Tuesday, October 16, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 35 (Cont._2)

What does a young man who is to be married in a few weeks think about? Oh yeah, there’s that, but I don’t remember much else about those days. I do remember that my old friend George Owen, a native of Crossett, Arkansas called one night to see if was busy. “I have something to show you,’ he said. “Does your record player work?”

I assured him that it did, and he showed up some 30 minutes later with a double phonograph album with a busy black and white cover. He showed it to me and asked if I had heard it? No.

It was an album put together by a group called “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.” The cover read “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and promised performances by a wide range of famous musicians, including Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, and Mother Maybelle Carter. Yep, it was Bluegrass-oriented, not the kind of music Brenda liked at all. Maybe this would pay her back for A Clockwork Orange. I was all ears. I knew the “Dirt Band” from a couple of popular hits. Some names I had heard of. For others, a profound surprise awaited me.

I heard, for the first time (I’m ashamed to say) Doc Watson and his son Merle. Oh my. Then the magic kept coming. The producers kept the mikes running during the recordings and the listener enjoyed gems of dialogue like the first meeting between Don Watson and Merle Travis. Merle played and sang “IAm A Pilgrim,” and I almost fainted. Doc and his son did “Way Downtown,” and I began to consider places where I could burn my guitars. Earle Scruggs performed and I resolved someday to learn to play the banjo. Then Roy Acuff sang. We sat and listened, as we enjoyed a beer, to the old, the new, and the curiously arranged.

We sat, not moving, for what seemed like hours and grew more mellow by the minute. The experience would change my life. I finally turned to George with something like “Whatever this is, it’s the most of it ever made.” He agreed. We reached the final ensemble production of the title song, written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon with music by Charles H. Gabriel. The Carter Family immortalized it later and it still stands as a beacon in Bluegrass gospel circles. It had previously stirred some psychic fear in me due to a woman who used to corner me after church services and, pointing out that my parents weren’t there, hoped aloud that our family circle in Heaven would be unbroken. That all changed that night George played the album for me. It was just music, after all, and music should soothe, not cause despair.

And what did that have to do with me? Maybe it sounds trivial, but for one evening I forgot that in a few weeks I was going to have to stand in front of a church full of people and say “With this ring, I thee wed,” to an angel I had known for less than a year, who was upstairs at the moment sewing her wedding dress. Feeling more relaxed than I had in weeks, I went to bed singing to myself

“I am a pilgrim and a stranger
Traveling through this wearisome land
And I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord
And it's not (good Lordy it's not) not made by hand.”

Still a classic
after all these years.

Monday, October 15, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 35

As I was about to be married and settle into a career as an urban planner, I had no doubts of success in either endeavor. Marriage was an accepted social mainstay. Likewise, my career involved an old and interesting field of study.

Learning about marriage was easy. All I had to do was look around and see how happy couples dealt with it. Most of them seemed happy. They owned new cars, had produced children, and were buying or building houses. I knew many of them from college and remembered when they had started dating. All I had to do was pick up points and note what led to a satisfied union. Emulation was the key to success.

My fiancée seemed to respond well to this approach. As long as I emulated her father and respected her mother, our union would be sound. She shared my distaste for social pressure, country clubs, parties, and the thought of most sports, save fishing. Sometimes we sat on my apartment patio and talked of the future. We agreed on almost everything except the quality of her favorite book and movie, A Clockwork Orange. I remembered that happy couples embraced mutual idiosyncrasies and we never quarreled about it. This marriage thing was going to be easy.

I learned, along the way, more basic principles about urban planning. My bosses had learned them in graduate school and they taught them to me. The most prevalent was that neighborhood schools were the foundation building block of urban development. They were to exist within easy access to surrounding residential development and would serve as the magnet for community life. There was no principle more important.

Armed with this priceless guidance, I pressed on against whatever currents that might appear in my river of life.

Many strong ones lay in wait. Consider for example, the married couples I had chosen to emulate because of their apparent happiness and contentment. Within five years more than half would find themselves divorced and sharing custody of the young children produced by the apparent happy union. It would prove a shock.

Oh, and neighborhood schools? What about them? Well, given the systemic cultural basis on which our country had settled, one fact had hidden from consideration. Neighborhood schools tended to be segregated. They also suffered from unequal funding and attention. A federal court ruling waited on the horizon, a ruling that would shape urban development in America as no other phenomenon ever had. The concept of neighborhood schools would be the first victim of a wrenching realization that cities, like individuals, often experience what psychologists call the “flight or fight response.”

This ain't gonna be no big deal.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

My Redacted Life; Sunday Break

As a young man, well relatively young, in the summer of 1972, waiting to be married, I thought of lots of things. I imagined trials, conflicts, disputes, differences of opinions, mutual aggravations, the effects of being “just plain sorry” on my part, and the general trials of living with someone who was basically a stranger. There would be major trials, like finances. There would be day to day trials like what food we liked. There would be trivial trials, like how to squeeze a tube of toothpaste. Most couples know of these.

And they all came to pass, as I had imagined them.

One thing happened, that I neither imagined nor resolved about my bride-to-be. That was just how much I would miss her when we were apart.

Thinking the same things?

Saturday, October 13, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 34 (Cont._4)

Things moved smoothly in the summer of 1972. I was to be married soon. Brenda was working on her wedding gown. I couldn't see it, though. No problem. I would see it soon enough.

I was learning new things every day, like if we just built enough traffic arteries, and they were wide enough, one day there would be no traffic congestion. Population projections proved our existing cities would grow forever. They all possessed the same opportunity. The federal government would maintain a fiduciary relationship with cities and counties in order to make sure that the important inner workings of our country would remain strong. The head and body would function in harmony. Reason would rule if we only planned carefully enough.

Well, yeah, not everything I was learning would prove out to be true. What would prove true was that our country’s role in the Vietnam War would end eventually, not “with a bang, but a whimper,” along with the bodies of students on the campus of Kent State University. Had war not proven so profitable to some, it might have ended our forays into civil wars halfway around the world. That was all in the future, though. For the time being, I was safe away from it all.

Right now, I had to get ready for the wedding. I knew my role by heart, and I had the money to get our wedding rings out of layaway. My bride-to-be was growing more beautiful every day, although she seemed to spend a great deal of time with her two co-conspirators. Sometimes, before knocking on her door, I could hear them inside laughing. They always stopped when I came and never let me in on the jokes. They were being nicer to me, though. I suppose they had come to realize that they couldn’t have this wedding without me. They even let me in on some of the planning.

Things were looking great. We would stay in my apartment until we had enough money to purchase a house. I would be able to get financing through the GI bill. Currently, that meant no down payment and a 7.5 percent interest rate, lower than the market. Our combined incomes suggested a home in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. (I found out later that housing purchases were best based on a single income, but that was in the future.) That seemed fairly grandiose and was enough to attract the interest of real estate sales people, all men. Later, women would come to dominate the profession. We weren’t ready yet, but give us time to study things. Things were running on a fast track. All we had to do was to hang on.

The bosses at work were already looking at a purchase of land for our next private development. It lay in the southwestern part of the county, just outside the city limits at the time. They had set the boundaries and Jack was already on the job, flourishing his magic markers over thin, semi-transparent sheets of thin paper known as “yellow-flimsy.” This development would include a community center, tennis courts, and a swimming pool. We planned for it to be the pride of central Arkansas. Who better to plan future developments than a group of talented urban planners? Indeed. It mattered little that the oldest of us was about to turn 30. All things would come to pass as planned.

 Those were glorious days. I’m glad we had them, Brenda and I. We would have others, many others, but there is something about the joy of living during times when you haven’t yet had to face reality.

I'd come a long ways.

Friday, October 12, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 34 (Cont._3)

Somewhere about this time, I had the honor to meet Brenda’s Uncle Roy Bennett from Saint Louis, a bachelor and fascinating human. He actually lived in University City, a place well known to urban planners. It had passed the first “rental inspection” program in the state, maybe the country. It aimed at stopping the spread of blight as families sold their homes to slum landlords before moving away from the city core. Other cities have enacted similar programs that are still strongly resisted by a real estate profession that adopts the adage “if it’ll rent, it’s good enough.”

Roy was the youngest of two sons. Brenda’s mother Hazel had insisted that he leave the hardscrabble farm on which he was raised. After a stint in the Navy, he had hitched a ride to St. Louis after word got out that McDonald-Douglass, the aero-space giant was hiring. He got a job, slept in a friend’s car for a while, and entered into a long and fascinating career.

We hit it off immediately. We shared an interest in photography. He proudly showed me his Nikon F, the Holy Grail of amateur photography. Actually, he was interested in everything, from electronics to music. I would say that he was the most fascinated person I’ve ever known. Brenda adored him. The feeling was mutual.

His father had bequeathed the family farm to him in order that it would remain intact. His lifelong plan included returning there after retirement and perfecting the profession of piddling. To that end, he, over the years, hauled countless items of possible or potential value in piddling. Some of it still remains. I would never figure out how one man was able to haul it.

He shared the bass voice typical of that side of Brenda’s family, one she didn’t share. Like me, he loved to pick a guitar but never got very good at it. That didn’t dampen his enthusiasm a bit. That’s an attribute of perpetually fascinated people, or so I have found. They don’t have to be good at something as long as it fascinates them.

I quickly decided that I wouldn’t regret marrying into a family that produced a man like Roy.

Late in his career, he was assigned to the United States Space Program. There he worked on top-secret things, witnessed many historic events, and came to know, personally, some of the astronauts. Sometimes I can still recall his deep voice reciting some of their personal quirks.

For now, he had his trusty Nikon ready to photograph the wedding. We talked about it. I always thought he liked me. I surely hope so. As I say, he looked so forward to entering a second career of idle tinkering on the “postage stamp of native soil” where he grew up. I’m sure he would have entered the Piddling Hall of Fame.

It wasn’t to be. He would die from a massive heart attack just months away from retirement. At his funeral, a long-time neighbor described him as “always walking around whistling, with a tool in his hand, thinking of some project he was planning.”

That’s about as good a statement on a person’s life as I have ever heard.

We still miss him, a lot.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 34 (Cont._2)

 The days leading up to the wedding passed by like gray horses filing through a morning mist. I was apprehensive. Brenda was busy. Friends were inquisitive. I’d never attended a church wedding so I didn’t know what to expect. Ours would be a simple affair by modern standards but an affordable and accessible one. I still harbored a fear of speaking before a group, but I wouldn’t have a lot to say.

Besides, the three harpies had made me go over my lines do many times that I knew I couldn’t fail. The pressure seemed to make Brenda grow prettier every day. I don’t know exactly why. She wasn’t landing the catch of the century or anything. I was overweight from the eating binge that had accompanied my successful decision to quit smoking. I wasn’t above drinking too much. I could summon up a temper when I wished. I still felt I was four years behind my peers who had successfully avoided the draft.

But she stood by me, a trait that would continue.

My neighbor wasn’t so kind. She constantly reminded me that my bride-to-be could have “had her pick of men.” I should, therefore, consider myself lucky and do exactly as I was told. Hadn’t I been to boot camp?

“Well, yeah.”

“Just consider this another boot camp. One for wedding preparations.”

“Now one is not helpless simply because one is a man,” I said. “I have a good job, I served honorably in the military, People are starting to show a great deal of respect for my work and my opinion. I don’t have to stand for being treated like a two-year-old.”

“Shut up and listen,” she said.

“Okay,” I said. She had caught me going to my apartment and stopped me in front of her door. She fastened the top button on her blouse and pinched each side of her bra through the material with her fingers. She tugged it back and forth until she was satisfied with the fit and stuck a finger toward me.

“This is going to be one of the most important nights of her life,” she said. “It’s up to you to help make it happen.”

“I plan to.”

“What are you going to wear?”

“A suit?”

“Not a tuxedo?”

“She said I didn’t have to.”

“I’ll verify that,” she said. “You’d better not be lying.”

“She said we didn’t need any extra extravagances.”

“That sounds like her, but I’ll check anyway.”

"You do that."

“I will. Who’s going to be the best man?”

“My brother.”

“Will he be sober?”

“I suppose so.”

“You’d better know so.”

It went on like this for a while. I became confused. Weren’t weddings supposed to be about love? If so, would not wedding preparations also be about love? I was feeling more like a Marine recruit that a soon-to-be husband. She broke my reverie.

“You know I’m doing this for your own good, don’t you?”

Before I could answer, she continued. “We think an awfully lot of that girl.”

“I do too.”

“Then you’d better pay attention and carry it off like it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to you.” With that, she opened the door to her apartment, went in, and disappeared. I didn’t know what the hell to do next. I was thinking that I wasn’t going to put up with this crap from a bunch of women much longer. I was the man in the group and damned sure ought to let them know who was in charge. It surely wasn’t this neighbor with her lack of attention to dressing skills. We'd get this straightened out. Still, I didn’t move.

She had neglected to dismiss me.

This marriage thing wasn't
going to be as easy as I thought.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter 34

August neared and the wedding date loomed on the horizon. I was busy working during the day, trying to ignore the jokes and jibes. Was I the first person who had ever planned to marry?

Oh well, Brenda was busy sewing, in addition to her own wedding dress, those for her mother, her bridesmaid, and the bridesmaid’s sister.

Some evenings she would take a break and we would drive out old Highway 70 along Hill’s Lake, find a quiet spot, open a bottle of Boone’s Farm Wine, and talk about the future. We would lean our heads together and count our blessings until the sun went down or the mosquitoes overtook us. Here I was, fulfilling a dream. I had a sports car convertible and a lover with long flowing red hair to ride next to me in it. I had come a long way.

At the office, the partners had asked if I wanted something called “a bachelor’s party.” I had no idea what that was. They didn’t have those in the old United States Navy. They explained that it was a party for men only where they got the husband-to-be drunk, acted silly, and talked dirty.

“Talk dirty?”

“Yeah, you know … filthy jokes and all.”

“That’s all you do?”

“Well, we get you drunk. It’s like one last super-blast before you get married.”

“You just get drunk, talk dirty, and make insulting jokes about being married?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Sounds like fun to me.”

I didn’t mention it to Brenda on any of our evening rides. Once though, I parked at the edge of a large field of soybeans stretching far into the horizon, with a band of clouds and thunderheads at its end.

“Isn’t this land wonderful?” she said.

I studied the soft curve of her back contrasted against the long straight furrows. The silence unnerved me and I said, “It’s okay here.” She didn’t respond so I added. “I guess next to the sea, I like the mountains best.”

She turned and looked at me the way a teacher would look at a student who had failed to solve the easiest problem of the day. “That’s just it,” she announced as if announcing the solution.

“What?” I said.

She smiled and the smile completely unmanned me, a trick of hers I had learned to dread.

“You see, here you create your own mountains.”

“Your own mountains?”

“Yes,” she said and her eagerness and certitude kept me unbalanced. “That way, you don’t suffer constraint.”


“Yes, constraint. Your mountains can be as big as you want or as small. They can be covered with snow or even have a giant cherry on top like that one there.” She pointed to a thunderhead on the horizon, topped by a round black cloud that did indeed seem to radiate a red hue in the late afternoon sky.

I held her hand. We studied the field, spread out before us like a chart drawn to illustrate perspective.

“How do they plow them so straight, the rows?” I asked.

“They have a marker on an arm of the tractor that they use to measure from the last row plowed,” she said. “Like this land itself―each generation is built upon the values of the last.” She paused and then added, “Daddy’s been doing it so long, though, he really doesn’t need a marker.”

I looked back at the fields and felt a breeze that swept me forward for a fraction of a second—not really long enough to register fully— and I saw the tedium of, year after year, coaxing life from this fecund land. Her voice jerked me back the way a young calf is jerked as he comes to the end of the roper’s lariat.

“It would be truly sad, wouldn’t it?”

I focused on her and processed what I thought I heard her say.

“Sad?” I said.

“It would be so sad to know that you had actually to be where the mountains were in order to have them. That you couldn’t just do it whenever or wherever you chose.”

I failed to find a response. Instead, I looked at the distant clouds as they transformed themselves into snow-clad mountains of heart-piercing peace and beauty.

Was I about to marry a sorceress?

Maybe Keats had it right.