Highways of Death

My lovely wife Kay has never met a stretch of highway that intimidated her. Regardless of which side of the public thoroughfare a country has chosen to dictate its traffic flow, she has never been concerned with the directional markings painted on the road. Staying inside designated lanes is not a priority: “Too confining,” she argues. This must be her creative nature and outside-of-the-box thinking. Yes, there is a beautiful little rebel inside the heart of my bride.

Almafi coast road with horses

Past Highways of Death include, but are not limited to, the length and breadth of the Amalfi coast. To clarify, the measurement of breadth in the case of this twenty-five mile stretch of coastline in southern Italy barely accommodates two vehicles as the scrapes and dents and broken side-mirrors attested on many of the cars we passed during our excursion in 2012. With the mountains on one side and a three-hundred foot drop into the Mediterranean on the other, the highway is unforgiving, and better to have a dent or two in the side of your vehicle than the alternative. The way many of the drivers use this stretch of highway, the guard railings to prevent a vehicle from plunging into the sea is more for show than for safety. Oh yeah, and then there are the horses; dodging pack horses is an added test to a driver’s skill set.

Then there was the time two years ago in Lyon, France when Kay went the wrong direction on a one-way city street and we faced an approaching street car. She took the only move she had, pulling onto the sidewalk. After the street car passed, she got back on the road and immediately turned our car in the right direction. One must look at the positive, Kay would say: there were no parked cars along the street preventing her from using the sidewalk at that strategic point when she needed to avoid the head-to-head, and “no pedestrians were injured in the making of this move.” She ignored the shocked and terrified faces of said pedestrians or their curses as she righted the car and drove away. It is a wondrous thing to be cursed in a foreign language.

Or the time we were driving through the French Alps to Chamonix when construction work on the main road forced us to take a deviation (French for detour). She was a reckoning force cruising the mountain-pass roads like the latent Indy driver she was, is, and evermore shall be; straightening out the switchbacks and hairpins like an expert, braking into and accelerating out of the curves like a pro. Mind you, this was a secondary road with few guard rails, so one faulty move and we would have sailed into the wild blue yonder.

Photo by Kay P. Arnold

When we travel internationally our roles are well-defined: I the pathfinder and Kay the pilot. This recent trip to Scotland, I grudgingly agreed to a Global Positioning System in our rental car. The GPS is an affront to my keen sense of direction, and I’m Orwellian enough to consider the GPS nothing more than Big Brother; always watching, always knowing my location, and, I’m sure, the inevitable next step for such future technology, will be the knowing of my thoughts. At present, only God knows my thoughts and that is embarrassing enough. However, for this trip I conceded for the sake of marital harmony, and I am humble enough to admit that the GPS proved useful in most cases, which gladdened my wife’s heart. But when we took some off-grid side trips or went to destination points that were not pre-programmed into the system, the GPS went into a state of confusion and became completely unreliable. Who you gonna call? In such moments, I proved my worth as map reader and visual spotter of landscapes, road signs, and all-points compass to get us back on the right path. And yes, I gloated in my few victories.

Photo by Kay P. Arnold

Kay and I traveled alone on the first eight days of this trip before we met up with family members and friends for the second week. We landed in Glasgow, got our rental car-I sulked while Kay programmed the GPS-and off we went toward Ft. William through the mountains of Loch Lomond. The Highlands of Scotland are stunningly beautiful. The country has a five hundred-mile, coastal and mountain route that is referred to by the Tourist Board as “the Route 66 of Scotland.” Kay and I traveled four hundred of those five hundred miles. At least a third of those four hundred miles were one-lane roads with only a “Passing Place” for vehicles to slip into to avoid smash-ups. Let me explain a “Passing Place.” In America, when not driving the Interstate/Freeway systems, we drive two-lane roads wide enough for large vehicles traveling in either direction, and with expanded lanes for those times when we find ourselves behind a slower moving vehicle and need to pass, i.e., going up a long incline. That reality does not exist on Scotland’s Route 66.

A “Passing Place” is no more than what I describe as a “blip” on the pavement for one and a half vehicles to glide into when a car approaches in the opposite direction. I say “half” because whenever two cars traveling in the same direction might need to duck into a random blip, the back end of the second vehicle invariably sticks out into the one-lane road, which makes for a tight squeeze for the other vehicle to pass. The natural features of the Highlands did not consider accommodating man-made pavement when muscling its way into existence eons ago. So the Scottish Highway Department selected these “Passing Places,” solely on the lay of the land. There appeared to be no other logical explanation. And if the timing of two or more on-coming vehicles met with no immediate “Passing Place” to swerve into, then it was the discretion of the drivers to decide who backed up to the first available “blip.” Kay did her fair share of backing up.

The view out our hotel window in Lochcarron; photo by Kay P. Arnold

When we travel we rarely book a room in advance, preferring instead the freedom to find a quaint village along our way and then seek shelter. We’ve never spent a night in the car. When we came to Lochcarron, I found us the last room in The Lochcarron Inn. That night we dined in the hotel restaurant and the locals told us we must see Applecross, but warned of the dangers traveling the road beyond Ardarroch over the mountains to Applecross. That night, if it was to be our last, I kissed Kay and told her our life together had been a wonderful “ride.”

Road to Applecross; Photo by Kay P. Arnold

The road out of Lochcarron was a wide one-lane, but once we started up the mountains, it became a wide bicycle lane. There are over sixty types of sphincter muscles in the human body. I interject this tidbit of information so one may understand that on this highway (the most recent in the long list of H.O.D.), while traversing over the mountains to Applecross, my brain was in constant communication with all of the muscle groupings controlling internal flow preparing them for probable impact. There were the hair-pin curves, the near drop-offs into the void, and the invariable on-coming traffic between “Passing Place” signs that forced the slamming of brakes, the backing up, and the near-misses. At one moment when we approached a “Blind Summit” and were about to crash head-on into a truck, I thought the end had come. By some miracle Kay turned the potential final curtain into a very close call. Once the danger had passed, she asked sweetly, “What did your brain say to your sphincter this time?”

“Honey,” I gasped. “This happened so fast my brain did not have time to tell my sphincter to kiss my butt goodbye.”

“So your brain is no longer talking to your sphincter,” she quipped. “I know some good P.T.S.D. therapy for that.”

Spoken like a true mental health expert.

You might think I exaggerate, but during the second week of our trip when Kay drove her two older brothers (neither of whom is prone to hyperbole), around Loch Lomond, after returning to our castle, the first older brother got out of the car and raised his hands to me. “Look what your wife did to me,” he said, eyes wide in mock fear, his hands trembling as if suffering from the palsy. The second older brother said, “There was one point on this drive when I thought it was all over, and I said to myself, ‘I’ve had a good life, I’m content, and I’m ready to go.’”

It is a sad thing to see three grown men reduced to commiserating on their near-death-experiences at the hands of their sister and wife.

Chip ‘n Kay at the Queen’s Scotland Castle; she wasn’t receiving, so…
…We found our on castle, thank you very much. The Family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our rental vehicle recorded 1,669 miles in just over two weeks of travel, and with the exception of a coating of dirt on the outside and food crumbs and trash on the inside, we returned our vehicle with nary a scratch. My bride still has the magic when it comes to driving though I’m positive her guardian angel gets paid overtime every time she gets behind the wheel. And if she ever did have a miscalculation and we had an unintentional “Thelma and Louise,” there is no one I’d rather go out with than the lovely Kay P. Arnold. In the past, international traffic tickets have followed my bride home after we have returned from our travels. We will see if any traffic violations will find their way to our address from “across the pond.”

Atop Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain with my son-in-law, Erik. Hiking is my preferred M.O.

Cover Art: Road to Applecross; photo by Kay P. Arnold…taken when not driving, thank God.

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Proof of Belonging

The first time I questioned my sense of belonging came a few seconds before a near-death experience; nothing like your own personal NDE to make you sit up and take stock of your life, the world, and the universe at large.

Herodotus

At the age of twelve I got my first job as a paperboy. For the next four years, morning and afternoon, I peddled just over seven miles through the neighborhoods near where I lived slinging The Tennessean and The Banner into the driveways of my subscribers. The tubular newspapers secured with a thick rubber band were stuffed into a large metal basket mounted on the front of my bicycle and two saddlebag-type baskets attached over the rear wheel. The paperboy motto was similar to the unofficial creed the U.S. Postal Service adopted from Herodotus’ description of the faithful couriers in ancient Persia of the 6th century: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” A subscriber expected to receive his daily paper as much as he expected his daily mail. I was depended upon, and the responsibility made me feel like a man of the world.

Ambitious Paperboy in Life Magazine

Six days a week I could handle the deliveries on my bicycle, but the size of the Sunday paper was monstrous—half news, half advertisements—and the subscribers for the Sunday paper nearly doubled as well. This required parental assistance. So I struck a bargain with my dad: he would drive me on my Sunday morning route, and then we would head to church and I would help him fold and distribute the “Order of Worship” programs in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews. It was a mutual benefit, but with one glaring difference. I would often complain about having to keep my end, while Dad never complained. It was one of many disparities in our personalities.

Sacred space; cover art for Order of Worship

Dad was given a paltry budget from the church to pay for the hundreds of programs used each Sunday, enough to purchase the paper to make the copies. He was meticulous in choosing the front cover: scenes of nature, paintings of Old Masters, sculpture, stained glass, of sacred spaces and illustrated scriptures; all images designed to frame the hearts and minds of the congregant for worship. The measly amount devoted to such innovative extravagance did not pay for the actual printing costs. After typing the original mock-up of the program, Dad would head down to the basement, pour in the chemicals for printing, and then hand-crank each copy on the mimeograph machine. I can still hear the rhythmic ka-chunk, ka-chunk, sound rising beneath the floorboards from the circular motion of the handle. One revolution spat out one program. Sometimes Mom would work the machine while Dad folded the programs, and on occasion, I was commandeered to do the cranking. The printing chemicals caused my eyes to water and gave me headaches. The fumes probably killed a few million brain cells each time I worked the machine. (I know. That it explains everything.)

The ancient machine comes with pre-mixed chemicals.

 

Dad plays piano while rehearsing with Army buddies for church service

Dad was devoted to elevating the worship experience above the dry formulas of the day. Probably an influence of the Episcopal chaplain he assisted while serving in the Army. Dad told me often he considered himself a “closet Episcopalian.” His effort to bring a high-church aesthetic to the act of worship began with a thoughtful preparation of the best hymn and scripture selections for each service, and he carried it through to mixing the fume-inhaling and the eye-burning chemical concoction, to the ka-chunking, to the folding and the placement of each program in the hymnal racks in an empty sanctuary early on a Sunday morning, and finally to his exquisite leadership in guiding the individual into a corporate involvement of worship. Dad was so ahead of his time.

My internal sense of displacement, which had been building in my young heart for some time, came to a head on one particular Sunday morning. I considered my parents “a little lower than the angels.” I had yet to discover their feet of clay; that discovery was a later revelation, and then in future years, came with more distressing implications once I became a parent. But in my early teens, after observing their collective goodness, I began to doubt that I was their child. They were high-quality human beings, and as a teenager, I was becoming undone by “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Based on their model of behavior, I sensed the miss-match in the gene pool.

“Was I left on your doorstep when I was a baby?” I blurted, and Dad almost choked on his coffee before turning onto the first road at the beginning of my route.

I rolled down the back windows, and Dad slowed the car so I could sling the papers in the driveways on each side of the street. He was amazed that I would think such a thing until I pointed out that I felt so different from him and Mom, so different that I could not possibly be their progeny. “Different how,” he asked, and I took the activity of slinging the papers out the back windows as we crept down the road to ponder his question. How could I point out the disconcerting truth that the souls of my parents bordered on the saintly, while mine was developing into more shaded, carnal areas? Why didn’t I share their world view? Why did I not have their immutable faith, their ease with a well-regulated life, their free submission to our religious persuasion? In my mind, all these factors pointed to a suspicious origin.

I was not forthcoming with an answer, so after he made a ninety-degree turn onto another road, he eased the car to a stop beside the driveway of a southern-colonial mansion, complete with Greek columns, set off the road. A thick fog had settled on this cold Sunday morning, and I could not see the two-story mansion for the fog. I felt vulnerable, my soul in need of a concealing fog, as I tossed the paper onto the driveway. Dad put the transmission in park and turned back to look at me buried up to my waist in wrapped Sunday newspapers.

“Son, you are blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh; every inch an Arnold. Any differences we might have are your own uniqueness, what makes you you, the way God made you.”

That was reassuring and frightening at the same time. He was claiming me, but I did not want to confess that I felt as though I was drifting from the shoreline of the goodness of my parents’ beliefs into an uncharted sea that could swallow me whole. I was not sure God was happy with my implanted “uniqueness.”

“How can that be?” was all I could squeak out.

“It’s a mystery, but I have foolproof evidence at home.”

Dad thought I was asking for physical proof of belonging. My quandary was of the soul, not wholly a distrust of my genesis, that I did not know how to articulate. The earnestness and ambiguity of his answer brought me no peace of mind, and Dad put the car in drive and we moved on.

We approached an intersection where there was a stop sign for traffic coming from our left, but it was not an all-way stop. We had the right away. Just before reaching the intersection, a black Sedan, which should have come to a stop from that direction, instead, streaked out of the fog like some dark missile fired across our bow, never slowing down until it bounced over the ditch, and into the yard on the opposite side of the road, where it crashed into a concrete front porch of the small house on the edge of the mansion property inhabited by the caretaker and his wife of the landlord who lived in the mansion concealed by the dense fog.

“Would you look at that?” Dad said in amazement. He pulled off the road and we scrambled out of our car. The driver was unharmed due more to his state of inebriation than a lack of modern safety devices we have in our vehicles today. The caretaker and his wife burst out of the house and began to laugh. They cited inclement weather and alcohol as the main culprits for the additional function of their front porch to act as a barrier against runaway vehicles. They don’t build front porches like they used to.

The couple called a wrecker and the police, and we got back into our car. We sat for a minute observing the scene.

“Son, had we not pulled over, he might have hit us broadside. Thank God.”

He thanked God, but I was the one who asked the question that got him to stop. I was trying to keep my balance on the slippery moral and ethical ground I walked upon, and now this NDE had brought turmoil to my soul. But at that moment I was just grateful to be alive. I didn’t care who got the credit. It was a mystery. By belonging to my father, I had survived my first near-death experience.

We finished delivering the newspapers, but the accident and my existential crisis put us behind schedule. We raced to church and inserted the “Orders of Worship” into the hymnal racks, then raced home. To get the Arnold clan dressed, fed, and out the door for church was always a challenge. But on this Sunday morning my parents paused in their hurried preparations to get the flock out the door. Mom retrieved an old metal box from the top shelf of their closet, opened the rusty lid, and pulled out my birth certificate. I held proof of belonging in my hands with the embossed seal of the State of Tennessee stamped on the document. I ran my fingers over the raised lettering of the seal for the tactile assurance of what my eyes beheld. Easing the distressed soul of their first-born was more important than getting to the church on time.

Proof Positive

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “Belonging redeems us from our solitude.” Certificates are what the state requires as proof of belonging, but what gives the individual a true sense of belonging is when you hear stories shared among family and friends that feature you and reveal the shades of your personality that uniquely demonstrate a universal belonging to our common humanity.

I am grateful to have belonged to Bud and Bernie. I am grateful to belong to my lovely wife, Kay, and our daughters and their husbands, and our grandchildren. Kay and I are grateful to belong to our siblings and their families, and to the extended families that share our bloodlines. We are grateful to belong to the myriad of dear friends, from the long-ago to the present-moment, from the professional to the everyday, with whom Kay and I share joint-custody. And, above all, by the grace and mercy of the good Lord, I am grateful to belong to the kingdom of heaven…such a big tent…such a rich life of belonging…no certificate required.

Cover Art: Bud and Bernie Arnold

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Music Made in Hell

It is a wondrous thing what self-discoveries are made within the human heart when a layer of innocence is lost. A dramatic experience may destroy a belief system but make way for new wisdom. From 1959-1961 we lived in Bloomington, Indiana while Dad was completing his doctoral course work in choral music at Indiana University. Until that year, I had been in a private school environment (K-third grade), and was suddenly thrust into the culturally broader world of public education and living in diverse, multi-dwelling housing complexes instead of a single family home. In an earlier post, I have written a different story of that time entitled “Blood Brothers.” It chronicles my friendship with Raymond, one of three best friends I had during that two-year period, and a lesson in courage my blood brother taught me.

The other two boys were Eran from Israel and George from Sweden. We were a crew. Our fathers were all doctoral candidates at Indiana University in various fields of study. We lived in University housing, though Eran and George lived in the newer, more spacious family apartments while we lived in the cramped, renovated army barracks. We attended Fairview Elementary public school together.

George in center, Eran at right, Yours Truly upper left, and Unnamed Young Lady in the middle

 

What I may have lacked in residential amenities enjoyed by my friends, I made up for by having easy access to a recreational area like no other. Less than one hundred yards from our barrack apartment building was a railroad track that cut through a hill leaving jagged, thirty-foot cliffs on either side then went under a bridge at the highest point of the terrain. Eran and George happily abandoned the man-made, state-of-the-art play sets built for their apartment complexes for the more life and limb threats of cliffs and woods and trains.

There was nothing cooler in the world than to be playing on the tracks, hear the whistle of a train, and see the Cyclops-beam of the headlight making its circular pattern in the snout of the engine as it headed toward us. The yards were not far away, so a train was either slowing down coming into the yard or building speed as it departed. Either way, you had a minute or two to get off the track and scale the jagged cliff sides to a safe perch. We three would scream at the top of our lungs as the trains rumbled by and would toss Osage oranges at the cars, pumping our arms in the air with delight as the pulpy, inedible fruit exploded against the steel walls and rooftops. What a playground. And yes, this was back-in-the-day before the trend of “parenting” had taken over our modern culture.

Outsiders that we were, it did not take long for the three of us to make enemies with some of our older schoolmates at Fairview Elementary. One Saturday, a gang of four or five boys from a neighborhood near our school rode their bikes into the section of University housing where I lived. My mother was hanging laundry onto the clothesline next to our building when I saw them coasting down the road like mini-Hell’s Angels heading in my direction. They had not ridden over to see if I could come out to play. They began to taunt me hurling profane insults at my manhood, no doubt inspired by my hiding behind my mother’s skirts. Hell hath no fury like a mother protecting her child, and Mom verbally ran roughshod over those boys and sent them into retreat. But I knew that Mom’s threats had not brought true repentance in the hearts of the gang members. Their departing laughter at my obvious spinelessness meant a future day of reckoning when a mother’s protection was not available. Their superior numbers could only bolster enough courage that an individual could never summon.

Not long after this incident, late one afternoon, Eran, George, and I were walking the tracks engaged in our latest adventure. The three of us saw nothing unusual about the international nature of our friendship. It had no significance to us. We enjoyed each other’s company. We went to the same school, rode the same bus, lived in University campus housing, and all spoke with funny accents. The main aspect of our commonality was a shared, near-mystical imagination. With cliffs and woods and railroad tracks and massive columns supporting the bridge with open areas underneath as our expansive playground, we could conjure any scenario that required three heroes to right all wrongs.

As we moved along the tracks, we had no idea we were being watched from the cliffs and woods above us. It was not until Eran yelled in surprise and raised his hand to his forehead that we realized we were under attack. Blood began to flow through Eran’s fingers and down his face. The three of us threw ourselves against the cliff wall, providing us protection and allowing a moment to plot a strategy.

We could have raced down the tracks to try and outrun the rocky missiles. We could just wait it out and let the coming darkness cover our escape. We could hope for a parental search party to come rescue us. Or we could “take the hill.” In this momentary lull, the gang began to hurl racist insults directed mostly at Eran for having escaped the Nazis, and at George and me for being friends with a Jew. We were only ten years old and it had been fifteen years since the end of World War II. Through this profane and shaky grasp of history, I was getting a one-sided view of the recent past that I did not know how to process. At that moment, I cared nothing about history. We had been ambushed, and my best friend was bleeding from his forehead as a result.

I ignored my “turn the other cheek and pray for your enemies” doctrine encouraged by my religious persuasion for the more visceral “vengeance is mine” response. The gang may have had the higher ground, but they were in our territory, and we knew all the paths and crevices that cut through the cliffs to the woods on top. I jumped onto the tracks waving my arms and instantly put to good use all my experience gained from playing dodge ball as the rocks hailed down upon me.

Eran and George used this distraction to grab fists full of rocks before they charged up a steep path concealed inside the cliff wall. I followed right behind, my own expanded fingers dripping with an excess of rocks. The gang had not expected this counter attack and was surprised by our sudden appearance at the top of the cliff. George unleashed a mad scream and both handfuls of rocks, one volley after another, sending the gang scrambling through the woods. Eran hit one of the fleeing ambushers in his side, and I succeeded in hitting another in his leg. Once we had unloaded our ordinance, we stood still, our lungs panting for air, and watched as the gang made it to the clearing, hopped onto their bikes, and raced away.

There were no triumphant war hoops or victory dances, not even self-satisfied slaps on the back, which we often performed after one of our fantasized adventures. This was no fantasy. This was real, and there was blood to prove it. We decided to make our explanation of Eran’s gash on his forehead simple: he slipped while scaling the cliff and hit his head. We could stick with that story even under intense, parental interrogation. In the short time the three of us were friends, I don’t remember ever discussing the horrors of the Holocaust and how it might have affected Eran and his extended family, but I know that afternoon on the railroad tracks was my personal introduction to racial bigotry and how it can violently manifest itself in human action.

“The Violins of Hope,” is a traveling exhibit of several violins used by Jewish musicians who survived the Concentration Camps by playing in small orchestras. “We played music for sheer survival,” explained Heinz Schumann, one of the orchestra members at Auschwitz. “We made music in hell.” These instruments have survived concentration camps, pogroms and many long journeys to tell remarkable stories of injustice, suffering, resilience and survival and are currently on display at the Downtown Public Library in Nashville through May 27, 2018.

Elie Wiesel wrote in his autobiography “Night” of an experience he had listening to a musician he knew only as Juliek play a Beethoven concerto on his violin in a packed barrack in Auschwitz. “Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence,” Wiesel wrote. “All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.” The next day Wiesel found Juliek’s lifeless body next to his crushed violin.

Sunday Concert for SS; Auschwitz; Courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej

On May 26, 2018 at 3:00 p.m., at the Nashville Downtown Public Library,  I, along with other actors from Nashville Repertory Theatre, will perform selected dramatic readings of the stories collected from the book of the same title of how these instruments were rescued, repaired, and eventually given a second chance to make the beautiful music they were created to play. Two musicians from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra will also play these instruments. The event is free and open to the public.

While my brief coming-of-age experience cannot compare with Wiesel’s, I will always remember Eran and George and our defiant moment on the railroad tracks. But more importantly, I have learned over the years that during a malevolent time, it is always best to create something beautiful. Beauty is the best defiance.

German Violin played by Shlomo Mintz

Cover Art: Violin by Yaakov Zimmerman

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A Good Scrap

I had my share of scraps growing up; landed a few punches; took several more. I’ve always heard that it was a rite of passage for young boys to fight. If so, I performed that rite many times in the days of my youth. And not to besmirch the ladies, my two young daughters enjoyed “rough fighting” with their old man when I was still able to get down on the living room floor and be their wrestling opponent. Funny thing was I always lost these battles. In my defense, it was two against one, and the girls were brutal.

Boys engaged in the “noble art” of boxing

There are heroic scraps and then there are inglorious ones. The scraps I got into as a kid were more of the inglorious kind. It is possible to learn more about the darker shades of one’s character from an inglorious scrap than from a heroic one. For a short time in high school I played basketball. Well, let me qualify that statement. I spent more time keeping the bench warm than heating up the court with my nimble basketball skills. The coach put me into a game when we were either twenty points ahead or twenty points behind with a couple of minutes left to play on the clock. Either way, there was little damage I could do on the court if given this brief moment of glory, but when offered the chance, I took my two minutes of fame and worked up a good sweat. I was aggressive on the court. I went after the ball. If I got an opportunity to take a shot, you know I took it. I did not mind fouling my opponent either, letting him know that as long as I was guarding him the game was not over until the final buzzer.

So now to my inglorious scrap during one of my rare appearances on the basketball court. We were playing an arch-rival, and during my two minutes of court time, elbows were thrown as the players went for the ball at each rebound. I’m no angel. My elbows connected with an opponent’s ribs on occasion. But on one particular rebound when I leapt off the floor to catch the ball and gripped it with both hands as it bounced off the backboard, the two opponents on either side of me began to throw as many blows against my defenseless body in an attempt to steal the ball before our feet returned to the hardwood floor; all for the sake of winning the game, of course.

No whistle was blown. It was flagrant fouling, but the referees must have been ready to get home and wanted to be done with this game. When my feet hit the ground I spun around and looked squarely into my opponent’s face, the worst offender of “thrown” elbows; it was two against one, remember. “You want the ball so bad, you can have it,” I said just before I threw the ball right into his face. (For the sake of the more refined reader I have left out the profane words I uttered. Other readers can just sprinkle them into the sentence structure wherever they wish.) My action and language got the ref’s attention, and with a piercing blast from his whistle and a great windup of his arm, he banished me from the game.

The Shot Heard Round the World

Yeah, yeah, I know. How could I? What was I thinking? What kind of sportsman-like conduct was this? You shamed the team…the school. Worst example of Christian behavior. (The line for the self-righteous forms in the rear.) I heard all that and more. I smashed my opponent’s nose and knocked him to the floor. In my two-minutes on the court I had succeeded in bloodying a guy’s nose and getting myself thrown out of the game. And I really didn’t have to work that hard. It came naturally. I guess I was possessed. If we had been Catholic or Pentecostal I would have gone in for an exorcism, instead the coach sent me to the locker room after a good public scolding. I don’t remember if we won or not. After the game the locker room was unusually quiet. I walked out of the gym alone, suddenly the leper my teammates shunned. How could I blame them? This was not my “Rudy” moment.

When our girls were little and I would put them to bed at night they would often ask me, “Daddy, tell us a story about when you were bad.” They framed their request as if it was a time way in the past, ancient history; something buried in the psyche of all mankind and told as myth or morality tales to teach wayward children about the consequences of bad behavior. My basketball story certainly fit that bill and would prepare their little minds for a proper nightmare as their innocent heads lay on the pillows before drifting off to sleep. As our girls got older they soon realized that Daddy had never stopped being bad. While I am a follower of Christ, I am a very messy one, what I would call a one-man, spiritual oil-spill, which makes it easier for God to track me and requires a constant flow of grace and mercy into my soul.

The Happy Couple
Recent Trip to France

I picked an inglorious fight on the basketball court, and I became known for something. There were many who thought I was on the road to perdition, and I gave them multiple examples to bolster that belief. The reputation for being “bad” is a hard one to shake. A few months before Kay and I got married some church elder’s wife pulled Kay aside and warned her not to marry me. It would never work, the grumpy elder’s wife said. Yet thirty-nine years later, here we are. Kay shows no signs of leaving. Now she has wanted to kill me numerous times, but the thought of leaving me has not crossed her mind.

In today’s modern times it is much easier for everyone to be known for something. As Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol was prophesying the coming of the “Selfie,” but the “Selfie” does not create bedtime stories for your children. I think scraping and losing and failure in general creates more interesting stories and shapes character. The culture is obsessed with “winners” and “losers.” That is a simple characterization for the simple minded and does not offer proof-positive of a person’s full dimensional character. But if that is how we choose to label a person, then I am happy to be counted among the losers.

Yours Truly as Matthew Harrison Brady and Sam Whited as the Judge
Yours Truly as Matthew Harrison Brady and Brian Russell as Henry Drummond

I am currently engaged in telling the story of what I consider to be a heroic scrap; one I am proud to play a role in the telling. “Inherit the Wind,” a Nashville Repertory Theatre production running through April 21 at TPAC in downtown Nashville, is the play based on two titans in American history arguing the merits of faith and science and the freedom to think objectively on both topics. While there was a win/loss outcome in regard to the law, I consider this historic event a win for all concerned. The scrap, while local to Tennessee, had a macro-cosmic effect on the country that still reverberates. Both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were champions of the underdog. The two men spent their lives defending the under-represented in America, and though they had different perspectives that motivated their actions throughout their lives, the driving force behind those actions was born from heroic hearts. If you are going to pick a fight, examine your heart to make sure that what motivates you is a heroic impulse, if not, it is probably just another contribution to the river of rancor flowing through our land.

Brian Russell as Henry Drummond unifies the pages of science and sacred

 

Cover Art: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial in 1925.

 

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To Think Or Not To Think

I love it when I have the opportunity to do a play because I get to go around using my Outside Voice without fear of Kay’s disapproval or a similar negative reaction from a host of others who might consider my volume level an infringement on their personal auditory space. During those weeks of rehearsals and performances I go about the house or tramp over the back field, my mind and body absorbed in my character, my voice modulating in tone and quality, as I search out just the right physical and vocal nuances that will lend truth to the moral fiber of my creation. Kay can only scowl at me when I’m “getting into character” and not scold.

Charles Laughton as King Lear

Early into our marriage whenever Kay and I were having a disagreement she would stick her fingers into her ears and tell me to stop shouting. “That’s not shouting, my dear. That’s projecting. I make my living projecting.” Yes, her eyes rolled in exasperation then and still do today whenever I use that excuse for my increased volume.

On more than one occasion my Outside Voice has usurped my Inside Voice at improper times and gotten me into trouble. A notable moment took place in a church setting years ago when our girls were old enough to be sitting with us in the pew and still young enough to be indifferent to the service…much like their father. In the middle of the sermon when the preacher made an inane theological point that God’s love was contingent on us performing good works; the preacher’s line went something like, “Jesus is well and good, but you have to earn yourself a place in the kingdom,” I took immediate umbrage. I looked over at our little darlings seated between Kay and me, happily playing Tic-Tac-Toe on the church bulletin, and said, “Girls, what he just said is a lie.”

In my defense I did use my “stage whisper” voice. However, their heads shot up, the Tic-Tac-Toe halted in mid-contest, and they looked at me as if I had said something blasphemous. And so did the other congregants in a three-pew, 360 degree radius from where I sat. My stage whisper was the epicenter of a contrary theological viewpoint pulsating out in waves in every direction of the compass. Kay, while sinking into her pew, looked at me with a shocked expression that quickly turned into one of death, the “As soon as I get you home, you’re dead,” look. We all survived my poorly timed comment, and we never darkened that church door again.

William Jennings Bryan; Watson Davis, photographer

 

William Jennings Bryan, famous politician and orator of the early 20th century, had an Outside Voice. I am fortunate to be playing the character based on Bryan in the play “Inherit the Wind” produced by Nashville Repertory Theatre in March/April, 2018. (For more information visit Nashville Repertory Theatre website) The play centers around the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 challenging the legality of teaching the theory of evolution in the public school system. What began as a publicity stunt soon overwhelmed the city fathers when two hundred newspaper reporters from across the country, along with film crews and radio broadcasters, descended upon the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Dayton, Tennessee; Watson Davis, photographer

The Bible verses Charles Darwin; the Monkey verses Adam and Eve; Secularism verses Theology; a nationally known politician verses a nationally known lawyer: the stuff of great drama; something for everyone in this story. What might have been a local, carnival sideshow became the most widely covered debate between science and religion that had occurred in this country since Darwin let the monkey out of the bag.

John Scopes; Watson David, photographer

Years ago Kay and I took a day-trip to Dayton. It was a roots trip for Kay, and she wanted me to meet the few remaining relatives still alive. Her father was from Dayton, and as fate would have it, he was a student of John Scopes in the short time Scopes taught biology at the local high school. When we arrived in Dayton the courthouse was closed, and after we walked around the property trying to look through the windows on ground level, we wandered over to the police station next door. After explaining the family connection and the purpose of our visit to the police sergeant, he handed us the key to the courthouse building and said, “Just be sure and lock it up when you leave.” This was definitely “back in the day” when family connections still counted for something and trust was a commodity of value.

Bryan and Darrow; Smithsonian. Because of the heat the trail was moved outdoors.

 

The basement of the courthouse was a museum devoted to the Scopes Trial with dozens of black and white pictures and newspapers on display along with all kinds of memorabilia of the event including some camera and radio equipment used to film and broadcast the trial. From the basement, we climbed the stairs to the top floor where the trial took place and walked around the large room. For eight days William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, two of the most luminous personalities of their day, argued passionately for the right of the individual to think about one’s personal faith and human origin and how science and theology together might enhance a person’s existence without fully explaining the mysteries of creation. It was eerie and profound for the two of us to be the only ones in the building, alone in the courtroom almost feeling the heat of the atmosphere not only in Fahrenheit degrees, but in the fiery rhetoric in that summer of 1925.

We locked the doors behind us and returned the key. We were told where we would be served an excellent home cooked meal at a local meat-and-three and thanked the police sergeant for his kindness. In the remaining daylight, we drove around the town square, and then through the campus of Bryan College named for the famous orator. After eating our supper at the recommended diner, we headed back home.

William Jennings Bryan
Clarence Darrow

In front of the courthouse there are two statues, one of Bryan and one of Darrow, though the one of Darrow is a recent addition. Perhaps in our pluralistic America the good citizens of Dayton saw the importance of equal representation after such a momentous debate took place on their soil.

A couple of years ago we finished out the attic in our house. If Kay happens to be home when the creative urge comes upon me to work out the complexities of the character I have been cast to play, I will head upstairs. In the quiet space I will pace the floor, and in full Outside Voice, speak the words of my character mining the depths of his soul in search for those nuggets of truth that will make this creature fully human. Regarding the theme in the play “Inherit the Wind” where opposing beliefs are expressed and challenged, being fully human comes down to one thing: to think or not to think, that is the question. We all wish to be given the freedom and respect as a human being to think, and most especially, to think for ourselves.

Cover Art From: Evolution: A Journal of Nature

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The Great Bicycle Crash of 1962

Most of us remember how old we were when we learned to ride a bicycle. My folks did not have the disposable income to purchase training wheels or helmets, so my first efforts to ride produced several injuries; nothing too serious, just the kind whose healing agent was an application of dirt. My “training wheels” was a patient father offering instruction and encouragement as he ran beside me eventually releasing his hold on the seat to allow free flight. Once I gained the dexterity of balance and motion, I felt a freedom and joy that was indiscernible. Mark Twain got it right, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”

Composite from Dave Thomson Collection

I had a few crashes on my bicycle where a treatment of rubbing dirt on the wound was insufficient; one as a kid and one as an adult. This first story returns to the time when I was a paperboy delivering the morning and evening papers in the Green Hills area of Nashville “back in the day” when it was a nondescript neighborhood with a fire station, a movie theatre, shopping centers, a couple of grocery stores, random gas stations and pubs, and a high school with a lot of open space in between. But progress abhors a vacuum and now all the open space has vanished.

Riding a bicycle with a front basket full of newspapers was certainly a challenge, but I was strong and agile and learned quickly how to maneuver around the traffic and the occasional dog that gave chase. I was always able to dodge the traffic and outrun the dog except for one incident. There was this German Shepherd on Oriole Place that considered me an invader into his realm. At first, he displayed no sinister behavior, lulling me into complacency. One day while riding down Oriole Place he trotted toward me with a casual gait. I thought, ‘Ah yes, Rin Tin Tin approaches for a friendly pat on the head.’

When I slowed down he lunged and clamped his mouth onto my right foot. I yanked it out of his fangs, and he yelped as if he might have snagged a tooth on my shoelace. For several days I escaped his attacks by outrunning him or swatting his head with a rolled newspaper. The assaults were never from the same vantage point, and the ride down the street was like entering a combat zone. When I complained to the owner, he asked with an indignant cock of his head, “What have you done to aggravate him?” Rin Tin Tin had a dark side his owner chose to ignore.

I took matters into my own hands and stopped by a hardware store near where we lived. After looking at the selection of knives, I asked the clerk to open the glass case so I could test the feel of a good knife. Terror would begat terror.

“Doing some whittling?” the store clerk asked, a bespectacled, white-haired man with a pink face and kindly smile.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Then you want this pearl-handled fellow. Delicate balance. Solid texture.”

He cradled the knife in his hand like it was some brittle relic. The handle stretched from the beef of his palm to the third joint of his middle finger, and when he opened the blade, the polished steel glowed in the florescent light.

“Got a four inch blade; the belly of the blade will deep slice and the sharp tip will get your more delicate cuts.”

I admired his authority, and as I peered at the shiny steel, I envisioned the belly of the blade making a clean slit of my enemy’s throat.

“What you thinking about carving?” he asked.

“A dog.”

“I like dogs.  I’d like to see it when you’re done.”

I did not explain that my material would be bone and fur not pine or maple, and gave him the money sealing the dog’s fate. Except for a few dollars set aside each week for miscellaneous treats and small change tossed into the collection plate on Sunday, every penny I made went into a savings account. My first major purchase was a murder weapon, and spending my own money for such an ominous venture gave me a feeling of cocksure worldliness.

I practiced for days. From a standing position, I could jerk the knife out of my pocket and open the blade in three seconds. If I had to defend myself while riding, it added two more seconds. I became so proficient I could pull the knife from inside my pocket while riding and open it without touching the handlebars on my bike. I loved the sound of the blade snapping into place and longed for the day of reckoning when I would be the last image my enemy would see before the mist of death closed his eyes. My premeditation became an obsession. While day-dreaming at school, I drew pictures of the dog’s head in one hand, the blood-drenched knife in the other, a warrior in ancient times parading victoriously around the field of battle.

When I felt my training had peaked I sought him out. Instead of speeding down Oriole Place, I coasted, my eyes like a lighthouse beam scanning over the houses and front yards on either side of the street, but after several days of flaunting before the enemy, he never showed. I thought he must be lurking, staying out of sight, sensing deep in his subconscious that I was no longer helpless, but a foe of equal strength. In time, this became psychological warfare. I refused to become some mental wreck gasping with hyper‑fear every time I turned onto Oriole Place. I crawled inside his mind, thought his thoughts, contemplated his strategies, felt what he felt, united my lust for blood with his need to go beyond a canine’s normal diet of dog chow and develop a taste for human flesh. The more I pondered his impulses, temptations, obsessions, the more my soul fit into his; pure in the acceptance of the darker craving of our natures. I questioned all of nature ruled by impulse, and wondered if we could be blamed or rewarded for choices we had no control over.

When I heard the nails of his paws scratching the pavement it was too late. I turned just as the German Shepherd clamped his teeth into my calf. In the struggle to free my leg I lost control of my bicycle and crashed into a ditch spilling the newspapers in my basket over the ground. Blood soaked through my ripped pant’s leg. When I tried to whip the blade out of the handle, it slipped through my grasp and snapped back cutting a deep gash into my index finger. My enemies’ blood I had dreamed of dripping off my pearl-handled knife was, instead, my own. The dog stood on the road and began to bark triumphantly.

Purity Dairy Milk Truck

I cursed him and yanked the knife off the ground hurling it at my enemy. It flew high above the dog’s head well off the mark. I sank to my knees and remained in this contrite posture nursing my bloody finger until distracted by the sound of an engine. A milk truck approached, and the German Shepherd trotted away, pieces of my flesh and shredded blue jeans stuck between his teeth. I turned my back to the milk truck hoping it would drive by, but I heard its breaks squeak as it slowed down.

“Problems?” a voice shouted.

This was one Good Samaritan I wished had just passed by on the other side.

“No, sir.” I said.  “Wasn’t paying attention.”

The truck drove on, and I wrapped newspaper around the wound to absorb the blood before collecting the scattered papers. Man vs. Beast and beast won. I found the knife in the yard across the street, wiped off the dirt and blood, and went home with my tail tucked between my legs.

There had to be some way to salvage this humiliation. My mother was soon to leave for New York City to attend a Food Editors conference, and I knew she would be riding the subway. Without telling her the original intent for the purchase, I presented her with my “gently used” pearl-handled knife, in case she needed to defend herself on the subway. You would have thought I had given her an expensive piece of jewelry, and she heaped gratitude upon me saying she hoped she would not have to use it but would not hesitate to do so if threatened.

The “Attempted” Murder Weapon

Years later when I had my own family, she came over to my house to return the knife. It had been buried in the bottom of a “love box,” the containers she so named where she stored precious items from each of her four children. I remember a quiver in her voice and the moisture rising in her eyes as she handed it back to me remembering with fondness her firstborn’s concern for the safety of his mother. Yes, all things do work together for good.

Stay tuned for the story of my second great bicycle crash in the coming months.

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Confessions of an Ex-Smoker

When my doctor of thirty years retired (how dare he), I recently was breaking-in a new doctor and suffering through the process of filling out multiple forms as if I were applying for some high-powered job. I was asked by a perky med-tech if I had ever smoked. The tech could have read my written answer on page three of the six-page form, but no, a verbal response was required. “How long did you smoke, and when did you quit?” was the question. “Started in earnest in 1967 and quit in earnest in 1974.” Then I sighed and lamented, “But there isn’t a day since that I don’t crave a smoke.”

Mark Twain lighting up after quitting smoking one more time

“Oh, when I quit it was the easiest thing,” said the tech. “And I have never had a craving.” The tech must have never inhaled or ever heard Mark Twain’s quote, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”

My first encounter with cigarettes was at the tender age of nine. My best friend at the time was the same age. His mother was a single mom and a smoker. The sordid events surrounding her single mom status was more of a theological sticky wicket in our religious circle than the fact that she smoked, but my folks were more open-minded on such matters, so whenever I was invited to go home after church with my friend and spend the afternoon between morning and evening services—the bookends of our every Sunday—I was given permission. During church one morning, my friend and I, along with a few other contemporaries, sat together in a separate pew away from the adults but still within the clear view of the parents were it necessary for any of them to use the clearing-of-the-throat reprimand at the first sign of squirming during the tedium of the service.

Before I got my first job as a paperboy and could tithe from my own income, I was always given a quarter each Sunday to drop in the collection plate. On this Sunday it had been prearranged that I was going home with my friend. So when the ushers started coming down the aisles with the collection plates, my friend whispered into my ear, “Keep your quarter. We’ll buy cigarettes with it later.”

Funny how sin and temptation always starts in the church pew. How was I going to pull this one off? Like God, my mother was always watching. But I suddenly had an idea that was sure to fool heaven and earth. I secured the quarter between two fingers, cupping my hand to conceal the twenty-five cent piece, and when the plate came down our pew, I waved my hand over it as if dropping my offering into the plate before passing it down the row. Mother smiled, and I tucked my quarter inside my sweaty palm until she looked away and I could slip it into my pocket. With such slight-of-hand skills I could have become a magician.

My friend lived next to a drugstore, and after lunch, the two of us went outside to play…ostensibly. I always liked going over to his house because his mom’s supervision was lax, which meant we could get away with some mischief that more observant parents would kibosh, like smoking cigarettes behind the garage. As we ambled over to the drugstore I reached into my pocket and pulled out my quarter purloined from God. I instantly felt guilty. The money entrusted to me by my parents for an offering was about to be spent on tobacco. My nine-year-old brain could not come up with any amoral rationalization for my actions, but I was committed to the deed and would see it through. The grip of sin was cold and hard on my young mind and heart.

Santa takes a smoke break

Since I had never bought a pack of cigarettes in my life I had to entrust the purchase to my more experienced companion. He had made frequent trips to the drugstore, “cigarette runs,” he called them, for his mother. My mother would often send me on “milk and bread runs” to our local grocery store, so this “run” was my first. When we entered the drugstore, right in front of the cash register were racks and stacks of cigarette packs all within reach of our fingertips. I was dazzled by the colors and images on the advertisement posters of the various brands: masculine men, glamorous women in masculine and glamorous poses, even a picture of Santa Claus enjoying a Lucky Strike while delivering presents. We were years away from the Surgeon General’s report that proclaimed tobacco nicotiana was hazardous to one’s health. Every face on these advertisements was smiling and happy; no grim, cancer-riddled images of the diseased to be found.

Now one would think that the person behind the counter might be suspicious of two nine-year-old boys plopping their quarters on top of the glass counter and asking for two packs of Lucky Strikes (I mean, if the brand was good enough for Santa, right?), but this was “back in the day,” a more innocent era. Besides my friend had the perfect line, “Picking up a couple of packs for my mother.” Two quarters. Two packs of cigarettes with two boxes of wooden matches in one small brown bag. One for the mom. One for the boys, and out the door we went. My friend removed our pack of cigarettes and matches from the bag concealing them under his shirt before entering the house. We handed off the other pack, and the mom nestled into her easy chair with a newspaper, cup of coffee, and a pack Lucky Strikes to occupy her afternoon.

Prometheus by Nicolas Sebastian Adam; 1762

My friend and I headed straight for the backyard and slipped behind the garage. The process was magical like a Japanese tea ceremony: tapping the pack a couple of times on the back of your hand to tamp down any loose tobacco in the cigarettes, pulling the red-colored cellophane tab around the circumference of the pack, stripping off the silver paper on one side of the official seal, tapping out a couple of cigarettes so they stuck out like smokestacks, being offered a cigarette (from one “masculine man” to another), and placing the filtered end into your mouth. Those few seconds before lighting up when that cylinder dangled from my lips was the moment I began to shed the skin of childhood. And then the lighting of the match: the scratchy sound of match head striking across the flinty board on the matchbox, the hissing of burning sulfurs, raising the fire to the tip of my Lucky Strike inside a cupped hand and sucking in the flame. I was transformed into Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.

Up in smoke

Three cigarettes consumed and my joy turned to sorrow. The gods had sent the eagle to feast upon my liver. My head detached from my neck. There was a tingling in my extremities. My eyes began to water. I crawled a short distance on all fours, but my muscles had become like jelly. And then my stomach started to boil and the hurling began. I don’t remember the rest of the afternoon. I don’t remember going to church service that night. I don’t remember coming home. What I do remember is entering my parent’s bedroom after my siblings were asleep and bursting into tears while confessing all that I had done that day. My first cigarette led to my first confession.

Me as Mark Rothko

While my initial experience at smoking was traumatic, the memory did not prove a deterrent to my future seven-year addiction. And yes, I’m glad I quit, no regrets, but I do miss it, and I do get the craving from time to time. When I played the character of Mark Rothko in “Red” for Nashville Repertory Theatre, I smoked during each performance. Rothko was a chain smoker. One night after a show a patron told me that I “smoked like a professional.” I told him that the technique of lighting up a cigarette and smoking it down to the stub while going about your business was, for me, like getting on a bicycle after a long absence. One never forgets the mechanics or the joy of each drag.

King James I

Some might hold to the opinion of King James I of England that, “Smoking is a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” On the contrary, when I get to heaven, after thanking the good Lord for making it possible for me to gain entrance and after greeting those who have gone before, I will quietly ask one of the angels for directions to the smoking section. I will light up my first cigarette in decades, and I will inhale so deep that the smoke will flow down to my toes. Now that’s heaven.

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The Surly Santa
Norman Rockwell

The Surly Santa

If you have lived on the planet for any length of time and were born in a country that recognizes the Christmas season and its official delegate Santa Claus, you have had at least one traumatic experience around the holiday season that possibly scarred you for life. Of course, the revelation that the man in the red suit with sleigh and reindeer and a big sack of toys is one big hoax is traumatic enough. The curse of the Age of Enlightenment, I suppose. (Anyone reading this who might still be a believer STOP READING NOW!) Once we move beyond our childlike faith and into our adult play-along-for-the-sake-of-the-kids pact with the entire adult population in the western hemisphere, we become vulnerable to those very personal traumatic moments that transcend the unbearable discovery that Santa’s sleigh is pulled by a fleet of Mercedes Benz instead of Rudolf and his pals. Oh the horror. The horror.

Norman Rockwell

I first began to lose my faith when I started paying attention to the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I was able to understand that I had an inherent conflict with the lyric, “He’s making a list/checking it twice/gonna find out/whose naughty or nice.” With my proclivity for getting into trouble as a kid there was no way that I could trick an all-knowing/all-seeing Santa—maybe once, but certainly not twice—yet every Christmas morning there were presents under the tree with my name on it from the man himself. Was he that easily fooled?

Norman Rockwell

This began my intellectual slippery-slope, and when I began to calculate the world population with the number of houses, hamlets, and huts, Santa had to visit in a twenty-four period…well, you do the math. The only people in my life at that time with any authority to explain such matters were my parents, and when I began to question “the faith” as it were, they pulled me aside and ‘fessed up. But they welcomed me into the myth-making business by insisting that I must not tell my younger siblings. That might have been my first step into adulthood.

Once I became a jaded teenager I by-passed the Santa in the department store. While my brothers and sister took their turns on Santa’s lap making their requests known, I walked up and down the aisles stocked with irresistible items and made my own list that I submitted to the indisputable givers of Christmas gifts…the parents and the grandparents. That year I had my eye on a clock radio. I had a wind-up alarm clock used to rouse me out of bed in the pre-dawn hour so I could deliver newspapers on my paper route before school. But this relatively new combination of music and time in one device was revolutionary to me. A clock radio was pricey, and my parents reminded me that they “Weren’t made of money.” If this gift was to be acquired then economic forces would need to be marshaled: parents and both sets of grandparents would have to contribute to this purchase.

My parents played it cool in the days leading up to Christmas, never hinting that they were even considering such a gift let alone revealing any behind-the-scenes plotting and scheming with the grandparents. The big day came, and while I did not expect to see the clock radio Christmas morning under the tree left by Santa with the other gifts for my siblings, I was hoping that when we had the big family gathering and gift exchange later that day at my grandparent’s house, I would receive the only gift I requested.

Exact model

I have never mastered the virtue of patience and my parents were no help. They forced me to wait until all the gifts had been distributed to all the family members, and then they forced me to watch as each person opened their gift before my present was brought out. It was unconscionable. To add to the drama my mother pulled a chair into the center of the room and had me sit in it and put my hands over my eyes as the gift was placed in my lap. The packaging was certainly big enough to contain a clock radio, but when I jiggled the box the contents inside sounded like a bunch of loose parts rattling around.

Until that moment, I never really thought of my parents as having a sadistic, practical-joker side to their sterling characters. All eyes in the room were focused on me. I tore away the paper and yanked off the lid, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a jumbled mess of mechanical parts to what I assumed was my clock radio. It was a pile of metal junk with no instructions for assembly. If this was the best my parents could do even with economic support from the grandparents, then we really must be poor. There was silence in the room as everyone awaited my reaction, which after a few seconds of stunned disbelief, was a flood of tears. Not the reaction any of them expected to their “Dirty Santa” trick. All the contributors to this prank leapt from their seats and crushed me with love, comfort, and penance, and my father quickly got the real clock radio hidden behind the Christmas tree. Moral of this story: be careful what you wish for. My clock radio experience just deepened the layer of emotional discontent with the whole spirit of Christmas that began with the debunking of a sacred holiday character.

So why, decades later, once I was well into my career as a professional actor, would I accept the role of the jovial, old, fat man? I had much higher aspirations as an actor than donning a red suit and chortling the obligatory “Ho! Ho! Ho!” But as all actors who like to eat can attest, we accept employment wherever and whenever it is offered. And by this time in my life I had three other mouths to feed beside my own. Most of my acting jobs I’m proud to put on the résumé. This particular job has never made the cut, and I take issue with Czech writer, Milan Kundera’s quote, “There are no small parts. Just small actors.”

Norman Rockwell

But no one likes a surly Santa and I was in no position to be a choosy beggar, so I swallowed my pride and suited up to play St. Nick at a big department store in a two-character skit (there was a Mrs. Santa performed by the spirited Clifton Harris), entitled “Breakfast With Santa.” An hour before the store opened each morning, parents and children would come to a big dining room on the top floor and have breakfast while they watched Mr. and Mrs. Santa dither over some great crisis that might thwart Christmas that year: sick reindeer, not enough presents, elves on strike, who knows? I’ve blocked out much of the memory that only psychotherapy could restore. After the skit, Mr. and Mrs. Santa split up and walked among the enthralled audience distributing candy and taking written gift requests from the little tykes. There were tables and chairs for more than one hundred paying customers to sit and eat a breakfast consisting of orange juice, bacon, and pancakes and syrup. We accepted a lot of lists doused in juice spillage and syrup residue.

Norman Rockwell

My costume was the standard black boots, white beard and hat, a two-piece red suit with the black buckle sewn into the coat, and a rotund, prosthetic belly. My Santa didn’t believe in eating salads. My pants were too long in the legs and I was constantly hiking them up. The artificial belly went on first and hooked in the back. Then I hiked up the waist and tied the pants on over the plump cushion with the drawstring. The prosthetic had such a wide girth that it was impossible for me to see my feet. When we moved into the audience after the skit, I constantly had to look over my paunch as if I were looking over a great precipice, just to keep from tripping. In one instance after a show, I remember the drawstring came untied and I had to use both hands to keep my pants from falling down (to see Santa in his Christmas skivvies would have cleared the room for sure), which meant I could not hand out candy or accept a kid’s written request. This left the job to Clifton who was working the opposite side of the room. The only problem was that there were so many tables in the hall, and Clifton had such a poor sense of direction that she kept getting turned around and going back to the same tables to get the kid’s lists like she was Bill Murray in a Christmas version of “Ground Hog’s Day.” On this particular day those kids who did not get their lists picked up would just have to mail them to the North Pole.

Surly Scrooge reacting to Paparazzi while dining out
Henry F. Potter banishing George Bailey to jail

I don’t believe I caused the loss of faith in any one child that Christmas with my fake jolly Santa. I am a fair actor, after all, but as I stated, that role did not make the résumé. I have drawn on past Christmas tribulations for emotional authenticity to play two of the greatest Christmas curmudgeons ever written: Ebenezer Scrooge and Henry F. Potter. Now these characters have made the résumé. So in the spirit of the season I say: “Bah! Humbug!” and “Happy New Year, George Bailey…in jail,”—evil laughter followed by spoken line—and may you and yours have a trauma-free Christmas.

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Blood Brothers

I was born into a world of whiteness: neighborhood, private school, and church; shuttled through that triplicate of colorless environs without wondering or questioning what other members of the human race might exist beyond those confines. At that time in my childhood my only exposure to other ethnic groups was when missionaries came to our church and gave slide-show presentations of their adventures in “seeking and saving the lost” in exotic places like Africa and Asia. It was the only time I ever heard my mother complain of our required attendance at church. “Lord, spare me from seeing another picture of a missionary posing with the indigenous people he’s baptized.” Such impiety from a worship leader’s wife.

When I was nine years old we moved to Bloomington, Indiana for Dad to begin his doctoral pursuit in music at Indiana University. We lived there two years, and my world was turned upside down. It started with our new residence: a second-floor, two-bedroom in an old army barrack converted into a multi-unit dwelling for less affluent families who were attached to the University. The apartment manager told my parents that if the building ever caught fire to grab the kids and run because the unit would be consumed in flames in fourteen minutes. They didn’t question the manager’s knowledge of the exact account of time from ignition to consumption of our new abode, but for weeks after we moved in, Mother was constantly sniffing the air inside the apartment for the least hint of smoke. I now lived in a more colorful neighborhood among people from all over the country, yea verily, from all over the world who had come to pursue their academic studies.

Raymond, bottom right. Me, upper left.

The cultural upheaval continued with my formal education. I now attended public school, Fairview Elementary, and with that came exposure to multi-national persons. I formed three close friendships that first year with a boy from Israel, one from Sweden, and a fellow American; a new type of American for me, an African-American, Raymond Brown. I felt an instant bond with Raymond probably because of the constant smile on his face that easily broke into laughter at the slightest provocation. Raymond looked at the world and found it humorous.

Raymond had the natural ability to run like an Olympian sprinter. Teachers would organize races during P.E., and even in competitions with upper classmates, Raymond would leave all the other boys in the dust. Sometimes Raymond allowed the other competitors a half-second head start just to make it interesting…for him. I distinctly remember his laughter as he blew by me with such ease as if he had his own personal tailwind. I wanted to be fast like Raymond, but alas, that genetic makeup was not issued to me at birth.

Yikes, the Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!
Bad news: the bombs are falling. Good news: no more homework.

One day after coming inside from recess, Raymond and I still had some energy to burn and we began to scuffle. Isn’t that what boys do…scuffle? The teacher had yet to enter the classroom so we had no fear of her reprimand. Our bodies got entangled, and we fell upon one of the desks on the back row. It was one of those wooden and metal desks that were supposed to protect you from the bomb. We practiced regularly scrambling under our desks in preparation for that moment when the big, bad Russians dropped a missile on our heads. Such a drill for such an outrageous contingency was one of many things Raymond found humorous. He had no intention of crawling under his desk if a bomb were to drop. He believed with his speed, he could out run any blast wave of a nuclear bomb. Who was I to argue? Our desks were more dangerous as an inanimate object with its hard, sharp edges than as protection against the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Mercury: I strike this pose when Kay has had a bad day.

Raymond and I crashed onto the floor beside an upended desk. We had only seconds to right the desk, get in our seats, and feign an expression of innocence before our teacher entered the room. But after we re-positioned the desk and put the spilled contents back inside, we noticed that we were bleeding as a result of our playful scuffle: I from a cut finger and Raymond from a nicely skinned shin. I credit the idea to Raymond, but I was quick to agree. “Let’s be blood brothers.” So I squeezed the minor cut on my fingertip to encourage ample blood flow and then smeared it all over Raymond’s leg. Order was restored from chaos and we became instant brothers for life. And if science and biology were in my favor, Raymond’s blood cells flowing into my veins would give me Mercury’s winged feet. It was a perfect world.

Even in the winter months we had recess outside. The playground at Fairview Elementary had upper and lower levels separated by a high, rock retaining wall. On the upper level were the traditional swing sets, merry-go-rounds, and jungle-gyms. The lower level was an open area for organized games like baseball and capture-the-flag, and in winter when the ground was covered in snow, supervised snowball fights. Snowball fights were only allowed on the lower level, and it was against the rules to throw snowballs from the upper level down onto those playing in the lower level. Among our contemporaries, Raymond and I had our social, cultural, and anthropological critics—he being black and me with my funny, southern accent—so when we happened to spy some of our school nemeses playing in the snow on the lower level, we seized the moment and rained down some snowball retribution on the bullies from our higher-ground advantage.

Raymond, left. Me, right. Former Gestapo Nanny, standing.

The victims of our attack did not need to report the incident. Our classroom teacher was an eyewitness, and when she blew an angry blast from her whistle, all the children on the playground froze as if the White Witch from Narnia had materialized. There were any number of ways to handle the situation, but our teacher chose the firing squad as her punishment of choice. She marched us down to the lower level and ordered us to stand against the retaining wall. Then she hastily scratched a jagged line in the snow with her rubber-booted foot and told all those who had suffered under our assault to assemble behind it. In her rush to judgment, the teacher did not bother to specify the real targets of our revenge, and consequently, more kids confessed to being victims than was the actual number. She told the gathering crowd to make their best snowball, and upon her whistle, to fire. What kid in their right mind would pass up the opportunity for a free shot at a stationary target? At least we weren’t blindfolded or tied to a stake, but surely our teacher must have escaped Nazi Germany where she had taught the children of the Gestapo.

While the kids dug their hands into the snow and began shaping the white powder into a small cannonball, I looked at Raymond. The smile on his face reflected a certain gallows humor at our current predicament. I was praying for a Russian bomb to fall from the sky right about then, but Raymond had a different idea.

“We don’t have to take this,” he said. If he was planning on running I knew with his swiftness, he could outrun the velocity of any snowball. If that was the case, then my only hope was for Raymond’s blood cells flowing through my veins to propel me out of our dilemma alongside him. But this was not his course of action. “We’re fighting back,” he said, the smile still in place across his lips.

Raymond was not asking for my opinion, but I didn’t have to be told twice. We were blood brothers, and we would go down fighting together. The second before the teacher blew her whistle, Raymond and I scooped up some snow compressing the powder in our hands on the run. Raymond’s genes must have kicked in because we rushed our executioners, side-by-side, like Paul Newman and Robert Redford at the end of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and the playground erupted into a snowball free-for-all.

What a duo!

When Raymond and I were mixing our blood from our earlier wounds, I was not thinking about Civil Rights, or unity of the races, or one small step for mankind. I just wanted to be fast like Raymond and this transfusion might do the trick. It was never to be. There were no land speed records in my future. I needed more than Raymond’s blood to improve my skill as a runner. But Raymond Brown gave me more than an infusion of his precious blood. That day on the playground he showed me his true character. He stood for something, but more than that, he did not stand still. In the face of superior odds, he dashed forward braving the onslaught. Until that day on the playground, all my enemies were imaginary, played in childish games of battle. That day my foes were real and I was afraid. But Raymond inspired my heart with courage, and I followed him. Yes, I lived to tell the tale, and yes, I was proud to follow him.

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Solvitur Ambulando

I was sitting in the middle of church one recent Sunday, minding my own business, drifting in and out wakefulness, but at least I was in church. Mom and Dad would be proud and relieved. It must have been a moment in the sermon when I had drifted out because my ears suddenly pricked up when the preacher said, “Solvitur ambulando.” I thought the preacher had gone to swearing in Latin, but after he offered a quick explanation of the phrase (it is solved by walking), I was now awake. I don’t remember the sermon or the point the Latin phrase was to have illustrated, but as soon as the “Amen” was spoken, I went home and began to dig deeper into its meaning.

St. Augustine of Hippo by Caravaggio

The concept goes back to the Greeks philosophizing over the certainty of motion (Did any of these guys ever have a job?). Zeno posed the problem of whether or not motion was real, and Diogenes got up and walked out of the room. Offended by Diogenes’ rude exit, Zeno asked what he was doing, and Diogenes responded by saying he had just proved that motion was real. See what chaos ensues when one philosopher gets bored with another? Centuries later, St. Augustine of Hippo coined the expression into its Latin phrasing inferring that theological issues of the heart, soul, and mind are better “solved by walking” instead of yammering on about them.

I have a distinct memory of one of my extended walks from the days of my youth. I was seventeen, and my mother and I were having an intense argument: the straight and narrow vs. the free spirit. I don’t remember the specifics of the disagreement—there were so many during my “angry young man” period—but the result was that I stormed out of the house with my mother on my heels, crying and pleading with me to come back. I kept walking. As I briskly made my way through the backyard looking for the quickest escape route, Mom’s pleading intensified, but to no avail. I spun around to tell her to just leave me alone and watched as she collapsed onto a wooden bench behind the garage, her face pinched-red and skin drenched in tears. This Madonna/Child drama might have inspired an artist’s rendering of a divine moment, but did not, however, cause me to fall to my knees in repentance. I turned and kept walking. She did fire one parting shot: “Please don’t smoke while you’re gone.” As soon as I was out of sight, the cigarette pack and the lighter came out, and for the next several hours, I smoked nonstop. It was daylight when I left the house. It was dark when I got home…reeking of cigarette smoke. I may have smelled like a tobacco barn, but my anger had been “solved by walking,” at least this particular flareup of anger. There was still a deep well of rage and rebelliousness in reserve, and I’m sure my parents would have preferred me to just keep walking for the next several years.

I act and write for a living, and like most people when they are not working, choose to spend time enjoying a hobby. My hobby list is a short one: I read, so the shelves are stocked, and I hike, so the closet floor is piled with appropriate footwear. I live a low-maintenance lifestyle. When I’m not sitting in my leather chair reading a good book, I’m either on a trail or plotting the particulars for my next hiking adventure. I hope my last days on earth are spent walking with the gait of a man who still has places to go.

Utah, 2010 (B.G.C.: Before Grand Children)
The Arnold Brothers in the Oregon Wilderness

Over the years I have been able to take great hikes in the mountains and valleys and forests of my country and in several other countries. I will hike alone or with companions. I have a dear memory of seven days spent with my brothers, Cris and Tim, on a 37 mile backpacking trek in the mountain wilderness of northern Oregon. When we are together: “What’s spoken on the trail, stays on the trail;” a brother’s pact that we will take to our graves. Another favorite hike was with Kay, our daughters, and our sons-in-law in Zion National Park. What astounding beauty we saw traversing the Virgin River through the slot canyons of southern Utah.

Then there are the serendipitous opportunities of hiking with strangers. Last year I was hiking the first seventeen miles of The Way trail over the Pyrenees from France into Spain and met up with a young man from Bosnia. He spoke enough English that we could carry on a conversation. He was currently unemployed and intended to hike The Way trail through Spain in hopes of figuring out his life. I may have disillusioned him when I told him that, at twice his age, I was on a similar quest though hiking with less angst. Or the couple from India, their one-year-old child strapped to his father’s back, hiking up the Rob Roy trail in southern New Zealand. I remember their bright faces, and that we laughed at our inability to communicate with words. We did not need words. Enjoying the beauty of the ancient forests and towering glaciers required no human language skills.

Chip ‘n Kay atop the Pathway of the Gods trail on the Amalfi Coast

My favorite hiking companion, of course, is Kay. One of our best hikes together was the “Pathway of the Gods” trail in the mountains along the Amalfi Coast. Kay does, however, draw the line at certain levels of strenuousness; smooth paths and modest inclines are her hikes of choice. She has threatened my demise more than once when a trail has surprised us with an unexpected steep incline. The act of walking is a healthy, discharging process of mind and body, and my therapist wife tells me that when bilateral stimulation occurs it opens up the neruo pathways between the two sides of the brain. They are talking to each other. This phenom of brainwave conversations seems to happen during REM sleep, but she suggests that the left/right pattern of walking can also produce similar, positive effects.

Rocamadour with Derek, our son-in-law, in the foreground

On our recent trip to France we visited the village of Rocamadour. The village sits on a rocky plateau above the Alzou valley in southern France. The 12th century village appears as if carved out of the limestone cliffs. From the Basillique at the base of the cliff a path leads to a giant cross at the top. For more than eight centuries people have trod up this steep path, some on their knees, pausing at each turn to view a sculpture depicting a station of the cross signifying Christ’s ascent up the hill of Golgotha. The artistic homage given to this extreme example of walking made me ponder how our interpersonal turmoils, or the conflicts of the soul, or even our creative endeavors might best be “solved by walking,” instead of pharmaceutical alternatives or all-out combat.

Jim Reyland

I am currently touring in a two-character stage play entitled “Stand” written by Jim Reyland. Barry Scott plays a homeless man named Johnny, and one of the lines in the play that Johnny repeats is,

Barry Scott as Johnny and Chip Arnold as Mark in “Stand”

“A man can’t be a man unless he’s walking.” My character befriends Johnny, and the two men set off on the difficult journey of forging a camaraderie. It is the stuff of good drama. At its heart, it is the story of two strangers becoming “known” to one another. “I was a stranger and you took me in,” Jesus said, describing one of many acts of mercy. The root meaning of the phrase is “gathering me into the bosom of your family.” The two men in “Stand” come from different places of brokenness, but by choosing to walk together, building relationship and learning from one another, they begin to find peace and healing for their souls. At different points in the story each man must hold up the other when the walking becomes wearisome. They are latched on to one another in a beautiful bond of friendship. The story of “Stand” is about many things, but ultimately it is two men proving the theory of motion by walking side-by-side through the complexities and conflicts of human emotions.

Illustration by Lewis C. Daniel (also artist for post cover)

I started with the Greeks, so I’ll end with a famous quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” By walking together as friends, the two characters in “Stand” examine their lives in all its forms of weak humanity and conclude that the true meaning of friendship is to hold each other up in love regardless of the circumstances or the outcome.

There are three public performances in Nashville of “Stand:” October 27 & 28 at 7:30 p.m., with a 3:00 p.m. matinee on the 28th. Location is the 4th Story Theatre at West End United Methodist Church, 2200 West End Ave. For ticket information please visit www.westendumc.org/stand

 

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