A family tradition began 44 years ago on Whitland Ave in Nashville, Tennessee. My father and mother were a part of a small group of people who wanted to celebrate each July 4th in a special way. Over the years the program varied, which included my sister Nan Gurley singing patriotic songs.
In the opening chapters of my historical novel, “A Voice Within the Flame,” the character of Hannah suffers under a terrible burden. She has one desire and she is obsessed by this desire. Hannah is able to function in her day-to-day world, able to care for and love those around her. But the one thing she wants most dominates her heart and remains illusory.
After years of being denied her one hope, the agony Hannah suffers becomes too great to endure. Nothing brings her comfort. Not the doting attention of a loving husband, not material luxuries, not food or drink, not personal sacrifice, not worship or prayer. Nothing can raise Hannah from the dust of her despondency.
Yet Hannah is bold enough to call upon God to look upon the “bitterness of her soul.” Through tears, she makes a vow. If the Almighty would give her a son, she would give him back to the Lord “for all the days of his life.”
It would be easy to be critical of Hannah. She is desperate and foolish to make so rash a promise. Contemporary culture does not understand an ancient time that placed such a high value on having a child. And yet, if we have lived long enough on this planet, we all have experienced times of desperation. We all know what it is like to obsess over a desire of the heart. And whether we want to admit it or not, many of us have made those bargains with God or the universe or another human being.
This is what gives us empathy for Hannah. Our individual circumstances can be much different, but the human heart is a great equalizer, and we understand the pain that brought Hannah to this place of last resort…the vow—a thing promised. Now imagine the pain she would feel if the Almighty agreed to the terms of her vow.
There were some “escape clauses” when it came to making vows (Numbers 30). But in the novel and in the biblical account, when it came time for Hannah to keep her end of the bargain, she chose not to take an option that would nullify the vow.
What great courage. What depth of character. When Hannah could not know the consequences of her decision, she kept her vow. The power of such dedication to one’s word can have a ripple effect across space, time, and history.
It was a Dad/Daughter time to celebrate Father’s Day. Our hike had been planned for weeks, and I had dreamed of taking this trek forever. A few years ago one spring, I did a solo hike from the Fiery Gizzard trail-head, beyond Sycamore Falls, up to Dog Hole trail following the ridge to Raven’s Point, and then down into the gorge circling back along the river. This section of the trail is beautiful but rugged. The ranger warned I’d be climbing over rocks and boulders beside the river, and that the trail was not well marked. He spoke truth. A few times the path disappeared into the landscape and I had to backtrack to find the blazes marking the trail. On one of my wrong turns, the ground was so wet from spring rains, that what I thought was a trail began to give way, and I had to grab a sapling to keep from sliding down the hill into the river. All a part of the great adventure.
To be able to trek the length and breadth of the trail required us to park a vehicle at either end. From the Foster Falls entrance to the Fiery Gizzard trail-head is thirteen miles, and when you add the spur trail to Raven’s Point, which we did, the hike is fourteen miles. This trek offers the verdant splendor of forests so thick that the sunlight struggles to get through, scenic overlooks along the tops of mountain ridges that inspires dreams of a homestead with a back porch full of rocking chairs, and gorges that descend so deep you swear you’ve stepped into the imagination of Jules Verne in “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” What better companion to take on this Father’s Day hike than my daughter, Lauren.
I am a firm believer in preparation, especially when it comes to planning hikes. While no Boy Scout, I do study maps and watch the weather, and try to anticipate any possible contingency. I will bring plenty of water and food, walking sticks, braces for my aging joints, mole skin, extra shoe lace, matches, Swiss Army knife (I still carry the one given me as a wedding present). I even have duct tape wrapped around my walking sticks in case something needs binding; preferably a shoe or an article of clothing and not a broken body part, though a splint could be fashioned if necessary. When trekking solo, I stick my phone in my backpack, but on this day, I chose to leave it locked in my car since Lauren was taking her high-tech phone for picture opportunities. And since we were going to have a vehicle at either end of the trail for our shuttle, I brought along my extra car key.
My car was left at the parking lot at the end of the trail, and we drove Lauren’s van back to the starting point at Foster Falls. Before Lauren locked the van I took out my car keys and dropped the first one into the pouch beside the passenger seat. I remember holding that second car key in my hand and thinking “Aren’t you clever.” Both keys would be safely locked inside Lauren’s van. No chance of losing them on the trail.
Over hill and dale, down into gorges, huffing and puffing up the steep ascents, fording streams, traversing ridge tops, and continuing on the winding path through thick forests, Lauren and I were having the best time sharing family memories, dreaming of future travels, and solving the world’s problems since we decided for this day our troubles did not exist. Oh, the hubris.
We stopped to have our lunch at Raven’s Point and enjoy the stunning view. It was at Raven’s Point that we learned a significant difference between men and women: when a woman eats a fresh cherry she will politely remove the pit from her mouth with her fingers and discretely toss it away. When a man is ready to discard the pit, he just spits it out, and for extra measure, aims to hit something with it. Some lessons I tried to teach my daughters just didn’t take. Except for the cherry pits, we left our lunch site with no carbon footprint.
It was around mile ten when the epiphany struck. Lauren was in the lead, and when she didn’t hear my footsteps behind her, she turned around to see me frozen in the middle of the trail with an addle-brained expression on my face. Now let me be clear. What I was experiencing was nothing akin to the light that blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, or the flames of the burning bush that lured Moses, or Jacob’s dream of the stairway to heaven. No, my manifestation was more similar with Balaam’s talking ass.
The vision was so vivid: I saw myself standing inside the open passenger door of the Niedlov’s van removing the first car key from my pocket and dropping it into the pouch, and then removing the second key from my other pocket, holding it in my hand for a brief second and thinking, “I sure don’t want to lose this one on the trail, so let’s just leave it with the other one.”
Out of concern for her father, Lauren asked what was wrong, and I confessed that I had administered a self-inflicted blow to the back of my head with the stupid stick, and through no fault of her own, she was collateral damage. We were six hours into the hike, so there was no turning back. After expressing some non-church words of self-incrimination, we marched onward. Now was an opportunity to apply the art of solvitur ambulando and solve our dilemma by walking.
There was a lot of daylight left, but still our pace quickened as we played out the worst-to-best-case scenarios. Worst case: hike an extra seven-plus miles at the end of the trail back to Lauren’s car. Best case: hope to find a sympathetic hiker who might be willing to give us a ride. Problem was, we had only seen a couple of people on the trail all hiking in the opposite direction.
Then Lauren had a brilliant idea. My dear friend Steve Brallier and his wife Lynn lived just up the road in Sewanee, Tennessee. I could give them a call, and if they were around, they could meet us at the trail-head and drive us back to Lauren’s car parked at the Foster Falls entrance. Yes, brilliant.
“You’ve got his number, right Dad?”
“Yes, Daughter, Steve’s number is in my contact list on my phone SAFELY LOCKED INSIDE MY CAR!”
We paused once again for a second application of the stupid stick. Another few non-church words expressed, and we walked on in silence.
After a few moments it was Lauren who stopped on the path. She thought she might have Steve’s number saved on her phone when he had called her to place a special order at Niedlov’s bakery back during Covid. She whipped out her phone, found a “hot-spot” for the connection, and voila, Steve’s number appeared. The call was made. Three rings, and we heard Steve’s incredulous voice, “Lauren, is that you?” Yes, my friends, Steve had also saved Lauren’s number. All hail technology.
I quickly make my confession, and just as quick, Steve laughed and said, “Sounds like you hit yourself with the stupid stick.” Nothing like the insult of a best friend to keep you humble.
Speaking of best friends, I want to digress a moment and plug Steve’s book “Mitaka’s Secret.” Six years ago Steve and Lynn sat at our table, and over a long dinner, told us how they came to this incredible story. In the ensuing years Steve would occasionally read me a new chapter that he and Lynn had researched and written. This is a true story, brilliantly told. Release date is July 20, 2021, and will be available wherever books are sold.
The lesson learned from my Fiery Gizzard Epiphany was that all the preparation I need for these hiking adventures is to include my resourceful daughter who knows how to take care of her old man. And, of course, be lucky enough to have a best friend who lives nearby and will happily come to your rescue. Priceless treasures both.
Kay is always my first reader. When I came in this morning from exercise, I heard laughter from our bedroom. I walked into the room and found her holding the draft of this story. She looked at me and said, “This is so you.” I guess after all these years I have become predictable.
In the early days of 2021, I had the privilege to doing a podcast interview with Alison Treat. Ms. Treat has a wonderful podcast devoted to historical fiction, and she invited me to talk about the publication of my novel, “A Voice Within the Flame,” on her show. It was a free-wheel conversation about a writer’s life, and the long and winding road of bringing this novel and the book series “The Song of Prophets and Kings” into the world.
So if you’ve got a few minutes to listen and are curious about the process of how this novel made it into publication, click this link below and listen while you are cleaning the house or taking a walk in the woods or just relaxing. As always, I appreciate your time and interest in my work. There is a special pleasure I have when I know something I have created has brought a little joy into someone’s life. Thank you. http://alisontreat.com/2021/06/17/biblical-fiction-of-prophets-kings-with-henry-o-arnold/
In the early days of my childhood I was influenced by the characters I saw on television. The standard cowboy or soldier did not stay with me for long. I was attached to one superhero. I believed then and do now that Superman was the best of the lot, an all-inclusive power machine.
My parents did not have the disposable income to purchase a store-bought Superman costume. So before my mother sent me out to rid the world of crime, she pulled an old blue shirt of my father’s out of the rag-bag and painted a red “S” on the front. For my cape, she attached a bleached-out towel to my shirt with duck-head diaper pins. Not quite the impressive wardrobe transformation of Clark Kent in the phone booth, but my mother’s genius proved worthy in the moment of creative invention.
I tested my super powers against the laws of nature leaping from the roof of our garage or from the ledge of our tree house or flinging myself from the tire-swing at the apex of its swing. The sound of my cape flapping in the wind was my heroic underscoring.
I kept the neighborhood crime-free until one day my super powers could not override poor judgment. I was in pursuit of two friends who drew the lot of “bad guy” in our after-school, make-believe play time. When they dashed into a hedge separating one backyard from another, I made a split-second decision. I assumed their intention was to emerge on the other side, and if my timing was right, I would fly over the hedge and crash on top of them just like on television.
I realized too late that I had miscalculated my foes cunning nature. They remained hidden inside the thick hedge. As I soared over the hedge I had not considered the possibility that my cape might get caught in the thick greenery. In mid-flight my cape was snagged, my forward momentum halted, and I was thrust back into the prickly branches.
My shirt and cape were shredded, my flesh was cut and scraped, and my Adam’s apple felt as if it was knocked to the back of my throat. I slogged home under a cloud of damaged pride, a grounded mortal, threw my costume back into the rag-bag, and went into disgraced exile. Gravity may have won that, but a dynamic imagination has kept me airborne ever since.
“‘Curiouser and curiouser!’” cried Alice…she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English.” This quote from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” comes after Alice experiences the effect of eating some cake that caused her neck to “open out like the largest telescope that ever was.”
Everyone knows the common and versatile definition of the word “curious:” being inquisitive; prying; showing keen interest; defining something as odd or strange. But the archaic Latin meaning has more depth: “something made or prepared with skill, something done with painstaking accuracy, with obvious signs of paying attention to detail and marked by intricacy.” We all have a degree of talent in some area, but it will not take one far unless the spark of curiosity ignites the imagination.
Once Alice saw the white rabbit, she was engaged, and curious enough to follow. When she came to the cake with the sign that read, “Eat me,” she did so. She had no idea what she would discover by chasing a white rabbit or consuming a magical cake. The formula was simple: being curious fired the imagination which afforded discovery. Think of all the discoveries Alice made about herself, her family, her society by following that white rabbit down the rabbit hole.
When the white rabbit appears in the imagination anything can happen. The act of creating is an act of bravery. Something is always at stake to the creator because they may lose something and never recover. That is the nature of creation. But there could be so much more to gain when one takes that risk: learning secrets, learning lessons, learning harmony in daily life.
Lewis Carroll began his story with Alice being very bored, and in her boredom she discovered the white rabbit. Don’t be afraid of being bored. There is freedom in boredom. A white rabbit could come along, so be on the lookout and be curious enough to follow. Stay curious and stir up the wonder of your imagination.
Funky word, right? It sounds like a second cousin of gesundheit. The Germans know how to take meaningful phrases and form them into a single word. I recently met up with the word geworfenheit and found it means “thrown into the world.”
Credit for this phrase goes to Martin Heidegger, an influential German philosopher of the last century. I do not pretend to be a philosopher or a student of philosophy, let alone an expert in Heidegger-speak, but the meaning of the word hit me hard. If we have been “tossed out” by the randomness of natural selection or cosmic arbitrariness or systematic favoritism, then what sort of effect does such pitiless disregard have on one’s soul?
It does not take a world pandemic for someone to feel the pain of isolation. It is a brute fact that many people go through life unnoticed or unattended, no one looking, no one caring. Many struggle just to feel alive on any level of heart and spirit.
However one approaches the reality of our existence—how we got here, what we’re doing here, where we’re going from here—we each must decide what we do with the time before us, who we might do it with, and for whom.
If we believe we are here to indulge our moods, create the conditions to achieve success for our self-interests, and muscle our way to the top of the heap, then being “thrown into the world,” is nothing more than a dog-eat-dog world-view; any “means” to justify the “ends.”
I do not accept the premise that I have been flung out into the world to live solely by my wits and to die by myself. I suggest we adopt a different phrase to live by: “love thy neighbor.” If we weigh risk vs. reward, then a life of loving one’s neighbor has the greatest reward. We are not “thrown into the world.” We should grasp the world, look into the eyes of those who come across our path, embrace and love them. There will be pain, but it can be shared and the burden can be light.
I married a queen, not one of royal pedigree, but of the hometown variety. She was Homecoming Queen not once but twice at her local high school. I began courting the queen about eight years after she wore her crowns, and within six months of courtship, I started plotting and scheming my marriage proposal.
I’m a romantic by nature so it was important to set the right atmosphere for the occasion. I got out of rehearsal early that day and went by Kay’s office to get the key to her apartment. She had a fireplace, and I wanted to take full advantage of the ambiance a fire would offer. It was her birthday, and I planned to cook the one dish I knew how to prepare, Beef Stroganoff. Weeks earlier, while cruising antique stores, Kay had pointed to an early 20th century, American crafted nightstand she liked, and while her back was turned, I bought the piece and picked it up a few days later. (This nightstand resides on her side of the bed and holds a stack of books a foot high.) I placed the nightstand beside the fireplace and set a scroll of a sonnet I had written on top tied with a strip of lace. I’m no Shakespeare, but I could improve on the greeting card doggerel for this occasion. I believed what I had written would up the “wow” factor and help seal the deal along with a bottle of Merlot, some Grover Washington (the stereophonic sounds of a scratchy LP and the crackly popping of burning logs in the fireplace were perfect mood enhancers), and candles.
Dinner finished, the fire at a nice glow, a glass of wine consumed, the antique nightstand “ooed” and “ahhhed” over accompanied by a nice kiss on the cheek, the sonnet read followed by another kiss, this time on the lips, and did I detect a little moisture in her eyes at the tender care I was demonstrating on her birthday? O how she was in for the biggest surprise of all. It was carpe diem time, and I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. I sat down on the carpet in front of the fireplace, shifted around to face her, our legs crisscrossed beneath us, and took her hands in mine.
Now here is the moment in every romantic film where the music swells and the characters speak the predictable dialogue and respond with predictable reactions. But my “Would you marry me?” moment did not end with the joyous leap into my arms or the burst of joyful tears. Kay didn’t leap or burst into anything. She didn’t even say anything. Too much shock and awe to her system, I surmised. She bowed her head and her lips began to move. What was that? I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Was this prayer time? Was she consulting God? Couldn’t she have given me the “yes” I expected and then we both could pray? Sure, I wanted God to be a part of all this, but on my terms and in my timing. I had set this stage. I had scripted this scenario. God should just rubber stamp it, right? The romantic mood I had so careful orchestrated seemed to be disintegrating like the crumbling logs in the fireplace. The longer Kay continued in this silent and pious moment, the more my heart began to fill with anxiety. Was she talking to God just to avoid answering the question? Was she talking to God for an answer to the question? A wiser man would have sat quietly and waited. Instead, I blurted,
“Either tell me now that you’re going to marry me, or I’m leaving.”
Here is a perfect example of going up to the edge and jumping off, and to make it worse, using a terrible line of dialogue to launch myself into this abyss of my own design. What was I thinking? It is as painful to recount as it is to watch, however, watch we must.
There was no mistaking the tears in her eyes this time. The moisture on her cheek glistened in the firelight as she raised her head and whispered,
“Well, I guess you’ll have to go then.”
A wiser man would take a step back, take a deep breath of clean oxygen to clear his head, and maybe, just maybe, if he had only a fraction of the wisdom of say, anyone above middle-school age, he might admit that his brash and hasty, and BRAINLESS ultimatum, was spoken in jest or make up any excuse for blurting out something so outrageous. You would think that, right? Wrong. “Hoist with his own petard,” as Hamlet says of his Uncle Claudius’ knavery, which is to say, “He shall blow himself up.” Subtlety of action is not my strong suit. In my mortified condition, I untangled my legs, grabbed the half-empty (not half-full considering my state of mind), bottle of wine, and stormed out the door. I would finish the Merlot alone, thank you very much.
For what felt like an eternity, I remained in the “cone of silence.” Not only did I not speak with Kay or any of our friends, I stopped going out all together. I only went to the theatre for rehearsals and performances and then back to my cabin in the woods where I would look out my window and lick my self-inflicted wound. I shed a lot of tears. I uttered a lot of prayers. I walked for hours through the woods and pastures where I lived. The isolation was discomfiting and only contributed to my gloom.
At some point in my misery the intervention came; a call from my sister. The news of my abrupt departure had traveled through the grapevine by way of mutual friends. Does my dear sister ask me how I’m feeling? Does she commiserate? Does she inquire after my side of the story and stick up for me? Does she offer encouragement? No. After all this time I can still provide the exact quote of her brief statement: “Big brother, you are the biggest fool in the world if you let Kay Patton get away. Get on your knees now and crawl back to her and beg her forgiveness.” Click, and like that, the phone line was dead.
Kick a guy while he’s down. No mercy; a trait my sister will use anytime she is confronted with her big brother’s foolishness. I waited a few hours allowing her words to stew, and finally, I did get on my knees, I did crawl, but only back to the phone, and dialed Kay’s number. After admitting my idiotic performance that night in her apartment was a huge mistake, I did ask for forgiveness. My groveling was the most honest actor’s performance I had ever given. No fabricated emotion. I was “in the moment” as we actors say when actor and character are unified in perfect harmony of expressing truth, and this moment was raw and real. And Kay’s response? She was gracious enough to accept my apology and allowed an opening for a second chance.
Our reconciliation led us to the altar six months later, and on May 12, 1979, we were wed. Now forty-two years later, we get to celebrate a designated day. But I count myself a most fortunate man to have shared a million joyous experiences with this lady since given a second chance. Oh yeah, and much thanks to my sister, Nan Gurley, for her take-no-prisoners’ phone call, or this day might never have happened.
I did not have to prepare an audition for my first role on the stage. I just had to be the right age (five), work for free, and the son of the producer, my father. It was a production of the Greek tragedy, “Medea,” and I played the younger son of Jason and Medea.
The play came in last in the competition at the Dionysia Festival when it premiered in 431 B.C. A mother’s fillicide as revenge against her husband’s infidelity was not acceptable behavior even to the Greeks back in the day. But it is a tragedy, and someone has to die. So I became the sacrificial lamb.
The death scene (thankfully carried out off stage), did not require a lot acting talent on my part. I just had to play dead on command. Just before the big “reveal,” my stage brother and I took our positions on the floor behind a closed door, and the stage manager poured ketchup all over our white togas. I remember vividly the door flying open, the stage lights flooding into the room where we lay, and the blood-curdling scream from the actor who played Jason when he beheld his dead sons. Trying to remain “dead” in that moment was my first big challenge as an actor. I wanted to jump up and run away.
Jason and Medea would not be put on the cover of today’s “Parents” magazine, but my parents did not seem concerned that this theatrical experience might scar me for life. While I might have suffered some nightmares from time to time, there was no permanent damage. I did not know it at age five, but the art of storytelling became firmly established in my psyche, and my artistic life had been determined.
It is one of my earliest memories. I was four years old when I witnessed my father drinking, gambling, attempting a robbery, and then dying by his own hand from a knife thrust into his heart. I watched him die right before my eyes, and I had no ability to distinguish the degrees of the semblances of truth.
When Hamlet says, “…the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” he means that he will use a dramatic performance to test whether his uncle, Claudius, is guilty of murdering his father. And when Claudius sees the reenactment by the players, he flees the scene. When I saw the performance of my father’s death, I too fled the scene, whisked away in my mother’s arms, screaming.
Dad was playing the role of Billy Bigelow in the musical “Carousel.” Backstage after the show, I hurled myself into his arms sobbing in relief. That night Dad lay the instrument of his death on our dining room table; a rubber knife no longer than six or seven inches from blade tip to butt end. He even demonstrated how he used it.
This moment was a marvelous reality, one not fully explained or understood, nonetheless, irrefutably before me. I was an eyewitness to it all, and afterwards, I was tucked into bed by the one who had performed the feat. This was the mystery of storytelling, the story of my father, all-powerful, who could create such a wondrous illusion. My impressionable heart was frightened and awed by the experience of life, death, and resurrection. I did not know that these powerful themes would become foundational beliefs for life.