Read more about the article A Father’s Day Memory
Dapper Dad

A Father’s Day Memory

I was home on a Christmas break from Pepperdine University in 1973 and my father was taking me and my younger brothers on the Virgin Falls hike. A mutual friend who lived in the area had taken them on the hike a few months earlier and Dad and my brothers couldn’t wait to share the experience with me. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen,” they all kept saying as we drove the three hours from our Nashville home to the trailhead in eastern Tennessee. “They can’t find the source of the waterfall. It comes out of a cave on the top of this big hill, drops over a hundred feet and disappears. No one knows where it comes from and where it goes.” That, along with the promise of exploring deep caverns, climbing boulders, and being taught by my brothers how to “ride down trees,” raised my expectation for adventure.

It was like walking into a primeval forest. For the first mile the trail meandered along a creek through spacious groves of indigenous tree varieties before it began a steep decline beneath thick canopies of mountain laurel until trail and creek converged into a large stream. We had to forge the wide stream hopping from rock to rock that rose out of the churning water in random patterns. While not life-threatening, a misstep meant wet boots and clothes for the next eight miles, and since it happened to be winter, that would add to the misery and ridicule from my brothers. The unofficial Arnold gauntlet was to see who could use the least number of rocks to get from one bank to the other. This crossing was probably twenty feet wide and the water flow was high, which meant there was minimal rock exposure to use as a landing and launching platform through the swift current. It required thrust and agility to leap across the stream bounding from rock to rock. Dad went first, pathfinder that he was, and my brothers and I followed. I don’t remember who won; I just remember marveling at dad’s ability to leap from rock to rock with a dancer’s grace and then the joy he took in watching his sons follow after him. Long gone were the days of having to hold our hands through precarious crossings of any kind. We all had been set free to stand or fall on our own; the momentum of manhood.

We followed the stream for another mile and a half; it’s steady and gradual descent a deception we would come to see as a liability on our return trip. The footpath remained narrow, but the course of the stream would expand or contract as dictated by the contours of the landscape rushing around large boulders, tumbling into small waterfalls, or cascading down a natural rock slide into deep pools that during summer hikes afforded us opportunities to refresh our sweaty bodies with a dip in nothing but Adam’s original suit.

Big Laurel FallsAt the halfway point we came upon this great cavern in the shape of a giant’s mouth full-open; an outcropping of rocks forming a misshapen jaw line and jagged teeth while the upper lip was smooth and curved by the eroding flow of the stream we had followed. At this point the water dropped fifty feet splashing onto the rocks below before disappearing into the giant’s gullet. The opening was so wide we could make our way around the falls and deep inside the great chasm. We had stepped into Jules Verne’s adventure story, “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and at any moment I expected prehistoric creatures to emerge out of the immense, dank walls.

After a brief rest we trekked on until we came to a boulder field and next to it was a stand of young sapling trees that fought for survival against boulders crowding in on one side and old-growth trees on the other. My two younger brothers scampered up the side of the boulder excited to educate me in the art of riding down a tree. They hurled their bodies at young saplings, and then rode down their tree as it awkwardly bent double to deposit the passenger onto the ground. This was all the instruction I needed, and I followed their example while Dad chose to keep his feet firmly planted on the land taking pride and pleasure in watching his sons leap into the tops of the nimble trees in our attempt to test Darwin’s theory of evolution.

side view of V.F.After collecting a few scratches to the face and a rip or two on our shirts and jeans from the branches that fought against being manhandled, we journeyed down the trail. Within a quarter mile of the falls I heard the relentless rumble of water pounding the earth. The only trail access to the falls was from the southeast side of the hill so as we rounded the bend my first sight of the falling water was in profile. It was as if we walked into a crater with the south side rim missing. There was a loop trail that went around the rim to the cave at the top of the hill where the water flowed out. The trail then continued on until it dissolved onto the top of a cliff wall that dropped down to our original starting point. The cliff was treacherous, but still scaleable to the nervy rock climber.

mouth of caveDad and my brothers told the truth: the water did come out of a cave; it did drop over a hundred feet and disappear into the dark, saturated earth; it had no visible source, no headwaters, no obvious current feeding into another body of water. Local scientists had attempted to discover its source by exploring the cave until it became impassable and searched for the waters’ destination point by dropping tracking devices into the hole at the bottom of the falls, but to no avail. So mythology took over and it was named Virgin Falls for its mysterious, subterranean, circulatory system with no beginning and no end.

There were several hikes between that first time and the last one my brothers and I took with our father.  Dad was nearing seventy by this time, gone through a couple of pacemakers, and yet was still honorably resistant to the encroachment of age. While the stream that had to be forged in the first stage of the hike was now made easier by a cable and strung over the rushing waters attached from one tree to another, the mile and a half ascent from the cavern to level ground in the last stage was more difficult. Dad needed to stop every thirty or forty yards to catch his breath. A couple of times I felt impatient, my legs eager to keep a pace that was impossible for Dad to maintain. I wish I could have those seconds back, reframe them with a more positive sentiment instead of the baser one I felt. I wonder now if he might have been milking the time just for the few extra minutes with his sons. At one of those “rest stops” along the trail he seemed to acknowledge his mortality when he said, “This might be my last time here, boys.” It was, but he expressed it in such a way that revealed his true nature as the eternal optimist.

front view of V.F.I have hiked on trails all over the world, many of them more stunning in beauty than Virgin Falls, but like a first love, there will always be something special about that hike that can never be surpassed. I saw Dad in a new light on that hike: a father’s joy at sharing with his sons the wonder, the mystery, and the beauty of a small part of our planet. I have taken this trail with Kay and my daughters, and then with their husbands who are now my sons. In a few years, I expect to show my grandchildren the incredible sights and sounds of Virgin Falls, and they too might get impatient with their grandfather when he has to stop to rest with more frequency. And someday I expect to say, “This might be my last time here.” But not anytime soon. My final trek will be a one-way trip. I will be carried in, my ashes in a box, and then scattered at the mouth of the cave to become part of the unfathomable, eternal flow of Virgin Falls.

Comments Off on A Father’s Day Memory
Read more about the article Old Dog/New Tricks
Life is a Balancing Act

Old Dog/New Tricks

I recently turned sixty-five, and while it is a milestone of sorts, it did not really seem worthy of a big celebration. Ten thousand of us Baby-Boomers turn sixty-five every day, so big deal. For a number of years I considered getting a tattoo to mark the occasion. My daughters and their husbands all have tattoos and they have been very encouraging of the idea. Even my mother got a tattoo on her eightieth birthday, which I thought was way cool. I even toyed around with some designs I thought I might like that included varied symbols referencing the spiritual, the aesthetic, and the familial. When Kay and I went to New Zealand last fall and saw some indigenous peoples who had taken the concept of family tree to a whole new level by tattooing the ancient images of their family tribe on their necks and faces, I decided my family tree could be better displayed in a picture frame and not on my flesh.

I am very slow to make decisions when it comes to upgrading technology that might improve my daily life. Living in a high-speed, full-scale digital cosmos does not appeal to me. I still use a flip-up phone and I don’t text; my reading material comes in magazine, paper or hardback forms; I play pool, poker, and pinball not video games, and I have a high-definition antennae on the top of my house that gets me about a dozen free channels two of which I might watch. And when people have tried to get me to open a Facebook account so I could potentially have a half billion friends, my eyes just glazed over. On the rare occasion I received a “friend” request in my e-mail inbox, I just deleted it without so much as a twinge of guilt.

Life is a Balancing Act
Life is a Balancing Act

I live like an animal, you say, but no more. This old dog has decided that he can learn a new trick. Not only did I have a website designed for my professional work, I also joined the Facebook team to make it a half billion and one…at least for a split millisecond of time. Now to all of the professional Facebookers out there who know me and my disdainful, even snarky, attitude about participating in such social media forums (much like the nay-sayers in the early days of television who considered the technological phenomenon a “vast wasteland”), I deserve all the slings and arrows of snide commentaries you care to throw at me. Be brutal. Be brutal. I accept the barbs.

So on the day of my birth instead of Kay dropping me off at a local tattoo parlor for my birthday tat, she dropped me off at Sam and Zoe’s to meet Jill Lafave, my web designer, and have her set up my Facebook accounts. And in the twenty-four hours or so of going “live” I have received over one hundred “friend” requests. I take that to mean that you are not holding any grudges about my scornful attitude in the past now that I have been “born-again.” But I still don’t know what to do with this flood of requests. I have already forgotten my password and have had to request a new one. If I don’t properly “friend” you back, trust me, I have not back-slid into my former snarky ways, I just have limited skills of navigation in this wide, wide world of the web we all live in.

While my journey from cave-dweller to enlightenment is still a relatively short one on the evolutionary highway of social media, I have made those first initial (or fateful) steps. Who knows? Someday I may trade in my flip-up for an iPhone…but I will NEVER text, and I still might get that tattoo.

Comments Off on Old Dog/New Tricks
Read more about the article Bernie Arnold
Bernie-Laurie Wyckoff Arnold

Bernie Arnold

In the first three months of 2015 two significant events took place in my life that will resonant with me for the rest of my life. I had been preparing for the role of Willy Loman for months leading up to the first day of rehearsals for Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of “Death of a Salesman,” and on February 20 we began. This was the role of a lifetime. My preparation was strenuous but necessary for me to feel I could begin on the first day of rehearsals and look my fellow actors in the eye and respond truthfully with the emotional life of the character, as well as absorb the brilliant insights into the story provided us by our director. After three-and-a-half decades of marriage my wife, Kay, can attest that when in production, I immerse myself in the process.

Bernie Arnold

The second and more profound event was the sudden death of my mother just four days into our rehearsals for the play. Mom was in relatively good health, but after she suffered a number of seizures ten months earlier, my siblings and I decided she no longer needed to live alone (our Dad had died in 2002), and though Mom initially resisted the move, she saw the wisdom of transitioning into an assisted living arrangement. Mom ended up enjoying her new “home” and the freedom and care she had while living there.

The Sunday night before she died was the night of the Oscars. I intended to watch the first hour then go to bed because of an early rehearsal call the next day. When J.K. Simmons won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for “Whiplash,” and gave his wonderful acceptance speech praising his wife, kids, and then his parents, I was moved. I am fortunate enough to have been parented well, to have married well (above my station, most would say), and to have participated in the rearing of two wonderful daughters. As Mr. Simmons expressed thankfulness that his children possessed more of the admirable qualities of their mother than of him, I too acknowledged my gratitude to Kay sitting on the sofa beside me that the deep gene pool of her virtues had dominated in creating the DNA of our girls.

But the moment of great conviction came when Mr. Simmons went on to praise his mother and father for their contribution in shaping him into the person standing on that stage. The man who held the Oscar expressed humble gratitude to the most important people in his life ending with his parents. Mr. Simmons’ last words were, “…Go call your Mom and your Dad and thank them. Don’t text or e-mail them, but call them and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.” That was enough for me, and I rose from the sofa and told Kay I was going to call Mom.

When Mom answered the phone in her bright, cheery voice, I naturally thought she was watching the Oscars and was anticipating this call from one of her children. However, she informed me that she had just come in from having dinner with one of my brothers and his wife, thus the vibrant “hello” when she picked up the phone. So I explained to her how Mr. Simmons had inspired me.

“Mom, I wanted you to know how thankful I am for your love and encouragement over the years. You and Dad always cared for me and supported me. You rarely missed a performance of the shows I’ve been in. And while I’m excited about getting to play Willy Loman, I’m thankful not to have lived his life. That’s because of you and Dad.”

As I was about to settle in to “…listen to [her] for as long as [she] wanted to talk to [me],” she responded with: “Oh Sweetie that is so nice of you. I love you too and am so proud of you and appreciate what you’ve just said, but “Downtown Abby” is about to start and I need to go to the bathroom so can we wrap this up?”

All I could do was burst out laughing. It was a perfect Mom moment. There would be other opportunities for a mutual-admiration-society chat so we said goodnight and hung up. Some time that night, I assume after watching the latest episode of “Downtown Abby,” she went to sleep and her body released her spirit. Since my mother liked to sleep late each morning, the nurse at the assisted living did not discover her until mid-morning the next day.

Chip Arnold as Willy Loman

At the beginning of each rehearsal day I silence my phone, and since I don’t text, there was no way to get through to me. We were about three hours into rehearsal and the director called for a break and told me I should check my phone for messages. Kay had to text the director and tell her that Mom was in a coma and taken to the hospital.

While driving to the hospital knowing that now my mother was on life support with no chance of recovery this continual loop of our conversation the night before kept playing in my head, and all I could do was whisper my thanks to God for heeding Mr. Simmons’ admonition to call your parents; an admonition spoken just to me and not a billion other people watching the show.

In the weeks that followed, I don’t know how I got through the rehearsals or the run of “Death of a Salesman.” I knew the experience of Mom’s passing was mysteriously informing my own creative work, but I couldn’t explain how. When people would ask me how I was doing or how was I getting through it, I could only shrug, and with a look of perplexity, simply say, “I don’t know.”

One might think my world was shattered, but it wasn’t. After my wife, my mother and father have done the most to mold and shape my character for better or for worse, but mostly for the better. I don’t really understand how that happens except that on my best days I was willing to receive the goodness, the kindness, the faith, the love these three people continually gave to me and allow those qualities to sink deep into my soul providing me with a solid foundation for life.

In a Q & A session with the cast after one of the performances, I was asked by an audience member how I prepared for the role of Willy Loman. I mumbled something unintelligible. I had been talking almost nonstop for nearly three hours on stage and I had no words of my own. Before the director came to my rescue, I was able to utter, “I just lived long enough…”

Bud and Bernie

God gave me two extraordinary gifts in these first three months of 2015: the gift of Willy Loman and all the wonderful theatre artists who collaborated to make “Death of a Salesman” a remarkable work of art; and the gift of that final phone conversation with my Mom the night before she shuffled off her mortal coil. Mom made a grand exit. She was a great lady. She and Dad left her children a noble legacy. Going forward my art and my life will be forever enhanced by her memory.

Comments Off on Bernie Arnold