Saturday, November 18, 2017

Growing Up Southern: November 18, 2017

Back in my day, boys didn’t go to “style shops” for haircuts. They went to barber shops and were trimmed by old geezers 30 years old or older. It formed a rite of passage more unyielding than the initiation ceremonies of our distant ancestors. One never forgets the barber shop of his youth and waiting for the nod that bespoke his turn in the seat.

My favorite was “Shorty’s Barber Shop.” It was next to the bus station, on Fourth Street between Walnut and Main. It, of course, served whites only.

It also sat next to the railroad tracks that ran through downtown Pine Bluff. The number of people who can remember the spectacle of a steam engine rolling into town and coming to a stop dwindles daily, but there are those of us who can remember.

It was a veritable cacophony of sounds and sights: an explosion of noise, clamor, discord, dissonance, discordance, uproar, and wild commotion as steam flew from the boiler, the bell rang, the whistle shrieked, couplings clanged, and steel wheels groaned in protest.

Imagine trying to cut a ten-year-old boy’s hair with this going on some 20 feet away.

The barbers didn’t try. They simply stopped, sighed, and waited. I can only imagine the number of tykes who left with both a glaring gap and glaring mother before that lesson was learned. One novice did ask me once whether I wanted a haircut or wanted to watch the train? Even at that early age, I couldn’t imagine a grown person asking such a stupid question.

They don’t make shops like that anymore. The spittoons disappeared ages ago, as did the shoeshine technicians. They no longer shave a man after retrieving a steaming towel from a container and coiling it around his face to soften the beard. Shops aren’t full of men in no hurry for service, more there for the fellowship than for enhancement. I doubt if there is a place around anywhere that would even permit smoking.

And there are no steam locomotives to distract, and this in an age when people need all the distractions they can get. I still have to believe there are those around who would find an arriving steam locomotive more interesting than what’s on their cell phone. Maybe not.

Of course, we hearken back to a day when a calmer world beckoned and, in many ways, life’s choices were more numerous and more alluring. Shorty, the owner of my boyhood shop, told a group assembled there one day about a man who came to him during The Great Depression, claiming to be an experienced barber. Given a chance, he proved it to be so and Shorty took him on.

Things worked well until one day a steam locomotive came into town and stopped. The new barber, in the middle of cutting a man's hair, excused himself for a moment and went out the back door, presumably to use the bathroom at the bus station next door.

The train’s exiting symphony erupted and the group assembled in the shop enjoyed the spectacle of the train’s departure.

It was only after the passage of some time that they realized the new barber had been on it.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Morning Thoughts: November 17, 2017

I’m so old that I can remember when your company only let you off on Thanksgiving Day and you had to go back to work on Friday.

We never thought it cruel or heartless. Everyone else had to do it, so they said. Consistency is a great balm.

Actually, anyone paying attention would have noticed that the rule didn’t apply to upper management. They would act as if things were normal, only they just didn’t show up on Friday. Who was going to question them?

Once my fellow sufferers and I were well assured of the yearly pattern, we just quietly went about our work as if nothing was going on. After all, we each had our specific jobs to do, and we went it about it with all the ardor, professionalism, attention to detail, and reliability for which we were known and respected. Efficiency was our trademark and loyalty our brand. Friday found us adhering to our reputation for teamwork.

Jack brought the ice and a couple of buckets.

Christie brought the tomato juice.

Ron hauled in the celery.

Steve made sure the Worcestershire Sauce arrived, along with some lime juice and pepper.

Sally brought some Elton John cassettes. Someone else had Cheech and Chong.

Pat brought plastic drinking glasses.

I picked up enough vodka to outfit a small Navy destroyer.

Bill brought the duplicate key to the Boss’s liquor cabinet in case we ran out.  

We had a rare Pentecostal with a sense of humor, a teetotaler who volunteered to play receptionist with a prepared list of attention-diverting responses such as:

“Oh hi Boss. Hope you’re having fun. We’re all fine and I’ll let them you called to check. That was so thoughtful of you. I’m sure they will appreciate it.”

“Jimmie has stepped out to the men’s room just now. Pat ran over to the Blueprint Shop. Yes. I'll be sure to remind them.”

“They are all busy trimming a large mat board right now and I think it’s best not to interrupt …. We don’t want to have a cut finger, now do we?”

“She’s on the other phone with a client just now, may be a while.”

“The noise? Oh, I think one of the guys from the ad agency upstairs stopped by to share a joke with the guys in back.”

“What? Oh? Oh no, I don’t think they minded having to work today at all.”

“You just have a great day and don’t worry about us. Pat and Jimmie will take care of things just fine. Bye.”

 As Jimmy Buffett once said, “Some things never change.


As they used to say back in the day,
what happens at the office stays in the office.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Morning Thoughts: November 15, 2017

“So, life is tough? Read the first passage of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Imagine you can’t pronounce all the works due to a learning disability. Then imagine you and dozens of others with varying types of learning disabilities have been challenged to memorize the entire speech and recite it in front of a group of peers, teachers, and parents.

Another obstacle? You’ve never spoken to a group in public before.

The reward? A coin that says you did it.

As for me, the only disability I suffer from these days is a long-standing incapability to say no when a city wants me to visit and talk about its challenges.

So yesterday I went north to help out and to earn a bit. I went way up in north Arkansas, only a few miles from the Missouri line, and back

I reached Little Rock in time that I could catch the monthly documentary at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, a gem of a Little Rock treasure that I serve as a board member. Each month the staff shows documentaries that relate to the museum’s mission in some way. I try always to go, but last night was a challenge.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself by then, having driven nearly six hours total. I hadn’t eaten supper. I didn’t smell that great. My butt hurt, and the knee I’ve been having trouble with was killing me. I’m not even sure as to whether or not I loved the Galilean with my accustomed vigor at that point. I felt mean, ugly, dispirited, hateful, and full of the poison of human unkindness. Picture a TV evangelist.

My beloved wife, who can usually dispel this sort of world weariness, was at our farm caring for her mother.

While I sat alone in a chair resting, a fresh bottle of Four Roses Single Barrell yelled from the cupboard. “Here I am, lover boy.” Across the room Grant, by Ron Chernow, cooed, "And I'm over here, Sweetie." The Little Rock skyline had never sparkled with more allure. Temptations were mounting. Time was passing. I needed to make a decision.

So, naturally, I walked across the street to MacArthur Park, into the museum, and up a long, long flight of stairs. Have I ever mentioned that I’m not a young man?

At last aloft in the viewing room, I settled in with some free beer and popcorn. I chatted with a good friend who came in with his wife. Things began to look up.

Then the film started. It was The Address, a film by Ken Burns. It chronicles how each year, the young men who attend the tiny Greenwood school in Putney Vermont, are encouraged to memorize, practice and recite The Gettysburg Address. The boys, aged 11 to 17, suffer from a variety of learning disabilities.

Just imagine.

I won’t give away the ending. Let’s just say that a roomful of eyes enjoyed discreet dabbings as the house lights came back on, and guess what?

My knee didn’t hurt at all walking back.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Growing Up Southern: November 13, 2017

My Sainted Mother did have one disagreeable trait. At least it was to me. She was a strong believer in discipline, and punishment, a truly concomitant pairing if there ever was one, much dreaded by young boys in the rural South.

I resented it bigly, this requirement that all Southern boys labor under: that you have to “mind Mama” no matter what, and that sure and certain punishment follows failure to do so. I think it damaged my ability to concentrate. Something did. My wife, in typical “woman supports woman” mode, says that it’s the reason I’m not sleeping under a bridge today. Take your pick.

Whippings were the thing. Mother’s were without guile, nor were they fit for sociological study. It was transgression, apprehension, (often occurring with the aid of and older sister), trial, and immediate execution of sentence. There was no analysis, no appeal, no footnotes, and no dissenting opinions.

Punishment was even worse when Mother was the administrator. She even made you acquire your own tool of torture.

The place where we lived had an abundance of persimmon trees, known for their supple and indestructible limbs. Mother was nothing, if not prescient, so ofttimes she would make “pre-transgression” preparations if the upcoming event portended the appropriate level of exuberance.

“Go over yonder and cut me a switch,” she would say. “And it had better be a good one.”

Displaying a deficiency that has plagued me for a lifetime, i.e. the inability to connect dots of logic and understand the simplest elements of “cause and effect,” I invariably returned with a small, supple affair, believing in my heart that small size equated with less pain.

It was exactly what the hell she wanted. A diminutive woman, she favored the thin, limber models of her objets de torture. It’s this way, see. She had a musical bent, or at least a rhythmic propensity. The wiry, limber switch allowed her to add a verbal contrapuntal element to her beatings. I can still hear her, in my PTSD induced nightmares.

“I’m, (swish … whap) not (swish … whap) going (swish … whap) to (swish … whap) tell (swish … whap) you (swish … whap) again … ,” for as long as it took, some hour or so it seemed, fully to describe my transgressions and their repercussions. In the meantime, I would be voicing my earnest assurances that the beating thus far was fully sufficient to avert any repetition of the offense. “I’ll (swish … whap) tell (swish … whap) you (swish … whap) what’s (swish … whap) enough (swish … whap).”

Later, as I sulked and made mental plans to run away and live alone in the forest like a South Arkansas Tarzan, I would promise myself, that when I became a famous composer, following careers as a policeman and railroad engineer, that I would write a masterpiece using the “state-swish-whap” cadence as the musical motif for a work to be entitled “The Crazed Mama Sonata.”

I haven’t yet, and plans fade with each passing year.

Yesterday, I talked about the predilection for hyperbole among us Southerners. I no doubt demonstrated it today. We do believe that falsehood should be used for embellishing stories and not for self-aggrandizement. But, truth be known, Mable Josephine Harris von Tungeln was a sweet lady and beloved by family and friends alike. I worshiped the ground she walked on while she was on Earth.

It just didn’t pay to piss her off. That’s all.

The Harris sisters in the bloom of youth.
My m├ętier de la justice is on the left.
Yeah. She looks harmless enough.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Growing Up Southern: November 12, 2017

There’s a body of water near where I grew up that is of some local interest. It’s Bayou Bartholomew, the longest one in the world. They say it is, anyway. It runs from Pine Bluff, Arkansas all the way to South Louisiana. It’s the meat of legend and song.

I say “runs” with a fair degree of hyperbole, for bayous don’t really run. They merely slug along, catching and preserving whatever flows into them, much like the South itself. But anyway, what’s a Southerner without hyperbole? We feasted on the concept long before it reached the Borough of Queens, in New York. It matches the tendency of our minds to take sharp turns.

Our hyperbole, though, tends to favor the harmless variety. For example, our mosquitoes are so big that they can stand flat-footed and [have sex with] a turkey, or keep a person awake at night as they crack “hikker-nuts” (Hickory nuts) with their beaks. We have snakes that are so mean that one can kill a tree by coiling around it and stinging it with its tail. We had a banker once who was so crooked that it took three grave plots to bury him. And I personally knew a man whose cousin’s postman told him of a fallen woman so attracted to “group sessions,” that she had to buy thank-you notes by the case.

So what if we would, as William Faulkner observed, cut down a 100-year old oak tree to get at a squirrel’s nest? It would be like Joseph and Mary clearing a spot in the manger for the little Galilean baby, wouldn’t it? Well maybe not, but what’s a little exaggeration among friends? Can’t hurt anyone, can it?

What if we are tending more and more toward electing our politicians for their entertainment value rather than potential benefit to humankind? It allows us to say, “Did you hear the one about the one senator that was so mean the other senators started noticing it?” What about funerals? Would one of the Northern Tribesmen, when asked to say something grand about the deceased, ever stand and say, “Well, I always heard his brother was worse?” The South, after all, originated what the late columnist Richard Allin called the act of “filibustering the deceased into Heaven.”

Are there people anywhere other than the American South that are so “hard-featured” that their face would “make a freight train take a dirt road?” It might even be a face that closely resembled a “mule’s ass sewed up with a logging chain.” Such people thrive here, bigly.

But back to Bayou Bartholomew. It was once what they dumped raw sewage into, but they stopped that back in the 1950s, I think it was. We might expect them to start the practice again. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The tornado of 1947 generally followed the course of Bayou Bartholomew as it ravaged a huge area south of the city of Pine Bluff. There were, if I remember correctly, 32 people killed as a result of the damage. Six young men shooting craps of a Sunday afternoon died in the storm. This happened in an abandoned house less than two city blocks distance from our little country grocery store. To the East of us, an entire family died when their house was lifted, turned upside down, and deposited into Bayou Imbeau, a black-water body near Bayou Bartholomew.

The houses on both sides of our house and store were totally destroyed. The store was undamaged. My father gave away its entire inventory to survivors, asked no money, and went bankrupt. The local newspaper suggested erecting a monument to him. They never did. The small town of Lonsdale, Arkansas did send him a check for $45.00.

In 1957, the bayou flooded. I could watch it from our front porch rise a couple of feet above the highway. They built a major “big box” development at that location a few years ago. When it floods, if there is a functioning government then, we’ll all pay for the recovery. Such is life.

I guess one lesson is that the function of a responsible government, including disaster relief, is not a matter for humor, hyperbole, or political aggrandizement. The best we can hope for is to ooze along like a bayou, hope for the best, love our fellow humans, and be thankful when we aren’t targeted for destruction in the meantime. Peace.

There's not a huge demand for "Bayou-side Mansions,"
but it is possessed of a certain charm.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Veterans Day Thoughts: November 11, 2017

I’ve known my share of veterans in my day, probably more than most people, I’d bet. I’ve never personally known a homeless one. I’m certainly not suggesting there aren’t any but, on this Veterans Day, I do pause to wonder.

It seems I can’t turn around without being confronted with the horrible claims that great hordes of “homeless vets” are filling our overpasses, alleys, and transit camps. At the same time, I wrack my brain and consider the brothers and sisters from my generation’s nasty little war. Almost without exception, they returned from military service and assumed a fruitful life as craftsmen, technicians, teachers, police officers, firefighters, physicians, attorneys, and, yes, even a few I’ve known enjoyed careers as urban planners.

I’ve known fewer veterans from other wars, but the ones I have known followed the same trajectory.

There was one person I’ve known who could be classified as a mentally disturbed vet. Less than two days spent in investigation, however, satisfied me that he was mentally disturbed long before he took our oath. And, sad to say, I’ve known a handful that gamed the system.

I find myself hoping then, that if the claimed numbers of purely homeless vets do exist, they will soon be recipients of the care we owe them. I repeat, soon. To heck with budget cuts.

On the other hand, if there are people who stand to benefit from careless documentation and lying eyes, I hope for the Christian concept of some very warm corners of Hell reserved for them. And, sometimes I do wonder.

One advocate did admit to me once that, within her substantial army of homeless vets, there were some individuals who simply “assumed the persona.” Evidently her organization also “assumed the claims,” for when I asked her if they bothered to demand a DD214 before “validating the persona,” she replied, with a blank stare, “What is a DD214?”

My response is omitted due to the fact that I try to keep this a family-oriented blog. Let’s just reveal, for the untutored, that the DD Form 214, “Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty,” generally referred to as a "DD 214", is a document of the United States Department of Defense, issued upon a military service member's retirement, separation, or discharge from active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States.

It is, therefore, I would argue, something that should be required to produce proof that some imposter is not insulting the memory of any veteran who has ever donned the uniform of a United States military person.

There are many people in our country who would violate what should be a sacred contract between our country and its vets. Unfortunately, too many of the transgressors tend to wave The Flag or The Bible, or both, in one’s face as they go about their mendacity. None are more sickening, in my opinion, that those who would steal, or abet the stealing of, honor from “the few, the happy few.”

So, on this Veterans Day, my friends, be vigilant, very vigilant. That bedraggled man in the worn field jacket standing on the corner begging money and claiming to be a vet is, with almost perfect certainty, not one. On the other hand, that business person walking by, in all likelihood may be. If he or she is from the Baby Boomer generation, the odds will rise even higher.

Remember that respect and understanding will outweigh hollow “thanks” all year long, not just today.

The man seated in middle came home from WWII
wearing a Purple Heart and the coveted
Combat Infantry Badge. He then led an exemplary
life and produced a world class daughter.
I have documentation of this.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Morning Thoughts: November 10, 2017

It’s funny how my mind works, or doesn’t as some would say. Far from a linear process, it more closely resembles a blackbird’s, that is to say that a current interest is easily abandoned when some other shiny object flies by.

Thus, it was almost by accident that, while searching for peace of mind early one morning, I came across a recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. I haven’t fully re-established contact with terra firma yet.

I can’t find the exact date at which this marvelous musician began to play and study the piano. Biographers simply say that his mother started him at “an early age.” It must have been very early as, at the age of 16, he performed the Rachmaninoff work upon graduating from the Kiev Conservatory.

Flash back with me to a segment on NPR in which a top tier musician commented during an interview that they are starting children as early as age three on a musical education. This steered me to a road trip a friend and I took a while back through the Arkansas Delta. He is highly educated and studied something akin to urban economics as an undergraduate.

We talked briefly about the economic concept of “location quotient” which is a way of quantifying how concentrated a particular industry, cluster, occupation, or demographic group is in a region as compared to the nation.

Hmm. Did you just see those blackbirds flying off?

What occupation might rate a high location quotient in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta? “Music?” you say. Why I suppose that’s so. Think of Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, B.B. King, Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, and many others.

Then, another shiny thought flew by. How many musical prodigies may be scattered through this largely forgotten part of our country waiting for a parent, friend, or teacher, to start them on the road to music? Is there a Horowitz, or a Scott Joplin, waiting behind one of those closed doors, waiting for someone to offer the key to greatness? Perhaps there is a Rachmaninoff. A Beethoven? There must be.

If you believe as I do, in the immortal words of Plato that “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything,” you must be distressed as I was at that moment. Distressed? Why? It’s only that some of the richest and most powerful people in America are bent not on ennobling, but on dismantling our public school system and replacing it with some ill-defined market-based affair.

And what will the new system teach the very most capable of those young minds waiting for nurture and guidance? One can only wonder, but …

You can bet your sweet ass it won’t be music.