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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Not a Huntsman
Elmer Fudd

Not a Huntsman

After decades of living with Kay, I still want to impress and surprise her. Sometimes my efforts are rewarded with laughter and appreciation; other times, bewilderment, and still other times, the look if not the words of “I can’t believe you just did/said that.” Those are the times when honest effort becomes lame antics, and we males can be so good at lame antics. We are, if nothing else, consistent, and recently I tried to impress my wife with a skill that is not at the top of my bag of tricks.

Elmer Fudd

For the second summer in a row we have had a woodland varmint leave its natural habitat and go rogue taking up residence beneath our garden house creating all sorts of havoc. Word of the fate of the previous resident must not have made it out into the wilderness, and the current occupant must have found the perks of the domestic location too irresistible. We grew suspicious of this intruder when we noticed fresh trenches dug beneath the garden house and a well-worn trail leading to the tomato plants and then on to the section of flowers and ferns. One morning when I came out to pick tomatoes for breakfast, I caught him gorging on the ripe, red orbs. We had a verified sighting. He dashed beneath the garden house the moment we made eye contact. Strike One.

A few days later when I returned from the gym, I went to the rain barrel to collect a bucket of water for the window boxes and noticed that our fountain was not working. I examined the pump and it was not malfunctioning. The breaker box inside the garden house had not tripped from a power surge. The electrical cord was plugged in and the power was on, so why wasn’t it working? I followed the cord from the outdoor outlet on the side of the garden house running to the fountain and found the spot where it had been chewed down to the copper wiring. I replaced the cord and informed Kay. Strike Two.

Elmer Fudd

When I suggested it was time to consider the .22 caliber option, Kay expressed her doubts. Her memory was long, stretching back to last summer’s fiasco and our weekend guests having to endure the vile stench of varmint decay wafting from beneath the garden house. She reminded me that her brother Larry, a veteran of the woods and hunting, had said that groundhogs were tough critters and the only way to dispatch said critter was a well-aimed, direct shot that would drop the varmint in its tracks. This was her sweet but not-so-subtle way of telling me that I might not be up to this task, and she did not want a repeat of last year’s debacle with a yard full of revelers inhaling the toxic air around our garden house. Duly noted.

A brief time passed with no sightings, and we thought that the intruder had moved on, but while weeding one day behind the statue of St. Francis, Kay noticed that several of the plants had been eaten down to the root. From rubber-coated wire to succulent foliage, this groundhog had an eclectic palate. Strike three, I thought, and though piqued at the loss of her plants, Kay still did not feel the need for drastic measures, so there was a stay of execution.

But when only a couple of days lapsed and we came upon the ferns and mosses (Kay loves her ferns and mosses; don’t mess with her ferns and mosses), at the foot of St. Francis, browned and dead from groundhog urine, that was the final straw. Perhaps St. Francis might have granted the varmint clemency, but not my wife. Strike four, and my inner Kraken was released.

When Kay returned home from work a few days later I was beaming with pride.

Elmer Fudd

“I have good news. I have bad news. And I have good news,” I announced.

Her expression went from curious to quizzical to wary as she awaited my report.

“Good news, our varmint problem is solved with my first shot, no less,” I began. (I felt like the Little Tailor of Grimm fairy tale fame bragging about his feat of “seven at one blow.”) “Bad news, he dashed under the garden house like his cousin before him. And good news, we have no guests staying over or dinner parties scheduled.”

What followed, however, was not the hoped-for adulation from my wife for an accomplished mission, but three strikes to my manhood.

“Chippie,” (Strike One: a pet name coined by my wife and spoken often as a term of endearment, but uttered this time with coated disgruntlement.)

“You are not a huntsman,” (Strike Two: a truth I could not deny, but I had hoped there might be some recognition of potential for the high status of hunter/gatherer.)

“Why didn’t you call Larry?” (Strike Three: spoken as if Larry, who does live right next door to us, was just sitting on his front porch, locked and loaded, and waiting for my call.)

Elmer Fudd

Thank goodness there was not a Strike Four or I would have crawled under the garden house myself.

I came back with a swear word or two—a skill I am proficient in but not necessarily proud of—to which she countered by suggesting my response was uncalled for, and then softened it with, “You are so good at so many things, but hunting is not one of them.” I could not disagree and must admit that Kay is a much better shot than I.

medieval huntress

It is in accepting the warp and woof of our marriage that makes life interesting. We allow each other to be the human beings we are and don’t meddle much in changing the other person into our own image. This gives us the freedom to really learn something from each other when the time is right. For instance, I have learned that I should make a list of those skills for which I have no obvious talent, e.g., plumbing, electrical, mechanical, etc., etc., to infinity and beyond. Huntsman shall now be added to the list.

Family dinner in Carlux, France
Us at the village of Domme overlooking the Dordogne River

So with the arrival of the inevitable smell of decomposition, we packed our bags and flew with our family to France for a two-week vacation. Manhood restored.

 

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Aging Rocker

No, this story is not about an old-fashioned rocking chair Kay and I found in some small town antique shop. It is about my short-lived career as a rock ‘n roll star that began in a literal cave and ended when I found myself sitting on a picnic table between Robert Plant and Jimmy Page backstage of Municipal Auditorium during John Bonham’s drum solo. Have I gotten your attention?

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page

Coming of age in the 1960’s, I had fantasies of being a rock star. I would bounce around in my bedroom in front of the mirror to The Who, or Jimi Hendrix, or The Rolling Stones, or (my secret confession), Paul Revere and the Raiders, playing these amazing licks on my father’s old tennis racket I used for a guitar. And I would visualize a sea of fans screaming their lungs out for me as they stormed the stage.

The memory of how our band came together is fuzzy. I was invited by Larry and Kenny Keaton to be the lead singer in this band. We were high school friends and they were excellent musicians. They played actual guitars, ones that required tuning, amplification, and skill. A drummer was added, and voila: a rock band was formed. The Keaton Brother’s decision to include me should have been questioned, but what I lacked in vocal ability, I made up in enthusiasm. I could belt a song, though perfect pitch was elusive, and I could dance. My religious upbringing frowned on such terpsichorean talent (Terpsichore, the Greek Muse of Dance), but I was not thinking of religion at the time, only the chance to create some rock ‘n roll. I had the moves if not quite the vocal chops.

We practiced way more than the offers to perform warranted. I remember a few basement parties, a middle-school hayride, and one pep rally. Talent scouts were noticeably absent. Our big moment came at a Battle of the Bands contest at Ruskin Cave in Dickson, Tennessee. The area was home to a late 19th century Utopian colony named for the English socialist writer, John Ruskin. The group had a short-lived existence, but the interior of the cave was the perfect place to set up a cannery operation for the Ruskin Colony. Like most utopias, they had a handful of active years before fizzling out. But that history was of little interest to me. I was only thinking of making rock ‘n roll history, inside a massive cave, no less.

The Ruskin Colony
Cannery inside Ruskin Cave

No audition was required. You just showed up and signed up. Each band was given ten minutes to perform. There were covers of “Satisfaction” and “Light My Fire;” all fine songs, but by the tenth time of hearing it, all musical innovation had dissipated. No one was doing soul or funk, and we had worked up a killer version of “Shotgun,” by Jr. Walker & the All Stars. Even though we lacked a sax player, those Keaton Brothers could play a mean guitar and our drummer could beat out a funky syncopation that allowed me to do a choreographed reenactment of an old west shootout…me against the members of the band. The lyrics of the song had nothing to do with any historic shootout, e.g. the O.K. Corral, but we weren’t there to give a history lesson. We came in the name of rock ‘n roll in our matching blue shirts and jeans, black high-heeled boots with the pointy toes, and leather vests. Our hair was not long at the time. The school we attended, while they could not prohibit the spirit of rock ‘n roll from invading our souls, had the power to determine length of hair. It was the outward signs of belief that mattered, and short hair for the male was one sign of pious conformity.

While the other bands performed their three-song-set, we had prepared only one…a ten–minute version of “Shotgun;” and for me, it was my Isadora Duncan meets James Brown moment played to the hard-funk driving music. The choreography suggested the scene of the gunslinger standing against the forces of evil, and near the end of the song, I was riddled with bullets by my band mates. But after some funereal guitar licks and a drum solo, I was resurrected to new life, leapt to the microphone and belted out, “I said, Shotgun…shoot ‘em for he runs now.” The faithful would have considered it blasphemous to suggest that rock ‘n roll could raise someone from the dead, but we weren’t there to give theology lessons either.

If my memory is correct—and suspicion should abound—I believe we took third place. But like the Utopian Ruskin Colony, the Battle of the Bands contest was the beginning and ending of my career in a rock ‘n roll band. However, I still bore the heart of a rock ‘n roller. I wore the black boots with the pointy toes until they were all shine and no sole. And, for a time, there was an emotional void to all rock music until I discovered Led Zeppelin. It was like listening to musical thunder and lightening; an all-powerful force with no gimmicks or cheap theatrics. Led Zeppelin was, is, and evermore shall be my rock band, my rock sound, my one true rock musical love.

Led Zeppelin

The harmonic convergence of a Zeppelin concert at the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville and my unpaid internship for a musical variety show produced by a local television station was fortuitous. I was able to finagle an All Access pass from the television station on the condition that I would take pictures of the event. “Oh, yeah, sure, I’ll take pictures,” I said, and after the briefest of instruction from the station’s tech guy on how to use the requisitioned camera and a roll of film, I was sent to the concert. Understand, I don’t do technology…then or now.

The All Access laminate possessed all manner of magic, that and the camera hanging from my neck. I was able to float ahead of thousands of fans waiting in long lines, past the labyrinth of security barricades, and right into the backstage area where dozens of roadies were putting the final touches on all-things production.

It was the loud screaming that caught my attention. I rushed out of the backstage area just as the black stretch limo was driving into the rear entrance of the auditorium. Police and security staff were restraining the hordes from rushing down the pedestrian ramps toward the limo. The mania only increased when the limo doors opened like multiple wings on a fierce, black dragon, and Jimmy, Robert, John Paul, and John and the Zeppelin entourage climbed out of the vehicle.

Led Zeppelin

The band entered the “Employees Only” area behind the stage. It was the large break room for employees of Municipal Auditorium with a bank of lockers along one wall, bathrooms, kitchen area, and picnic tables for employees to eat their meals. I stood near the lockers and watched as the band breezed through the room and out into the holding area on the stage right side where Zeppelin’s Road Manager was engaged in a heated exchange with the city’s Fire Marshal regarding whether or not the houselights in the ceiling above the nose-bleed seating around the auditorium would remain on during the concert: Fire Marshal “On” (safety concerns) vs. Road Manager “Off” (aesthetic concerns). It was as if the band entered through the vomitory right on cue. If the lights did not go off, the band would return to the hotel and the Fire Marshal could explain to the ten thousand fans why they would be getting their money back. The promoter of the concert who stood to lose all that money saved the day with a compromise: as long as the fans remained in their seats and did not rush the stage (a common occurrence at rock concerts), the lights could remain off. The announcement was made, the lights went out, the band entered in the black and blasted into “Communication Breakdown,” and while the fans roared like a giant prehistoric beast, they dutifully remained in their seats.

With my magical All Access pass I was able to float around the stage area and between the metal railings set up in front of the stage. Once the music started, the first thing I did was to rip the filtered heads off of a couple of cigarettes and stuff them into my ears (a futile exercise that simply delayed the inevitable loss of hearing). Then I started snapping pictures. I had to at least act like I knew what I was doing.

Plant and Page

I happened to be moving toward the break room when John Bonham began a twenty-minute drum solo (Bonham wasn’t called “The Beast” for nothing). Plant, Page, and Jones were exiting the stage and also headed for the break room. I thought I would be out of the way if I sat on top of one of the picnic tables and pretended to fiddle with my camera. To my surprise, Page slipped up on my right and sat on the end of the table and began to replace a broken string on his guitar. I was so nervous I could not have taken a picture at that moment even if my life depended on it. Page set the broken string between us and began restringing the guitar with a new one. Meanwhile, Plant took a seat on the bench on my left. I was the slice of Spam sandwiched between the reigning lords of rock ‘n roll and “acting” cool was the severest test thus far of my limited talent.

“I wish I had a joint right now,” Page said as he tightened the new string.

Jimmy Page

I could not fulfill that request, but I did fumble the cigarette pack out of my shirt pocket and offered him one. He pondered it for the poor substitute it was, but decided to take it anyway. He and the others were then summoned back to the stage by the stage manager, and as Page scooted off the table, he left behind the broken guitar string. I asked if he wanted it and he simply shook his head. As the trio exited the break room, I snatched the string off the table and stuffed it into my pocket.

By the encore, the crowd could no longer contain themselves and rushed the stage. As a consequence, all the lights in the auditorium were turned on and the last song they played was in light bright enough to cause retina damage. A week later I was told by the tech guy at the television station that I neglected to wind the film forward after each shot. There were multiple exposures on one frame that proved worthless…like I said, not tech savvy. I reverently placed my guitar string on my bookshelf at home, but my mother confessed that when she found it in the room one day while cleaning she thought it was “just an old wire” and threw it into the trash. We weren’t communicating well back in those days.

Christopher Guest a.k.a. Nigel Tufnel

And now, decades later, in my secret moments when Kay has left the house, this aging rocker will get the broom out of the closet, insert my double CD of Zeppelin’s greatest hits into the stereo, cue the “Whole Lotta Love” track, and turn the volume “up to eleven,” (as Nigel Tufnel so eloquently explained), and…wait for it…wait for it…, burst into: “You need coolin’…Baby, I’m not foolin’/Gonna send you back to schoolin’…I’m gonna give you my love….Want a whole lotta love.” Now who would not storm the stage at the sound of that legendary rock ‘n roll music?

Up To Eleven
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The Nymphs of Plenty

My sister, Nan Gurley, met the man-of-her-dreams when they were attending Abilene University back in the mid-1970’s. In the spring of her senior year, Nan starred in a production of “Man of La Mancha” in the role of Aldonza. The man-of-her-dreams played Quixote. Several in the family went down to the university to see the production. I was properly impressed with the man-of-her-dreams. He held his own opposite a formidable costar. In the course of my brief trip, Nan told me that she thought she might be in love with this guy. I reported this to our younger brothers when I returned home. And when the man-of-her-dreams decided he would move to Nashville after graduation to pursue his career in journalism and took the post of managing-editor at the Nashville Magazine, my brothers and I knew this “love” was now a two-way street.

Wayne Gurley as Don Quixote and Nan Gurley as Aldonza

The summer of 1975 Nan and I were working at Opryland. I was about to head off to UNC Chapel Hill to begin my two-year MFA program in theater, so that summer it was a full house at the Arnold homestead. Just because Nan proclaimed that she was in love with the man-of-her-dreams, it did not mean that said object of her affection was going to automatically get a free embrace from her brothers. The male siblings had a stake in this love thing too. Now it was not as if we were plotters and schemers engaged in undermining the prospective union, but it had to be tested. Nan was wise enough not to give out regular installments on the progress of her relationship with the man-of-her-dreams to her three brothers. But when an engagement ring appeared on our sister’s finger, we knew this was proof-positive and action had to be taken.

One morning Mom and Dad hosted a breakfast on the back patio with Nan and the man-of-her-dreams to discuss wedding plans. The three brothers were not invited. This rebuff would not stand. As the parents, our sister, and the man-of-her-dreams breakfasted on the back patio, my brothers and I spied upon them from the second-floor bathroom window. That was when inspiration descended from above in the form of Cupid who whispered into our ears, “Thou shalt strip down to thy boxers and prance around the breakfast table shooting arrows of love into the hearts of the amorous couple.”

Panel from the Triumph of Galatea by Raphael

Who were we to disobey Cupid’s call? So we disrobed down to our boxers, went out the side door, and came prancing around the corner of the house chortling falsetto musical chants of love like a cupid chorus and miming the drawn bows releasing arrows from our quivers and into the hearts of the engaged couple. Our sister and the parents failed to see the humor. Nan started throwing ice cubes from her tea glass, and the parents exclaimed in horror at their semi-naked sons ordering us to make an immediate exit. But the man-of-her-dreams laughed. He laughed. This was a good sign. Could he, in fact, be one of us? Because of this we began to accept him as a potential member of the family, and so he shall be called by his given name: Wayne Gurley. In spite of the negative response from the majority of the audience, we three brothers never broke character, and pirouetted our way back inside the house. Because we had obeyed the voice of love, Cupid spoke once again and said, “From hence forth and forevermore, the Arnold brothers shall be known throughout the land as ‘The Nymphs of Plenty.’” Random strikes of the Nymphs could happen when one least expected, which brought fear and trembling among the nations.

The next step in this love process was for Wayne Gurley’s parents to meet the parents of the bride…and parents of The Nymphs of Plenty. Since his parents lived in Dallas and would be making the trip to Nashville, elaborate plans were designed for the Arnold clan to make the best possible impression. With military precision the house was cleaned, the landscape was manicured, and Nan’s strict orders regarding her brother’s spontaneous and unpredictable behavior in front of her prospective in-laws was, “Not while the Gurleys are here.” The parents were in full support of this edict: bad table manners? “Not while the Gurleys are here”; wearing sloppy attire? “Not while the Gurleys are here;” ill-kempt bedrooms? “Not while the Gurleys are here”; loud voices, coarse language, and boorish behavior? “Not while the Gurleys are here.” We ended each day with the mantra, “Not while the Gurley’s are here.” There was no escaping it. And, of course, if The Nymphs of Plenty were to show their cherub, cheeky faces at any point in the Gurley visit, well, hell hath no fury like a mortified sister.

Wayne’s family arrived for their Nashville visit. Since they were staying with Wayne at his apartment and their days were filled with sight-seeing, we brothers were kept out of the picture until the day came for the formal meal at our house. Nan could not pull off the Gurley dinner without her brothers’ assistance, so we were finally, if not reluctantly, brought out of hiding. Wayne’s parents and sister were gracious and delightful people, and even though there was pressure on both sides to make a good first impression and be on our best behavior, the conversation was pleasant and the occasion was joyful.

We brothers wore dress shirts and ties to the table; as rare a sight as Sasquatch. And we were called upon to act as servers for our guests during the meal. Things were going swimmingly when Mom asked if I would go around the table and fill everyone’s tea glass…an easy task I was happy to do. I’m not sure how far I got around the table with the full pitcher of tea before I came to Mrs. Gurley’s glass, but as I extended the pitcher with its deep bowl and long spout (an object of beauty, yes, of practicality, no), to pour the tea, I bobbled the pitcher creating a tsunami effect with the tea forming a wave from the back of the pitcher that built in force as it flowed its way out of the spout and exploded all over Mrs. Gurley’s glass. In my attempt to regain control and right the pitcher to reduce the spillage, I took a step back, and in so doing my heel got caught in the floor-length curtains that hung from the window. Still not fully in control of my body, I used my other foot to regain my balance and got it caught in the hem of the curtain as well. The flimsy curtain rod could not take so much abuse, broke from its hooks, and came crashing down on top of me. In the silence that immediately followed my acrobatics I blurted, “Aw hell, not while the Gurleys are here.”

And who said slapstick is dead?

There is only so much one should expect from trying to mold one’s life through behavior modification. Some things are just impossible to Man. Perhaps subconsciously my body was rebelling against the enforcement of the “Not while the Gurleys are here” decree, but the first person to break the stunned silence at the table was my future brother-in-law. He laughed, which has endeared him to my heart since that fateful moment. While I’m sure my sister and parents wanted to kill me on the spot, they restrained the impulse knowing the mess it would have created would be far greater than fallen curtains and spilt tea. So my life was spared, and I live to tell the tale.

The happy Gurley couple

Order was soon restored at the dinner table. The wedding proceeded six months later, and Nan and Wayne have lived happily ever after. As Nan said to me recently, “The blessing of The Nymphs of Plenty has kept us together for forty-one years and counting.” And as for The Nymphs of Plenty, one never knows where or when the much older cherubs will strike again. Let the nations beware.

Nymphs of Plenty…fully clothed and in their right minds
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