that she was neither bragging or embarrassed about saying musician and artist. He was not used to such straight forward, confident talking. He had spent his life among those who thrived on irony and sarcasm and figures of speech. People who didn't offer themselves unprotected to the world. Even his father, the popular and thriving Rector of St. Martin's in Capitol City--'sure to be a bishop someday', was the conversation about Paul Harden, Sr.--even his father had never, in all of Paul's life, been so unconcealed as this somewhat lovely young woman was being on their first meeting.
“When I came back from State College,” she continued, “Bo was turning four and the real problems were showing up. He still wore diapers, he didn't speak much and what he said was hard to understand.” She paused, took a breath. “And he was big. A big boy. The last three years, since I've been home, I've helped all I could. And my parents have helped. But then....” Mattie paused, tears rising in her eyes, pain showing in her face, her body slumping in the pew. She was a slight woman who became even smaller for a moment. “Then...,” she continued, voice slightly breaking, “Sally was diagnosed.”
Sally it turned out, had a form of cancer as insidious and irreversible as Bo's condition. She had six months at diagnosis, two months now when Mattie was talking with Paul Harden, her priest, for the first time.
“I promised her,” Mattie said, near sobbing but controlling it enough to talk, “I promised her I would 'look after Bo'. He's a dear child—as innocent and pure as a spring day here in the mountains. And Sally is ready to sign guardianship over to me, but I need some references....I know you don't know me, but a priest's reference would....”
Mattie never finished that sentence because she burst into tears and fell into Paul's arms. He held her, wondering why Seminary hadn't taught him about such things, feeling a vibrant, honest, almost lovely young body against his, hers convulsing in pain, grief, loss. Paul realized he had no idea whatsoever about what to 'do', so he simply held her until the rapids of weeping subsided and she sat up, clearing embarrassed at her out burst, and asked, simply, clearly: “will you write me a letter, Fr. Harden?”
How could he not? Of course he asked her if there were other options for Bo Freeman--”Sally's parents?” “Dead in a car accident when I was a Senior at State College”.
“Siblings?” “She was an only child, like me....” And Paul added in a whisper, “Like me too....”
So he wrote the letter and Matilda Holmes, 25, his age almost to the day, became the legal guardian of Bo Freeman when Sally Freeman died. Paul did the funeral, since Sally's parents had rejected her and their pastor did as well. She was buried in the small graveyard behind the church, a Baptist among generations of Deep Valley Episcopalians. Mattie handled the expenses and the details and then moved into the small apartment above her parents' grocery, so Bo wouldn't have to adjust to a new environment. Every thing Mattie did, from that funeral on, Paul came to understand, was in response to her promise to a dear and deep friendship. A promise not easily made, a promise that had a cost, a promise made in true trust and commitment, a promise that would shape and form, over many years, both Mattie and Paul, and their lives. A promise rooted in the profound depths of love and friendship, a promise that could never be broken—no matter what the fall-out. That was what Matilda ('Mattie') promised to Sally and to Bo. And it was a promise, so unlike the vast multitude of promises of human beings, that would be kept. Cost what it may, mean what it might.
Everything went well—oh, not 'well', but acceptable, for several years. Mattie managed Bo well enough, with her parents' help and the help of others in the little town. Mattie continued to teach, play the organ for St. Luke's and care for Bo. Paul had to admit that Bo was benign enough. Since Mattie was so dedicated to him, Bo came with her to choir practice and church. He was frightening because he was so large and 'different', but the people of St. Luke's accepted him in time. He even grew on Fr. Harden, though Miss Holmes grew on him more. Paul was impressed how Bo would sit by the organ console, leaning against it at choir practice and on Sunday for the two Eucharists. It was awkward and the source of endless gossip, but over the next few years Paul wooed and finally won Mattie. They would be married when Bo was eleven and Mattie and her child born of a promise were going to move into the rectory after the wedding and leave behind the apartment over Holmes' Grocery. Most people agreed, up until then that Mattie's love and devotion could manage the incredible force of nature that was Bo.
Then it happened, a week before the wedding. Just as all the wags and lunch counter philosophers of Deep Valley could have and in fact did predict over the years: Bo, as much as Mattie had sophisticated and tamed and acclimated him to the culture of life in Deep Valley—a culture much more forgiving and accepting than the 'big city' culture that depended on social workers and institutions—did what could have been predicted. Bo set fire to their apartment between the time when Mattie's mother went downstairs to help with the store and the time, only 20 minutes later, but a lifetime in Bo's life, Mattie got home from school, having stayed a few minutes longer to speak with a parent. Bo came home from school—he was in fifth grade though, God knows, he hadn't passed the previous four. “Social Promotion”, they called it back then, in the day, and he turned on the stove after Mattie's mom went downstairs, and it would have been disastrous had Mattie not arrived and put it out with salt, bath towels and great courage born of commitment.
Yet there was no way to keep it from the state social workers. And added to that, Bo had recently hurt a much smaller classmate. Bobby was on the swing and Bo merely meant to give him a push, but Bobby saw him, panicked and fell off the swing. Bo, being 100 pounds heavier tried to pick Bobby up and broke 3 ribs. Fr. Harding had helped soothe over the reaction to that event, but when Bo started the fire, well, the state simply stepped in and Bo went to the hospital in Garden, where he stayed for years and years.
It was in that context that Fr. Harden, having waited patiently for years, married Matilda Holmes.

Time passed, as it always does, like it or not, and it was not until nearly 20 years after Mattie and Paul were married (much to the delight of the people of St. Luke's and the whole village of Deep Valley, loving them both, but loving Mattie more and wondering, some of them, why she would waste herself on such a man—a man without ambition, a man willing to be patient and wait for Matilda Holmes to 'be available'....) At that point in their thoughts, their wonderings would stop. What man wouldn't wait for Matilda? What man with any sense about him wouldn't be patient if patience was what was needed to win such a prize as Mattie? Maybe this 'big city boy' priest knew what he was doing. Maybe he was right to be patient and wait. That's what the people of Deep Valley finally decided—as odd and brooding as Fr. Harden was, if he had the good sense to wait for Mattie, well, how much better could he be?
So their married life began. They were both 30. People talked behind their hands and wondered out loud in the diner and on the street and at the coffee hour at St. Luke's when they would have a child. The widows and mothers of the village looked endlessly at Mattie's waist, but she remained slim almost to a fault, slender in a way most women first admired and then envied.
Matilda's parents wondered too. They waited, as did Paul and Mattie herself. They were patient and waited and when they finally knew—having submitted themselves to intrusive and awful tests—that Paul's sperm count was too low, much too low to induce pregnancy, well, they had waited patiently and then they knew. And they wouldn't be moving soon, Paul wouldn't take a new call because Mattie's parents were growing old and the corner grocery, well stocked and with such variety as it had—was becoming a dinosaur that people fed, from time to time, because it was 'their' dinosaur. But, all in all, the Holmes' Grocery was being laid waste by the 7-ll and the Big Y and a convenience store over on South Street that stayed open later and had a license to sell both beer and wine.
Paul and Mattie shared the aging and death of her parents, shared it equally since they had been truer parents to Paul than his own parents had been. But when both Davis and Alma Holmes were dead and buried, near Sally Freeman, in St. Luke's grave yard, Paul had called his father, now a bishop on the west coast, to ask, tentatively, if there might be some churches in his father's diocese that would be interested in him, Paul Junior.
After an uncomfortable pause and silence, Paul's father said, sadly, Paul thought, “You've waited too long. I'll retire in a few years. I really don't think it would be wise to put your name forward, knowing, as I do, I won't be here to guard you.”
They spoke for a bit longer, but Paul knew, knew fair well, he had disappointed and let down his father by staying so long in Deep Valley, by not being more aggressive or having more initiative, more ambition. Paul's father never understood that his 'staying put' at St. Luke's had to do with waiting for Mattie—someone worth waiting for. Such a thought would have never entered Bishop Paul Harden's ambitious, ironic mind.
That all took place just before Bo Freeman came home. In his years of 'incarceration', as Mattie saw them, at the State Hospital, Bo had learned even more than Mattie had taught him. And a new law decreed that people like Bo, who were able, so far as the state could determine, to live in the community, must do just that.
Mattie had visited Bo faithfully every two weeks for over twenty years. Mattie was, in Paul's mind, one of the few people he'd known who steadfastly kept her word, her promise to Sally to 'watch out' for Bo. She always returned and told Paul all about Bo's progress. She even convinced Paul to go with her two or three times a year and give Bo communion and anoint him for healing.
It was a struggle for Paul at first. He had been glad to share Mattie with Bo in her twice monthly visits, but sharing her and their house with him proved difficult. Bo was well mannered enough, but, at 34 (several years past what the doctors had predicted would be his lifespan) he was large and clumsy and often dropped things and knocked things over. Bo was polite and pleasant and very goodhearted, but he tied them down more than Paul had expected and took so much of Mattie's time and energy. Paul was jealous, he admitted to himself, jealous of the gentle giant who had 'come home' after so many years. The feelings Paul had depressed and disappointed him. It was dangerous, he well knew, to assume he could be as committed as Mattie was to Bo, but he felt guilty nonetheless. The first year was the hardest but the three of them eventually settled into their new life together. Bo called him “Poppy Paul”, having failed to be able to say either 'Father' or 'Harden'. He called Mattie “Matta” and in time Paul would come to use the nickname. Things certainly settled down, but it was another delay, another waiting for Paul. Until they were used to Bo's presence there was no way to look for a new job.
But then, when St. Martin's came open—the place where Paul had grown up and his father had been Rector for so many years. Well, he thought it was FATE calling to him. He no longer dreamed of being a bishop, like his father, but at least, he imagined, he could make his father proud by following in Paul Senior's foot steps. That was why he was so morose and depressed by the rejection. St. Martin's was the domino that knocked down all the others. That was why he became withdrawn and sullen. Mattie didn't seem able to lift his spirits. Bo was merely confused at the way Poppy Paul was behaving. “Poppy Paul sad?” he asked Mattie. She had to admit Paul was very, very sad. “Bo help?” he asked. She embraced the big man, her eyes welling up, “if only Bo could...,” is all she said.
Even Advent couldn't take the weight of loss and disappointment from Paul's shoulders. It had always been his favorite season, but this year, he barely sang the wondrous Advent hymns, celebrated communion with little passion and his sermons were less structured, less poetic than they always were in the Season of Waiting. Perhaps he was through with waiting. Perhaps he thought there was nothing to wait for anymore.
Finally, a week before Christmas, Mattie could take it no more. She found him sitting in the Rectory office in the dark.
“Paul,” she said, “I think it's time you talked to someone. Won't you call Dr. Lewis?” David Lewis was the psychologist in a nearby town who Paul had recommended to dozens of people over the years.
He looked at her. Bo was behind her, in the doorway. Paul got up and moved toward her. “Do you think I'm crazy!” he shouted. “Is that what you think?”
Mattie was startled. She didn't remember a time in all their marriage that Paul had raised his voice to her like that. The shout sent Bo running. In a moment, they heard the front door open and close. Mattie went after him, but when she stood on the porch it was too dark to see where he had gone. Suddenly, Paul was beside her.
“He didn't take a coat,” she said, shivering in the chill night.
“I'm sure he'll come back soon,” Paul said, his voice full of guilt. “He won't go far.”
But a half-hour later, Bo had not returned though Mattie and then Paul had put on warm jackets and went out to call for him.
They were about to give up when Mattie said, “there's a light in the church.”
St. Luke's was never locked. People often let themselves in late at night, turned on the chapel light and sat for a while.
“That's not the chapel light...,” Paul said as they moved toward the door, “it's candles.”
Sure enough, Bo had lit the altar candles. He had also moved the creche figures from the table by the pulpit to the center of the chancel, arranging them just outside the altar rail. Since it wasn't yet Christmas, the figure of the Christ Child wasn't out yet, but as they moved down the aisle, they saw that Bo laying on the floor in front of the little foot-tall statues of Mary and Joseph, holding something against his chest.
“What on earth....” Paul's voice trailed off, beginning to comprehend the tableau before them.
“You see it too,” Mattie said in a whisper.
By that time, Bo had gotten to his feet and came hurrying down the aisle toward them. He gripped, Paul by the arm with one huge hand, in the other he gently held the creche's Angel.
“Come, Poppy Paul,” Bo said, excited. Paul let himself be led up the steps where Bo said, “lay down, Poppy Paul, lay down with Mary and Joseph.” Paul was already on his knees, tears were rolling down his face. He let Bo help him down until he was laying on his side. Then Bo pressed the angel into Paul's hands. “Poppy Paul's Mary's Baby too....”
Paul was weeping quietly. Bo looked anxiously at Mattie.
“It's okay, Bo,” she said, holding back a sob herself. She stood rooted to the spot and watched as Bo sat beside of Paul and cradled his head gently in his huge arms.
When the tears were over, Bo helped Paul to his feet. He looked at the priest with a compassion few would have thought him capable of and asked, “Poppy Paul is Mary's Baby too?”
“Yes, son,” Paul said softly, embracing the larger man, “Yes, my son, I am....”
Mattie held her hand to her mouth. Paul had never called Bo that before. And she could tell as Paul looked at her and held out a hand to her to join their embrace that light had come into Paul's darkness and his life-long waiting was over.
Bo hugged Paul back.
“Easy, son,” Paul said, wincing, “careful with my ribs....”

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.