Son of a Teenage Runaway
Henry O. "Buddy" Arnold II

Son of a Teenage Runaway

How does a father teach a son to be a man? What is it to even be a man…to be a father…to be a son? In 1944, Dad ran away from home at the age of seventeen, hitchhiked from Richmond, Virginia all the way to Ft. Lauderdale, spent a few nights on a park bench, lied about his age to the Army recruiting officer, worked as a bellhop in a swanky hotel until he was inducted into the Army. Somewhere in that time-frame between bellhop and paratrooper, Dad called his parents and told them what he had done. In part, it was his parent’s fault. Sunday after Sunday, “solider-boys” home on leave were invited to lunch after church at my grandparent’s table. The stories these young men told of war and honor inspired my young father’s imagination. After basic training Dad was shipped off to the Philippines to fight.

Front cover of Dad’s I.D. Card
Dad’s Unit – he’s the only one smiling

The process of “Know Thyself” began before Dad ran away from home. He had suffered a few blackout spells as a kid, and the doctor had cautioned against overexertion. He could have had a medical deferment for his unreliable heart, that fact, plus being an only child, would have kept him out of the military, but then Dad would never have had his personal odyssey, an adventure he pondered for some time. He had run away in his mind long before he slipped out the door when his parents weren’t looking. My father understood who he was and dreamed of what he might become, then made the bold choice to defy his overprotective father and mother.

One of Dad’s letters from the front
Dad posing on Army barrack steps

I ran away from home a few times myself, but it was because I was being a selfish jerk, not for such a grand reason as serving in a World War. I lied to my parents often, but ten times out of ten, it was to keep from getting caught in some misbehavior. The nobility gene had failed to pass from my father to his firstborn son. I know Dad often looked at me and wondered what he had spawned. But that is the way of fathers…to look upon their offspring and wonder…to wonder at many things.

Richmond Home

I remember an early point of wonder at my father when I was a child of seven or so. In the basement of my grandparent’s pre-Civil War house in Richmond, my grand mother had set up her one-woman seamstress shop. Her skill at designing and creating women’s clothing helped the family survive the Depression. The steps down to the basement were off of the kitchen. I was in the kitchen and could hear a heated conversation coming from below. It was my father’s voice arguing with his parents. I don’t think I had ever heard this type of verbal exchange between them, and it frightened me. But instead of dashing away, I slipped quietly down the basement steps to eavesdrop.

The gist of the argument was the inequality of the black and white races. Dad’s parents were committed to the old South viewpoint even citing the Bible (a book both parties were devoted to), as a basis for their belief. With equal fervor, Dad came back at them with counter arguments that not only included a scriptural foundation, but also a civil and constitutional one. I peeked around the corner into the shop and saw my mother sitting in a chair with tears streaming down her face. I cannot remember the exact words. I just remember that my father refused to back down and that my mother sat there refusing to leave supporting her husband’s position. What a wonder for a seven-year-old kid to listen to his father stand up to his parents. He could have run away. He had done it before, but he stood his ground, and the entrenched, generational racism on my father’s side of the family suffered a serious blow that day.

Then there was the time in the mid 1960’s when my father was responsible for promoting and producing the recital of a renowned opera singer for a citywide event. She had brought her African-American accompanist. After the recital when the local press was gathering for the photo opts, a very powerful man in the community wanted his picture with Dad and the opera singer. He told my father under his breath, “…But no picture with the (pejorative term).” Once again my father refused to back down and the accompanist rounded out the quartet for the photo shoot. The power of the powerful man was deflated that night. Dad had jumped out of airplanes and was shot at by a fierce enemy in war. The threats of this man were hollow. What a wonder to ponder!

Then there was the time in the late 1980’s when HIV was becoming epidemic and the organization, Nashville Cares, was working feverishly to help victims of the disease. Dad volunteered to drive patients whose family or friends were unavailable, to and from doctor visits and hospital stays. Kay and I and our girls had recently moved back from Los Angeles. Dad was in the middle of final dress rehearsals for a play he was directing and asked if I would transport his latest charge back home. (Yes, the theater stops for no man) I drove over to the house to discover two things: 1) the young man had slept in my old room in my old bed the night before, and 2) the young man lived in a rural area a couple of hours away.

If I had been a better person, I would have welcomed my father’s invitation into his expansive and inclusive world of serving “the stranger.” You know, that “I was a stranger and you took me in; I was sick and you looked after me,” behavior that Jesus encouraged. But I was grumpy and a little scared at the unknowns. There was too much mythology surrounding HIV at the time for me to feel completely comfortable with performing my duty for the stranger. But I drove, and the stranger and I talked, and I gradually became less grumpy and a little more appreciative of how I was spending my day.

The stranger did indeed live in rural America, in a commune in the woods with several others who also suffered the ill-effects of HIV. The large cabin was located a couple of miles off a poorly paved back road that became a dirt road more suited for a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a reinforced wheelbase. We pulled in front of the wooden structure he called home, and I asked if he needed help, but he declined. When he opened the door to enter the house, I heard weak but enthusiastic cheering at his return. Here, at least, he was not a stranger. I was the stranger. Death by disease held no fear for my father, not after having seen the death of comrade and enemy alike in war. I wonder how many “strangers” of all shapes and sizes and colors, conditions of health, in all sorts of dire straights that my father served in his lifetime. I wonder, and I marvel.

Father and Son

Elie Wiesel said in an interview once regarding his father/son relationship, “If you don’t know me you can never know yourself.” Two nights after Dad died I was sleeping in my old bed in my old room. We were in the midst of the wonderful chaos of family and friends sharing our grief and celebrating a life well lived and it was easier to stay at home with Mom. That night, Dad appeared to me in a dream. He walked into the bedroom, and I sat up with a start. He was wearing his Army dress uniform with a chest full of metals. He was smiling…when was he not smiling…, and he sat down on the foot of the bed. He looked at me, gave my legs a gentle slap, and said, “Son, you’re gonna be just fine.” Perhaps I went to sleep a boy and woke up a man.

Dad was a teacher at heart. Thousands of students passed in and out of his classrooms, rehearsal halls, and performance stages. If they were paying attention, they were able to glean from his knowledge and skills as a music and theater artist. But for me, he taught by doing. When I was paying attention, I began to know myself and my skills at becoming a man and eventually a father slowly improved. I wish I had paid more attention. If running away from home helped produce the kind of man my father became, then I can say I am the proud child of a teenage runaway. Oh, the wonder of fatherhood and the miracle of manhood!

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Mr. Washington Goes to the Theater

I came across an article in The New Yorker recently by Adam Gopnik in which he reviews some new historical works that rethink the American Revolution. While the article was illuminating, it was his last two paragraphs that caught my attention. He recounts an action taken by George Washington to stay the execution of Charles Asgill (an execution Washington had ordered) in November of 1782. The nineteen-year-old Asgill was a captain in the British army and had been captured and held in a prisoner of war camp in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Some months before British Loyalists had executed a captain in the Continental Army in retaliation for the death of a Loyalist soldier. The game of tit-for-tat had begun, and pressure mounted on Washington to hang a prisoner of the equal rank of captain.

Charles Asgill, engraving by Juste Chevillet, 1786

Asgill was one of twelve captains held in captivity at that camp in Lancaster. No captain stood out as particularly heinous, which would have made the selection process much easier. So twelve slips of paper were tossed into a hat and passed around the group. When Asgill withdrew his slip, it read “unfortunate.” Unfortunate indeed. An intense letter writing campaign ensued to spare the captain, led by Asgill’s mother, which inspired the French Foreign Minister to solicit on the captain’s behalf. Washington was looking for any reason to stay Asgill’s execution and these letters of a mother moved him to persuade Congress to spare the young man’s life. There are other fascinating details to this story, but this incident inspired a French artist and writer to write a play based on Washington’s intercession. Jean Luois Le Barbier sent a copy of his play to Washington with this note, “I hope, Sir, you will not disapprove of my zeal in publishing your sublime virtues in my performance.”

What a beautiful example of art imitating life, and if that were not enough, Gopnik refers to Washington as a “lifelong theater enthusiast.” This I did not know, so my curiosity was peaked, and I went on the hunt for evidence that our first president was a theater patron.

Laughing Audience by William Hogarth, 1773

Washington recorded detailed entries in his diaries commenting on his frequent attendance at theaters in Williamsburg, Philadelphia, New York, and Alexandria, Virginia to see productions by professional acting troupes. Washington had favorite actors he followed and was known to attend a production he liked more than once. According to Odai Johnson in his book, “Jefferson and The Colonial American Stage,” Thomas Jefferson and Washington attended the same theatrical performance on eight occasions. It is not a stretch then to imagine our Founding Fathers being moved by productions of “Hamlet,” Robinson Crusoe,” and “Don Juan,” or laughing themselves silly when viewing “The Romp, or A Cure for the Spleen,” “High Life Below the Stairs,” and “Animal Magnetism.” You have to love the titles of these comedies.

But all was not well for the theatrical arts in those early days of our nation. In an article in the “Journal of the American Revolution,” David Malinsky writes that the First Continental Congress passed the Articles of Association making a distinction between what were acceptable pastimes and what were not: “…and we will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments.” This declaration had a chilling effect leaving theaters empty and even forcing one homegrown theater troupe, the American Company, to leave the country and set up shop in Jamaica. Big, bad politicians huffed and puffed, and for a time, blew the house down. Around the same time, individual states also passed laws banning plays, and in 1794, president of Yale College, Timothy Dwight IV, in his “Essay on the Stage,” declared that “to indulge a taste for play-going means nothing more or less than the loss of that most valuable treasure: the immortal soul.” I wonder if our first president ever felt that a bite was taken out of his “immortal soul” every time he attended a theatrical performance.

Adam & Eve at St. Julien Cathedral

Needless to say, there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the efforts of some to block or ban what they deem offensive or distasteful. Fortunately, arts and entertainment have survived and thrived in this country regardless of efforts to restrict or prohibit artistic expression. Imagine cautioning God to, “Hide the naughty parts,” when it came to sculpting a naked Adam and Eve.

So those in positions of authority, past and present, have deemed the profession which my parents, my sister, and I have lived and breathed, ate and drank from, taught, directed, wrote scripts and composed music for, performed in, and drew paychecks since the late 1940’s until this very day is deemed a “species of extravagance and dissipation,” illicit companions with horse-racing and cock-fighting. I beg your pardon. In my younger days when I was considering a professional future in the theater, a preacher warned me that “the theater is the devil’s playground.” I wanted to respond with, “And I can’t wait to get there,” but I restrained myself.

Growing up in the Arnold household, we had a parade of artists coming through our doors (and still do) that out numbered (and still does), all other demographic groups combined. They were and are some of the best company that we kept and keep.

Mom and Dad in “Kiss Me Kate”
Mom and Dad dead center in the photo of the cast of “Time Out For Ginger”

There is an expression in the South of someone being “raised right.” I’m not sure of the origin of the term, and it has been co-opted to mean everything from proper table manners to one’s political views. I do believe my siblings and I were raised right by parents who gave us a beautiful mixture of a living, breathing faith that looks like something, and a passion for and participation in the creation of all things artistic. This includes a love for all those people who are involved in such beliefs and pursuits. Our imagination might be the greatest gift we humans have and such a gift cannot be banned by laws or restricted by misguided biases.

Painting by Arnold Friberg
Painting by Emanuel Leutze

 

 

 

 

 

Artists have depicted our first president in a variety of iconic poses. We have the reverent Washington, the heroic Washington, and the gallant Washington. I wish an artist would paint a guffawing Washington while watching a comedy, or a misty-eyed Washington at the end of a moving tragedy. The list of benefits from experiencing all the arts are too numerous to mention here, but needless to say G.W.’s frequent attendance at the theater should lay to rest the notion that the Father of all Founding Fathers not only took pleasure in such pastimes but found the experience enlightening and invigorating to his immortal soul.

Painting by Howard Chandler Christy
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A Mother’s Crown Jewels
Crown Jewels of England

A Mother’s Crown Jewels

The Arnold kids were never given financial allowances growing up. My parents did not have that kind of disposable income. If we wanted to have spending money we needed to make it. So at the age of ten how I came by the exorbitant sum of a few dollars to purchase the blue-beaded necklace for my mother on Mother’s Day was probably from scouring parking lots and playgrounds for lost change. Our family had relocated to Bloomington, Indiana so Dad could get his doctorate in choral music at Indiana University. We lived in old Army barracks converted into housing for those students attending the University with their families. There were eight two-bedroom apartments, and the landlord warned emphatically that should a building catch fire, “Just grab your kids and run, because the whole place will be up in flames in fourteen minutes.” I’m not sure how he knew that fact, but for that two-year residency, our noses were always on the alert for the smell of smoke.

Mom’s necklace

The purchase of this necklace was the first time I was proactive in getting something for my mother without the aid and support of my father. With my pockets stuffed with coins, I peddled my bicycle over the railroad tracks behind our apartment building to a little shopping area where the store was located (a five-and-dime, not a Jared), and returned a successful “hunter/gatherer” with my prize in a paper sack. Mom wore it proudly to church that Mother’s Day Sunday, and countless other times. I was told often that this necklace was the favorite piece of jewelry in her collection, and for a time I believed that my offering trumped her wedding rings, fake pearl ensembles, and broaches embedded with imitation gems. When Mom died in 2015, my sister, Nan, was in charge of dispersing Mom’s jewelry collection, and the first thing she located was the blue necklace and returned it to the “giver.”

Presenting Mom with the necklace that Mother’s Day brought tears to her eyes, a reaction I continued to induce for years to come though rarely for such sentimental reasons. Isn’t that what sons are supposed to do to their mothers? Make them cry often? If so, I kept pace with the average and most likely exceeded the allotment of times a son is supposed to make his mother cry. Those weepy occasions began to taper off when I married Kay. I think Mom’s quote to my bride on our wedding day was something to the effect of, “I’m handing him off to you. I did the best I could.” In the long march to my wedding day, before the “handing off,” Mom said that she had long ago given up praying that I would have good friends or get through high school and then college or just go to church once in a while. She finally resorted to begging God to just keep me alive…at least until she could find someone else to take over. I know, poor Kay.

Poster for “Beauty for Ashes”

A big turnaround in our relationship came in 1972 when Mom and I were cast in “Dollars to Doughnuts,” a very forgettable comedy produced at the Barn Dinner Theatre. While my mother had done several plays in her life, most of them opposite my dad, it was the only play my mother and I did together. I did direct her in a film sequence that was inserted into the live performances of a musical I co-wrote with Bob and Merrill Farnsworth entitled “Beauty for Ashes.” The musical was a modern retelling of the Passion Week of Christ, and in the filmed vignette, Mom played the Virgin Mary reminiscing to the television interviewer about that fateful night in the stable in Bethlehem when she gave birth to the Son of God. She found my casting choice at once intimidating and hilarious. “I’m no virgin,” she quickly said when I asked her to do the role, which made me groan and plug my ears because I certainly didn’t want to know about any of that.

Cast of “Dollars to Doughnuts”

The Barn Dinner Theatre experience was a concentrated six-week period of mother/son time devoted to one purpose: our combined incomes for that job went to pay my college tuition. The weekly actor’s salary from the Barn was paltry at best, but we could boost our nightly take-home with the tips we received by waiting tables before the show. After two weeks of rehearsal, we opened the play, and for the next month, six days a week we drove together out to the Barn, set up the tables, served our customers with a smile, put on a show, and drove home late that night. No matter how exhausted we might be when we got home, we’d count up our tip money-her take invariably exceeding mine-and stashed the amount in a cigar box she kept in her dresser. At the end of the “Doughnut” run the combined total of salary plus tips was deposited into the bank and a check written to the academic institution. One could say “easy-come/easy-go,” but it did not come easy and it certainly did not go easy.

During the run of the Barn show I watched my mother serve the patrons at her assigned tables with a grace and dignity that I also witnessed at home as a partner with Dad hosting the populations of guests that flowed in and out our front door. And our mother/son chats riding back and forth from the theatre were transforming into peer-to-peer conversations. Dare I say that a friendship was beginning to bud that included mutual respect for personal motivations and life choices? I think so. Mom was a devoted wife, a mother of four children, the Food Editor for the Nashville Tennessean, and here she was taking the time to wait tables and put on a show with and for her firstborn. Such a mother’s devotion was worthy of wearing the Crown Jewels, which we saw together in London many years later, and to which she commented while staring into the glass-encased, multi-million-dollar exhibit, “I wouldn’t trade any of those jewels for my blue necklace.”

Crown Jewels of England

Mom was so ahead of her time. She could have been a poster girl for the Women’s Movement though she never marched or protested…not that there’s anything wrong with that. She knew how to stretch a hard-earned dollar for a family of six while winning prizes and honors for her work as a culinary journalist. Yes, I made my mother cry more times than I like to remember, but I lived long enough—surely because of her prayers—to regret doing so and eventually develop the conviction to beg her pardon, and, from time to time, have the opportunity to make her proud to have brought me into this world. She said she was never more proud than when she watched me on stage. But I found that to be a dubious claim. My last two plays she attended she sat on the front rows and slept through most of each performance, or perhaps it was just during my scenes. I’m sure the cause was sleep deprivation from all those years of lying in bed and praying that every siren she heard in the middle of the night was not an ambulance carrying her son to the emergency room.

So here’s to the memory of Bernie-Laurie Wyckoff Arnold on this Mother’s Day. Laughter and joy have replaced the tears, and she has exchanged her blue necklace for a heavenly crown.

Bernie-Laurie Wyckoff Arnold
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Maniac on Duty

Back in the day when gas stations were “service” stations, when the attendants wore uniforms tricked out with caps and bow ties ambling out of their small office areas, which sold everything from auto parts to cigarettes and beverages to cholesterol-clogging snacks, usually wearing a smile, and if the driver were a patron, offering a congenial greeting to the Mr. or Mrs., you were confident that you and your automobile was in good hands. If the attendant was above average, he might even remember the names of the patron’s kids. After inserting the nozzle into the tank and turning on the gas flow the pleasant attendant would ask, “Check that oil for you, Mr. Arnold?” Like the “Greatest Generation,” soon there will be no one left alive who will remember having been asked that question.

And while the whoosh of gas flowed through the pump and into the tank of your car (I loved the smell of gas fumes escaping into the atmosphere, which might explain my cognitive issues), the wipers were looked over, the tire pressure was gauged, the windshield was cleaned, the oil level on the dipstick examined–topped off or a quart added if necessary–the spark plugs wiped of crud, and the radiator fluid level checked. By the time these standard services were complete, the tank had been filled.

In those days a long black cord ran from the pumping station island, along the pavement, and into the office area that set off a loud clanging bell every time a car ran over it alerting the attendant that a customer had arrived. I thought it was loads of fun to bounce up and down on the cord making the bell go on and off with repeated jumping. You want to see a cheery station attendant turn instantly surly just get caught hopping on the black cord. My parents were not loyal to a brand of gasoline. Tiger tails, Dinosaurs, Fire Chief Hats, and even the winged Pegasus did not lure us into their stations unless the red needle was bumping against the “E” and there were too many miles between us and our preferred station. My parents would scrape together their loose change, just enough coins to purchase the fuel needed to get us back to our station for a proper fill-up. In the 1950’s gasoline averaged between 18 and 23 cents per gallon.

Most service stations, ours included, had one or two service bays with mechanical doors that opened and closed automatically. I watched in wonder as the doors would rise into the ceiling seemingly without human effort as if Ali Baba had spoken the magic words, “Open Sesame.” Once the vehicle was inside the bay, the door would lower itself back to the ground concealing all the mysteries inside its asylum. Yes, asylum, for my nascent literary skills were soon to be tested and found woefully inadequate.

When I began to develop the aptitude to identify letters, recognize written vocabulary, and understand how a succession of words created a sentence, and thus establish thoughts and concepts, my imagination would formulate powerful ideas and images inspired by a child’s understanding behind the meaning of the written word. On the outside wall above the bay doors of our service station was a sign that made a very powerful statement: “Mechanic On Duty.” I recognized the second and third words, but the first one baffled me beyond all pondering. Later, when I asked my parents, what is a “maniac,” I don’t remember any scrunched faces or questioning how it was I came in contact with such a unique word. That would come later when I was introduced to profanity and innocently shared with them how I became acquainted with those exotic terms.

Raving Madness by Caius Gabriel Cibber; 1676

Their answer to my question was not clinical but illustrative with a reference to a story from the Bible, the source we went to for most of life’s big questions. The story was “The Gadarene Demoniac.” (My association with maniac/demoniac came naturally) For those unfamiliar with the tale, I point you to the Gospel of Mark; chapter 5:1-20. In short, a demon-possessed man lived in a cave, howled night and day, cut himself with stones, tore apart the chains and irons used to subdue him, and went by the name of “Legion,” meaning inside this poor man lodge an overcrowded, devilish household. Read Mark’s account if so inclined, but the upshot for me was that our service station had its own resident demon-possessed man.

The cacophony of sounds heard behind the closed bay doors was other-worldly: pounding hammer blows, metal wheels grating over concrete, loud gusts of pressurized air, revved engines, and over-modulated human voices. But I began to put two-and-two together when, one fateful day, the mechanical door opened on one of the service bays and standing before me was an unrecognizable life form, not the spiffy attendant with his crisp uniform and ready smile, but a creature dressed in ragged, grease-stained clothes, hair disheveled, oily streaks across his face and arms, strange tools in his hands—scabby hands with busted, swollen knuckles—and even stranger tools thrown about the floor or hanging from the walls, a liquid brown substance oozing from one side of his mouth—the side that bulged—and bloodshot eyes that bore holes straight through me. I stood in the presence of the modern-day equivalent of the Gadarene Demoniac.

The Walking Dead; TV series

The scales fell from my eyes. When we drove around the city or went on trips to my horror I saw the sign “Maniac on Duty” posted in clear view on nearly every service station we passed. It was ubiquitous. The world was filled with “The Walking Dead” before there ever was “The Walking Dead.” I refused to get out of the car when we pulled into our station or any other station if the “Maniac” sign was posted. I locked the back doors and hunched down in the floor board. If a parent did exit our car, I peeked out the window praying they would not go near the bay doors.

Gradually my rational mind began to exert itself and my left brain challenged my right brain as to why it was that nearly every service station had a resident maniac. It’s like when you begin to question how Santa Claus could get to all those homes around the world, slide up and down the chimney, deposit the exact toys requested by the inhabitants, and accomplished in twenty-four hours. The facts just didn’t add up. This is what happens when one side of the brain begins to communicate with the other. I could not resolve my maniac dilemma, so I asked my parents, “Does every service station have a maniac on duty?”

When I received the answer and was shown the two words written out, side-by-side, my world was once again secure. Though this linguistic puzzle was resolved, the misreading of signs, yea verily, misreading all things literary, continued to be a problem. It wasn’t until I was in college, and we discovered that my youngest brother was similarly cursed while he was in middle-school. The expert diagnosis was that we had dyslexia. And all this time I just thought I was “slow of tongue and speech.” What a relief, yet there was no magic pill to cure the ailment. Not a good start on my career path of becoming an actor and writer with its heavy emphasis on language, language that in my brain-to-eye connection would invert the symbols in reading, writing, and speaking. Yet somehow I made it through life even after the disgrace of quick eliminations from grade-school Spelling Bees and writing assignments returned covered in a fury of red scratching left by an aggravated teacher. While it has been a challenge to compensate for the defect, my imagination was never imprisoned by my reversals of words and jumbled sentences and upside down numbers, and to this day, I will always be grateful for the revelation of my maniac on duty.

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The Dark Side of Inspector Clouseau

If you are squinting at this split-screen, poster image of a man with a weapon bearing expressions from quizzical to surprise to menacing and wondering “could that be?” then let me confirm either your weak eyesight or questioning mind or both. It is I, a gun in my black-gloved hand. And so let the Jimi Hendrix tune “Hey Joe” play in your mind, “Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?”

Quizzical Hit Man

Now I do not find myself wielding a weapon very often. We live on the property that has been in Kay’s family for over one hundred years. After living in a condominium in Los Angeles for several years with a postage stamp for a back yard, it was great to have acres and acres of farm land out our back door. And part of the fun of having access to such open territory is the opportunity to have target practice with a variety of weaponry. When the mood strikes, we will gather up a collection of empty cans of Kay’s Big Sexy Hair or TRESemme spray or my Barbasol shaving cream or a box of clay pigeons and the skeet launcher, go back on the farm, and commence to shooting.

When our daughters went off to college in Philadelphia they would bring their northern friends home and expose them to the pleasures of country life. It did not take long for word to spread on campus before caravans of cars packed with the girl’s friends would arrive for a Thanksgiving holiday or a spring break. The Florida beaches had fewer revelers during those years; hard to compete with bonfires and cookouts, four-wheel drive trucks and dirt bikes, a well-stocked pond with a dock, our makeshift firing range for target shooting, two racks from which to choose a pipe for smoking a variety of tobaccos (all participates of age and all substances legal), and lots of love.

Clumsy Hit Man

I am a fair shot although not as good as Kay, who even as a young girl, upstaged an older neighbor and his friend who kept firing and missing a rascally rabbit romping through our back field. She requested to take a shot, which was met with disdain by the males until she fired the .22 rifle. Her status as a one-shot wonder became legend, and she replaced Mr. McGregor as Peter Rabbit’s worst nightmare.

Last summer we were hosting a large, all-day gathering at the house. We even splurged and rented an inflatable water-slide. We set up the fifteen-foot beast next to our garden house so we could power the electric generator which ran nonstop keeping the air pumping into the slippery monster so our guests, ranging in age from 3 to 70, could wear themselves out climbing and sliding…repeat ad infinitum.

For weeks leading up to this day I had noticed a groundhog coming from beneath the garden house. He would raid my garden or forage the pears that had fallen to the ground from a nearby tree. I crawled around the garden house and saw mounds of dirt where he had burrowed numerous holes beneath the structure. He was not just paying us a visit. He had taken residence. This would not stand, and I told Kay that the groundhog’s days were numbered. She was fine with me putting out a “hit” on the groundhog, but as the time drew nearer to our event, she repeatedly said, “Don’t shoot that thing this close to the party.” You can see where this is going.

Patient Hit Man

Just days before the party Kay was at work and I was home writing. I would take periodic breaks and pass by the picture window in the living room, not to enjoy the view, but in hopes of catching a glimpse of the varmint. I would see him dash across the yard or stand on his hind legs looking in my direction, snout in the air, chattering away, which sounded to me like groundhog for “I have diplomatic immunity, sucker” before he gleefully dove under the garden house. I shook my fist and cursed him…aloud, but kept our .22 bolt-action in the case until the taunting and the temptation became too much.

At first, I thought I had missed him because after firing the single round he dashed under the garden house, and since he did not show his head again, I thought I had at least put the fear of God in him…until the day before the party when I was straightening up the garden house in preparation for the festivities. I caught a whiff of something foul, and my first thought was not that I had achieved the “great white hunter” status, but that I was in deep trouble. How was I going to spin this? If only I were a politician and could blame someone else. Talk about your “smoking gun.” I did choose to let Kay discover the olfactory truth as opposed to me just announcing it, and because it was the middle of August, I did not have to wait long to be found out.

“What did you do?” “You didn’t did you?” “Didn’t I tell you not to?” came the flurry of stern questions that required no answer. But I ask you, how many hit men do you know who give their wives the details of their workday? However, I made the effort, taking full responsibility with the “I cannot tell a lie” approach.  The entrance of the garden house extends out onto a large patio with a pergola overhead and beyond that is the garden with a fountain in the center, so the majority of our eating and drinking, visiting, and playing on the water-slide would be confined to this area…the area where the invisible fog of decomposition would settle and remain not for hours, but days, with the aromatic peak hitting, you guessed it, on the day of the event. Our daughters, their husbands, and the grand kids had come for an extended weekend, and after the hugs and welcomes, their faces soon grimaced and the question arose, “What’s that awful smell?”

Culinary Hit Man

“I told your father. I told him,” were the first words from Kay’s mouth, and she regaled the children with the story of multiple warnings and of the smelly result of warnings unheeded. When our girls were the ages of our grand kids, they would often ask me to tell them stories. “Daddy, tell us a story about when you were bad.” I never disappointed them, and with one fateful round from my .22 bolt-action, I added to my literary opus of tales when I was bad. What with three grand children, I figured new narratives were needed for the next generation.

Surprised Hit Man

Over the course of the arrival of our family and friends, Kay had numerous opportunities retelling the source and cause for the unpleasant odor. She soon grew weary of the frequency of her story, and having reached the point of exhaustion with the last few arrivals, she just pointed to me when the face of a guest began to contort as they made their inquiry regarding the befouled atmosphere. I now had the freedom to tell my perspective as long as I was faithful to include Kay’s stern warning not to do what I eventually did. It was too good an opportunity for me to pass up, was my best argument, and in spite of the odor, I remember us having a grand time with no one turning on their heels and heading home after catching a whiff or the loss of their appetite when the meal was served.

If you happen to believe in reincarnation and find yourself coming back as groundhog, unless you come back as the pampered Punxsutawney Phil, you will engage in destructive groundhog behaviors – you can’t help it, the groundhog DNA demands it. And if you find that you have taken residence beneath our garden house, building a tunnel system through the soil and feasting on the bounty of my garden and fruit trees, then prepare for your present re-embodiment to be short-lived. You will be dispatched back to Buddha Central to embrace yet another life in the cyclical search for Nirvana.

Successful Hit Man

If you have read this far and a few more minutes to “kill” (5:40 to be exact), then bounce back to the Home Page of my website and click the “Killing Time” poster on the “Featured Projects” slider. The film will pop up, and you can watch this delightful short of a bumbling hit man not quite ready for prime time written and directed by Adam Rosenbaum.

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Know Your Limitations

In the days of my youth I had numerous unpleasant experiences of being part of a large group only to have it split like an amoeba in order to engage in a competitive activity. I so desperately wanted to fit in; and please dear God, don’t let me be picked last as the teams are chosen because it would only confirm that my talent (usually an athletic competition), is considered well below average by my peers. Consumed by anxiety in those days, I dreaded the athletic events where high achievers in the sport—dodge ball, basketball, flag football, etc.—were designated leaders of a team, and the Darwinian process of selection was used to determine the competitive sides. As names were called out, the chosen would stand behind their leader and whisper advice in his ear as to who might be his next best choice. I was never the last man standing.

Whose gonna pick this kid?

I usually ranked between mid-to-penultimate choice, and I don’t ever remember hearing groans from my fellow teammates when my name was called. Still the whole process was an exercise in humiliation. One year in high school I did make the basketball team but kept the bench well heated with three other boys. The four of us were allowed to play only if the score favored or disfavored us by twenty points and with less than two minutes on the game clock. With so little time left to play, what harm could we do?

Once I became an actor I found myself, on occasion, with other professional artists engaged in art-related workshops and seminars. We would often be asked by the seminar leaders to form a small group to do an exercise. While the expectation to perform or compete was nil, I still felt the anxiety of being chosen. I sought out those folks of similar disposition and felt the gravitational pull of like-kind. The profession I chose is competitive and the selection process to find the right person for the job is daunting. As Martin Scorsese says “more than 90% of directing a good picture is the right casting.” Early in my career, I got an object lesson in knowing my limitations and the objectivity of being chosen to fit a role. What I experienced cannot be taught in any scholastic environment or workshop or professional seminar or program.

Now when it comes to creative talent my father and sister had/have it in multiples: Dad could act, sing, teach, direct, play an instrument…a quintic threat; then my sister, Nan Gurley, is a quadruple threat: act, sing, dance, and play an instrument (now she is an established painter, so after this I’m going to crawl into a hole and die). By the harmonic confluence of genetic design, I consider myself fortunate to have one of those talents.

David Alford as John Adams and Chip Arnold as John Dickinson

In 1973, I was home from Pepperdine University for Christmas break. Nan was also home from Abilene University, and we learned of auditions for singers, dancers, and actors for the Opryland theme park that would open in late spring the next year for its second season. Nan and Dad helped me prepare my sixteen bars of “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” (a number I have used for many an audition but it has only landed me one role…the character of John Dickinson in Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of “1776,” my first and last musical with that company). The Opryland audition committee had not requested a three-minute classical/contemporary monologue, something I could have pulled out of my back pocket. No, they wanted song and dance. So I warbled my sixteen bars followed by the dreaded dancing audition. My religious upbringing had no tolerance for dancing in its list of “absolutely not,” so I was at a distinct disadvantage. The choreographer called a group of auditionees to the stage and demonstrated a series of combinations we were to perform. After a hasty review of the dance moves, the piano player started playing and we were off to the races. I positioned myself in the back of the pack and tried not to fall on my face and bloody my nose. A half-dozen or more of the artistic staff, including Paul Crabtree, the artistic director for Opryland, sat behind long tables watching our moves, nodding their heads, whispering to each other, and in my case, trying not to laugh. Once we were dismissed, I knew theme parks were not in my professional future.

After Christmas I returned to Pepperdine for my next semester. I thought I might stay in L.A. over the summer and pursue the beginnings of a film career. Then late one afternoon I got a phone call. It was one of the casting people from Opryland asking if I could come for a callback. Trying to conceal my surprise that I was being considered, I politely said “no” for two reasons: 1) I’m in school in L.A. and have no money to fly home to humiliate myself a second time; and 2) there has been no improvement in my song and dance skills since Christmas. I thanked him for the call and we parted as friends.

To my greater surprise a few weeks later, I got a second call from the Opryland casting person saying I had been cast in a show called “The Showboat Show” written and directed by Paul Crabtree. They had either reached the bottom of the barrel or my playing hard to get had worked in my favor. When Nan called and said that she had also been cast in the show, I thought, the film career could wait. I would work at Opryland for the summer, make enough money to pay the balance of tuition after scholarships, and go back to Pepperdine in the fall for my last semester.

Showboat Show

Leap ahead to the beginning of rehearsals for “Showboat.” If my memory is correct, there were seventeen cast members. The show Paul Crabtree wrote incorporated a mixture of old standards like “Old Man River,” with contemporary numbers like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and an instrumental version of “Shaft” for a big dance number. The set was the façade of the bow of a steamboat and the outdoor setting overlooked the Cumberland River. Crabtree had also written narration tying the songs and story together.

During rehearsals all the cast members auditioned for musical solos and featured dance numbers. I croaked through “Old Man River” and “Leroy Brown,” before being put through our dancing paces. The choreographer gave the cast a more complicated routine than what we were given at the first audition. I was that guy in the opening credits of the Bob Fosse film, “All That Jazz,” where the stage is packed with dancers doing a routine and that one guy who is a beat behind and bumping into other dancers. My ultimate mortification came when the Opryland choreographer had each cast member dance across the rehearsal hall in a diagonal line like the floor routine of a gymnast while dancing a combination she had designed. Since I could not hide behind anyone, I tried to make it across as fast as possible without twisting an ankle or breaking a bone.

Elephant Man

The cast gathered in the middle of the rehearsal hall while Crabtree, the choreographer, and the music director confabbed and decided which of us would dance or sing what numbers. The triumvirate began to point to specific cast members informing them that they had been chosen for this song or would be featured in that dance number and then instructed them to go to their respective corner of the room.  In a matter of a few minutes, singers and dancers were peeling away and standing to the right or left of the triumvirate leaving me in the middle of the rehearsal hall by myself feeling like the Elephant Man.

The choreographer huddled with to her dancers and the musical director did the same with his singers all of whom were giggly with excitement at being chosen for their featured moment in the show, which left Paul Crabtree to ponder what to do with the odd-man-out. All the youthful memories came flooding back with accompanying anxieties, and I now knew what it felt like to be the last one standing. I had been found out. There was no hiding in the background during the dance routines or just mouthing the lyrics in the choral numbers. It was a miracle I had gotten this far. I reviewed my options in my mind: wait tables, every actor’s default career, work construction, or Opryland might hire me as a character to walk around the park in an over-sized costume of a guitar or banjo or upright bass…not that there is anything wrong with that.

Crabtree approached. I’m not sure the squint in his eyes was one of pity or perturbation, but he stopped before me and said, “And you, my son, shall talk.” And thus the role of “Captain Jerry” was born. I would speak all the narration he had written. Crabtree had handed me the gift of knowledge. He recognized my one talent and gave me the opportunity to exploit it. I will always be grateful, and I’ve been doing my best to exploit it ever since. So far no one seems to have found me out.

Chip Arnold as Captain Jerry

 

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Posterity

Many years ago I had to suffer through a procedure with a doctor. No, it was not an operation I had to endure, but an exposure to insufferable ignorance. The doctor had been asked if he would consider becoming a board member for a non-profit theatre of which I was associated. He said, “Actors are such phony people; they just turn their emotions on and off at will.” Following that logic, I almost turned on my “fury” emotion and cold-cocked him, but then after he had come to, the good doctor would have likely said I had just proven his point. I did not give him that satisfaction, but the incident has obviously remained in my memory. People who turn on an emotion at will are usually trying to manipulate you. They are the phony ones. The invitation for the doctor to become a board member was withdrawn.

Patrick Waller as Vigeland and Chip Arnold as Ibsen; photo by Michael Scott Evans

More recently I was asked by a good friend how I was able to channel emotions into a character. Emotions are a tricky thing and often produced honestly when real life circumstances dictate. What actors do, whatever their methodology or technique, is to create a character whose emotions are genuine when they react to the circumstances of the story. The initial impulses we have as humans to any situation are usually the most genuine. They may not be the best reactions to have but still the most honest. Actors are in touch with their emotions and know how to imaginatively apply them in the artistically controlled and safe haven of the theatre or film. They incorporate their own emotional life into the character they create, which brings truth to that character and makes him or her believable. No audience wants to spend time or treasure watching anyone “pretend” to do anything. You don’t expect a doctor to pretend to operate on you, or a sports team to pretend to compete.

Chip Arnold as Ibsen

I have been the recipient of another great gift in the role of Henrik Ibsen in the play “Posterity” by Doug Wright. It is a privilege when an actor is given a character that experiences multi-layers of emotion. The opportunity for a role such as this is the reason I became an actor, that and the fact I was just not suited for any other profession.

Here is a quick blurb about the play and the particulars:

Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Posterity, by Doug Wright. Live onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) Johnson Theater, February 11th through 25th, 2017 with previews February 9th and 10th.

Take a world renowned Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, near the end of his career, and force him into a room with Norway’s favorite sculptor, Gustav Vigeland at the peak of his, whose ambitions require him to persuade a reluctant Ibsen to sit for him. Their battle begins. Debating what a person’s true legacy is – the work achieved during our life or how our loved ones remember us – unexpectedly teaches them something fundamental.

A startlingly beautiful play, these two explore a complex yet basic human question: who will I be to posterity? Initially developed with the support of Nashville Rep’s Ingram New Works Fellowship, this is the regional premiere of the play by Pulitzer and Tony winner Doug Wright. (This production contains brief nudity.)

 Let me say two things about the “brief nudity” clause: 1) models pose for the sculptor and in this production all the naughty parts are covered, and 2) I’m not the one doing the modeling much to everyone’s relief especially Kay’s.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen is the father of modern theatre. In the late 19th century, Ibsen’s plays brought a realism and truth to theatrical storytelling that had not been so forthright since Shakespeare’s time. His characters were multifaceted and complicated, and he was the first great playwright of the modern theatre to portray the complexities of female characters and fearlessly put them on stage to the outrage and consternation of society.

Gustav Vigeland

For his part, Gustav Vigeland did the same with his sculptures. He is Norway’s most famous sculptor with an 80 acre park in Oslo aptly named “Vigeland Park” that is filled with 194 of his sculptures with more than 600 figures. When asked why all these figures were sculpted in their “natural” state, he said that clothing locks the image in a specific time. I would add that it also conceals the depth of emotion. There is a fierceness and sometimes overwhelming power to his statues. To paraphrase a line in “Posterity” the sculptor has “…built a full and bracing drama in his own imagination and peopled it with an appropriate hero.”

Old Woman and Young Man by Vigeland

How might you be remembered? It is a big question. In the past when I have taught writing classes, I have asked the students to write their obituary. This play examines a person’s “posterity” in ways that are unexpected and illuminating. Doug Wright has done his job by writing a brilliant play. The director and actors are tasked to breathe life into the characters of the story that is truthful not feigned, the designers are tasked to create a realistic environment that transports the viewer into another world and heightens the live-body action on the stage. The quality of those jobs will be done and done well. And as for the audience…you are a vital part of the creation. Art demands that it be experienced by an audience. Art cannot happen otherwise. Sitting in a darkened theatre, watching and listening to great storytelling sans mobile device, sans social media, sans all things electronic and entering into a shared experience with hundreds of other people might just expand your soul in ways you never imagined.

Playwright: Doug Wright
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A Transformed Life

When Kay and I traveled to Italy a few years ago one of our favorite experiences was in Assisi. We had come from a couple of days in Sienna and had booked a hotel online the day before we arrived only to find out when we got to the location that the hotel was closed for renovation. In profuse, broken English the manager apologized for the website’s misinformation, and helped book another hotel. Assisi is a walled city built on a hill overlooking the valley. The city center is restricted to only pedestrians. We could drive to our hotel about halfway up the steep incline but could venture no farther by car. We checked in, threw our luggage in the room, and headed out.

Just across the narrow street stood a man in front of his shop which specialized in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and wines from local presses and vineyards. He waved us over, and for the next twenty minutes in manageable English, gave us the history of olive oil in the region and why the brands he carried were the best. He insisted we taste some of the finer selections of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This was not like the wine tasting experiences we have had in other parts of the world. After only a few “tastes” we excused ourselves and hurried away. Before we could enjoy the sights of Assisi we had to stop at a pharmacy for some antacids to quiet our grumbling stomachs. A more refined palate might have enjoyed the subtle differences in the selections of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but for my taste buds, only vintage wines were in order for the rest of our travels.

Eight hundred years before, St. Francis lived in this city. As a young man he had a privileged life. His father, Pietro, was a wealthy merchant providing expensive material and fabrics to the medieval equivalents of Dior, Klein, and Cardin. And his mother, Pica, belonged to a noble family from Provence, France. This prosperity allowed his parents to indulge the whims of their son. One biographer referred to Francis as the “king of frolic” who surrounded himself with other young nobles indulging in every kind of debauchery. He was a quintessential party animal, not yet the hallowed saint of paintings, literature, and films preaching to animals, kissing lepers, and taking “Lady Poverty” as a wife. His early lifestyle did not foreshadow an inclination to follow in his father’s career let alone a holy calling. The world of the youthful Francis was in turmoil; conflicts between church and state, battles between Assisi and the surrounding towns, and hostile political and economic spats between the local classes. For us human beings there is nothing new under the sun.

Francis’ carousing did not leave much time for academics, nor was he particularly interested in education. He aspired to be a knight of Assisi. He could afford the clothes and armor. In one of the many skirmishes between rival city-states, Francis was captured and held for ransom after a battle with citizens from Perugia. When it came to war, being of noble birth gave one an advantage. If captured, one might be chained in a dank dungeon, but one stayed alive and eventually released when ransom was paid. While the common citizen-soldier either died in battle or had their head lopped off by the victor. While in captivity Francis became ill and in that period began to contemplate a different life. Once liberated he returned home and rejoined his friends, but their partying had lost its appeal. His heart was gradually changing. He found he was drawn to a more spiritual life. His focus shifted from revels with friends to those less fortunate. Biographers have recorded several experiences that are attributed to Francis’ change of heart, some factual, some expanding into legend, but one experience seems to be authentic: a confrontation with his father in the city square in front of the basilica before a crowd of people.

As I stood in the area where the confrontation took place, I could not help but imagine the scene. Francis was becoming more disinterested in money much to the consternation of his father. He stood to inherit a large sum from his mother’s side of the family, funds his father could use to expand the business, but if his son was not going to follow in the family trade, instead, spend his time in benevolent work and prayer and giving away his wealth, then drastic measures were needed. After learning that Francis had taken fabric from his shop, sold it, and given it to the church, a furious Pietro dragged Francis before the bishop and demanded he return the money and renounce his rights as heir to the family fortune.

Imagine standing in the midst of a crowd of curious onlookers watching a father berate and denounce his son, threatening him with an ultimatum that both father and son might regret for the rest of their lives. No one could have anticipated what happened next. Francis began to remove his clothes and lay them at his father’s feet. “Moreover he did not even keep his drawers but stripped himself stark naked before all the bystanders,” as recorded by Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first biographer, in Vita Beati Francisci.

What does a father say to his adult naked son? What does a naked son say to his father? Who could write the perfect dialogue for the characters in that scene? Neither father nor son could have predicted a more startling set of circumstances that had brought them to that moment, and if each had paused to think about what was happening, they might have chosen another way of solving their differences; less public at least. Both men were impulsive: Pietro driven to exasperation in hopes of bringing a son to his senses, and Francis in his spontaneous and sometimes rash behavior in the desire to live for God. The bishop opened his robes and wrapped a naked Francis inside, a gesture that signaled the ending of one life and the beginning of another; an exchange of worldly attire for sacred garments. And in case there was any confusion as to the point of this dramatic dumb-show, Francis confirmed his action with these words, “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’”

What seared memories were created that day by such a raw performance on such a stage before a hometown crowd? As parents we want the best for our children, but sometimes our best intentions get in the way of a child’s natural interests and maturity. Certainly there are times when a parent must intervene, but it is an act of wisdom to know when to impose and when to restrain our will. If Pietro had not indulged and even encouraged Francis’ youthful follies or insisted Francis conform to his demand to follow in the family business, instead paid closer attention to his son’s growing spiritual inclinations, then such a public shaming might have been avoided.

For Francis, disrobing in the city center was his moment of transformation. How we come by our transformation is never really the point. Few of us will take the drastic measure of disrobing in public as a physical metaphor of transformation. The point is to be transformed regardless of time, place, or circumstance and it could be costly. Francis abandoned every worldly security and entered into a new life as a follower of Christ, incorporating into his soul the heart and mind of Christ, and allowing the love of Christ to flow through him onto others. When we embark on a spiritual odyssey that path will have its unique set of circumstances, encounters with others, and be shaped by our personality. But if the journey does not include a transformation of the soul that concentrates it on the needs of others by showing love and compassion to a culture obsessed with greed and power and self-absorption, then perhaps it is not transformation you seek. All we have left to us are our self-focused diversions, distractions, and entertainment. These things will soon bore the soul until it becomes numb to all human-made stimuli. That is a hollow life. Abundant life comes when our life is transformed by God’s love and then turns around and communicates that love to the world.

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A Day in the Life of a Caregiver

Anyone of who knows me will find the title of this essay amusing. I am not a caregiver, professional or otherwise. I’m more of the day-tripper variety of care-giving. Kay has more the heart of a caregiver. Aside from her thriving practice as a mental health counselor, she also keeps our Nashville granddaughter on Fridays, which includes taking our uncle out for lunch and running errands for him. Yes, I live with a queen and a saint. And if you think this is going to be a story that will bring a tear to your eye, or that you might take offense at my annoyance with my adorable, nearly four-year-old, granddaughter and an uncle with Parkinson’s, then read no further.

On several occasions I will join Kay on a Friday and spend time with my granddaughter and Uncle Tad, known affectionately in the family as U.T. On a rare occasion I will pinch-hit for Kay, giving her a respite, and do all things a good grandfather and nephew would do; not always with the best of attitudes, but the job gets done. On a recent Friday I left Kay sleeping soundly after a long night of counseling and braved the rush hour traffic into the city. Kay has a set routine that she follows, and the day before, she briefed me on my duties hoping I would not be tempted to stray. For the most part, I walked the “straight and narrow.”

The granddaughter and I went for a hike (my routine), and afterward we picked up U.T. at his assisted living facility. So far, so good, but the moment U.T. got in the car and said he wanted to get a special battery at Walgreen’s that makes his baseball cap light up so he can see to put his medicine in his dispenser, I got this foreboding feeling that we might be in trouble. I’m all for individual liberty that under-gird the rights of humans to be eccentric, but a baseball cap that lights up so you can see where to put your pills? Does China even make such an item?

batteriesU.T. could not remember the brand name of the battery, just a number: 20-32, and that it was shaped like a flat, metal slug. It was in the battery section of the store, he said, and I thanked him for keeping me from wasting time wandering the candy and greeting card aisles as I got out and left him and my granddaughter in the car. Once in the store I faced a wall of batteries, enough selections to power half of the populace’s mechanical needs, and after a thorough scan, could not find a slug-like, 20-32 battery. I went back outside to confirm the particulars and returned for a second sortie. No luck. Why not ask for assistance, one might say, and normally I would, but given the particulars of the item and the purpose it served, I just couldn’t get the words to roll out of my mouth. I did not want to see a you-got-to-be-kidding-me expression on the face of a Walgreen’s representative that matched my own.

cartoon-feetA return to the car after a second failure meant that U.T. and the granddaughter would have to get out of the car and come inside. U.T. has Parkinson’s and requires a walker to assist with mobility. At times he has difficulty getting his feet moving. The medication he takes helps with this, but often as we wait for the central nervous system to transfer the brain’s command to move down through his legs to his feet, U.T. will jokingly say, “Feet, don’t fail me now,” a catch-phrase spoken by vaudeville tap dancers. This time all the cylinders were firing and we were able to scoot into the store with the aide of his walker. U.T. went straight to where the batteries were hanging. Yes, they had been right in front of my face both times, and yes, there is a baseball cap that lights up, and yes, a slug-like battery is designed just for this very purpose, and yes, the cap was made in China. I live my life in a cocoon.

lighted-ballcap

 

 

lithium-battery

 

Back in the car we headed to Cracker Barrel for lunch. One of the perks that comes with having an uncle who uses a walker is the little blue handicapped tag you can attach to your inside rear-view mirror. And yes, I despise those people who park in handicapped spots without the blue hanger or the wheelchair insignia on the license plate and hop out like the whole world revolves around them. I have muttered under my breath on occasion, “You must be mentally handicapped because you seem to be walking just fine.”

Lunch was ordered and the granddaughter was amusing herself with the wooden triangle peg game that sits at every table, the one where you test your brain power by playing leap frog with the pegs in the holes. I hate all games where inanimate objects have the power to determine one’s genius level or the lack thereof. Instead, my granddaughter and I decided a better use of our time was to test our eye-hand coordination by flipping the triangle upside down and setting it on the table top without allowing a peg to fall out. She spent most of the time on the floor collecting the fallen pegs, but at least my Energizer Bunny granddaughter was happily preoccupied while we waited for our food. I call that genius level thinking on my part.

Before the food arrived a grumpy old man sat down at the table to my left. He had yet to speak a word, but his dour expression, the way he pondered the chair he would take—he had four to choose from since he was dining alone—like a cranky Goldilocks expecting not to like any of his choices, and the disgruntled flourish of removing his cap and plopping it down along with his cane in the seat next to him, signaled to me that his waitress was in for a challenge.

Cowboy Copas and the Ear Trumpet
Cowboy Copas and the Ear Trumpet

Our food arrived via the same waitress as our crabby neighbor, and after setting our plates before us, she stepped over to take his order. Oh yes, I eavesdropped while buttering and splashing syrup over my granddaughter’s pancake. The room was full of patrons and the clack and clatter of dozens of people eating and conversing prevented me from clearly hearing everything the grumpy man was saying, but I could see that with each question he posed regarding how something was cooked or could he make a special order or was an item currently not on the menu now available was slowly eroding the smile on the waitress’ face.

It was time to concentrate on my meal and make sure U.T. and the granddaughter were happy…part of the caregiver’s job. But when the waitress brought the grumpy man his meal that included a slice of ham that he rejected within seconds, I almost laughed at the if-looks-could-kill expression on her face. It wasn’t long before the manager arrived with a new plate of ham hoping to appease the piqued patron. I wanted to tap the old coot on his shoulder and say, “You’re not at Fleming’s Steakhouse, alright? You have a steak at Fleming’s you don’t like, you send it back. This is Cracker Barrel for crying out loud.”

The real fun began when we had finished our meal and was ready to leave. U.T. can use his walker as a seat, which he had done in this case. He uses the handlebars to lift himself off the seat. The first problem was that by using the walker as a seat he must turn it in the opposite direction, which means he would now have to turn 180 degrees to be headed in the right direction. He rose upon his numb feet and could go no farther and was now bent forward facing the table with his hands behind him holding onto the handlebars. Between us we mumbled a mixture of sacred and profane utterances all in hopes of encouraging the “feet, don’t fail me now” saying.

brain-synapsis-2A sensitive person would look at this picture and subtly nod to their lunch companions and whisper “look at that poor man” (U.T.), while ill-thoughts about the other guy (me), just standing next to him like a doofus doing nothing bounced around in their heads. The truth was we were doing something…waiting for U.T.’s synapses to fire. I suggested he sit back down and try again in a minute, but he didn’t want to do that. “Too hard to get back up,” he grumbled. When U.T.’s arms began to tremble from sustaining his weight, I grabbed the waist of his blue jeans in the back to help hold him up. There we were with dozens of strangers in a room eating lunch and trying not to stare at a still-life of an old guy holding up an even older guy by the seat of his pants whose hands were frozen on the handlebars of his walker; all the while the granddaughter was wandering around the tables. What none of these people would know is that this is a scene our family is very familiar with: U.T. rises from his seat and we wait for his feet to receive the go-ahead from the brain.

U.T. and I started chuckling which was enough of a distraction to sneak a signal passed the roadblock of his faulty brain circuitry and he was able to move his hands, one at a time, from the handlebars to the table so I could spin the walker around and point it in the right direction toward the exit. I called my wandering granddaughter and encouraged her to return, which she did without making a scene. She would have to swing from the rafters to upstage the slow dance U.T. and I was doing. There were two men seated on our other side who initially looked at us with concern, but it quickly turned to humor when U.T. made the successful 180 degree spin at his stop-motion animation speed, gripped the handlebars and said, “And now for my next trick.”

But we all had to wait for his next trick. There was no forward motion to be had, and so we were forced into a second holding pattern. We conversed with the two men, again to give time for brain and feet to work out their coordinates. In this hiatus, U.T. had a sudden realization and exclaimed, “Well shoot, I forgot to take my 11:00 o’clock Parkinson’s meds.” And then I knew all things: no take Parkinson’s meds, no make feet work. I saw the straight line connection of the need for the 20-32 slug battery, to light the baseball cap, to see to fill the dispenser with the proper meds, and hopefully to remember to take the proper meds so we might avoid our current gridlock at the Cracker Barrel.

Life in the dining room continued as normal: patrons eating, waitresses scurrying, and bus boys busing. I suggested that I ask the manager if they had a house wheelchair, but U.T. said that he was beginning to feel that tingling sensation signaling imminent leg and foot activity. Then came a mysterious sequence of events that can only be described as something out of a movie: I ordered the granddaughter to stick close to me, a bus boy drops a porcelain plate that shatters into pieces, dozens of heads turn in the direction of the chagrined bus boy, U.T.’s legs spring into action and he announces, “We have lift off,” and fireworks-5 my hand shifts from the back of his pants to the back of his neck intent on maintaining our forward momentum. I notice a large fragment of porcelain plate lying in our path and try to steer U.T. away from the piece by twisting his neck (no cognitive thought for my choice, just reptilian reflex), and, of course, U.T. hits the piece of plate and it lodges in the right wheel of the walker. But did we stop? No. We didn’t even slow down. I might not have been able to steer U.T. away from the plate fragment, but I wasn’t about to stop for it. And so we rat-ta-tat-tated our way across the faux brick flooring that is in every Crack Barrel dining room until we hit the faux hardwood flooring of the merchandise area where the plate piece was knocked loose from the wheel. As every actor knows, a great exit is most important. If we had been in front of a theatre crowd, our exit would have garnered an eruption of applause.

In the midst of our hasty charge for the front door, I lost my granddaughter. She was in the building, so I did not panic and we pressed on down the constricted main aisle. There was so much merchandise in the store two normal size people could not walk side-by-side to marvel at the abundance of swag. I paused for a split second to inform a passing Cracker Barrel employee that I was going to put my uncle and granddaughter in the car, and then would come back and pay the bill. I don’t know what she said because I hardly slowed down. About that time the granddaughter flew out of a side aisle happily clutching the soft, fluffy neck of a pink figure of a cat sewn into the side of an oval pet bed. I understood her reasoning. She has a real cat at home, but her timing was off.

“Clara-Larie Pearson, put that thing back right now and follow me,” I barked, and I got the surprised look from a child who could not understand why her grandfather had suddenly turned into Mr. Hyde. But she complied and we rattled and stumbled our way out the door. After getting everyone buckled into their seats I went back inside to pay the bill and was asked by the cashier, “Was everything all right?” Here was a moral dilemma: tell the truth or lie? I dodged the question with, “May I add the gratuity to the credit card receipt?” Given an affirmative nod, I signed my name, dashed out the door and hopped into the car.

Just when I thought we had gotten out alive, we heard the long, sharp blast of a car horn. I could not discern the cause for such insistent honking and chose to ignore it until I heard the crunch of metal on metal. I slammed on the brakes just as I saw a man leap from his parked car and rush toward us. I jumped out and went around behind the car to see U.T.’s walker wedged between the car and the raised concrete curb between the pavement and the grass. I thanked the gentleman for his warning blast, worked the walker away from the car, collapsed it, and slung it in the backseat.

“I always love coming to Cracker Barrel,” U.T. said with a straight face as we pulled out of the lot.

I could have hung him by his red, white, and blue suspenders, but then I would have had to hold him up by his pants to do it and by now I hadn’t the strength to commit murder except in my heart. So I give an enthusiastic cheer to all the caregivers around the world. With the rising number of aging Baby Boomers your employment is secure. I expect soon I will be in need of your services. Kay is a saint, but even saints have their limits.

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Watch Me

Living with royalty can be a difficult challenge. When I was wooing Kay I did not realize how close to the sun I was flying. It was not until we were at the point of no return in our courtship that I discovered I was marrying a double-crowned queen. Apparently back in the day when the world did not spin quite so chaotically, there are no rules governing the number of times one could be nominated to the “royal” court of school athletics or win the honor of being crowned Queen in multiple sports. Her first entrance into such noble and rarefied air was in junior high when she was nominated to be on the court for the football team. She later went on to become the Homecoming Queen for the baseball team. Then in her senior year of high school she was also crowned Homecoming Queen for the football team. And yes, we have the tiaras and yearbook pictures to prove it.

Kay Patton as football Homecoming Queen, 1970
Kay Patton as football Homecoming Queen, 1970

A little known story regarding her status in the Homecoming Court for football during her middle school year involved her escort. Tradition was that a co-captain of the football team would accompany the female members of the court onto the field, present her with a bouquet of roses, and grace her with a peck on the cheek. All a part of the ritual except that year Kay served on the court one of the captains was an African-American. This was the first year of integrated schools in her small town, and until then, the football team had never had a black player. The football coach approached Kay and her mother privately and asked if the African-American captain could be Kay’s attendant. The coach explained that he expected some resistance from other parents if their daughter was put in this position, and he felt Kay and her mother would be more open to this integrated homecoming court. He was correct. This example of courage by Kay and her mother did not make the headlines or change the world, but such action goes a long way in the generational bloodstream that flows in a family as positive DNA revealing how one human being ought to respect and treat another.

Over the years of being married to a queen, I have witnessed queenly behavior both high and low, mostly for the greater good, but on rare occasion, for the not-so-good. My chief concern was for any adverse effects this behavior might have on our two daughters. Both our girls attended the same university in Philadelphia, so for a number of years Kay and I were burning up the highway between here and there. One year during the fall season, like all universities, there was a campus-wide event where the students and families, faculty and alumni, gathered for the crowning of the queen for that year. The university was more progressive than most and the nomination process included the crowning of a king as well. Our youngest daughter, Lauren, was nominated one year, and of course, my queen and I drove up for the ceremony. Not to keep up the suspense, but that weekend we had the pleasure of watching a second generation queen inducted into our family.

Sign speaks for itself
Sign speaks for itself

We went to dinner that night to celebrate. Afterwards as we were pulling out of the parking lot and came to a stop at the entrance/exit of the restaurant, Kay began swiveling her head from left to right looking for openings onto the main, heavily trafficked, four-lane highway. We needed to turn left to head back to the campus, and the queen was at the wheel totally ignoring not one, but five clearly visible signs across the highway informing all drivers, great and small, royal and common, of the illegality of a left turn. Drivers were expected to turn right into the flow of traffic and not cross three lanes (one a turning lane) of oncoming traffic, but my queen was having none of it. As she waited for the oncoming traffic to clear so she could gun her way across the three lanes, both our newest crowned queen, her older sister, and I, all loyal subjects, pointed out the five signs informing her not to do what she was about to do. She just huffed, and with queenly scorn said, “Watch me!” just before zipping our car across the three lanes and heading in the desired direction.

I suggested her decision was a poor example of driving etiquette, not to mention the threat to life and limb, for the queen mother to display for the queen daughter and her sister, but my admonition fell on deaf ears. We weren’t on the road thirty seconds before the blue and red lights began to flash behind us, and I thought to myself, now a higher power would provide the object lesson my queen deserved and one from which the queen daughter and her sister could benefit. I could not contain my amusement as the officer walked up to the driver’s side of police-giving-a-ticketthe car. The queen rolled down her window, and before she could even say “hello,” the officer began reciting a litany of her infractions: clearly marked signs impossible to miss, blatant violations of state laws, and that he was required to see her license, registration, and proof of insurance. The officer’s monologue took upwards of two minutes and was spoken with a rapid, clipped, authoritarian, northern accent that, I hate to admit, was difficult to follow. Once he had finished, he paused as much for dramatic effect as to catch his breath, and Kay seized the moment with disarming aplomb.

“Officer, I’m from the south,” the queen began, her own accent loosened up by southern charm and elongated syllables. “And I didn’t understand a single word you just said. Do you mind repeating the information…slowly?”

Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi
Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi

Between the police vehicle’s bright headlights and flashing blues and reds, the officer’s stunned expression was lit with cinematic skill. Here was a moment of reckoning. Here was an on-the-spot “truth to power” instance for the universe to observe. Of course, this “truth to power” moment depended on one’s perspective. Kay knew she was speaking to someone that could throw the book at her, but the officer had no idea he was addressing the queen. In that freeze-frame second, the queen’s immediate family witnessed a “may the Force be with you” moment as though Obi-wan Kenobi had waved his hand in front of the officer’s eyes evaporating all cognitive skills. The officer’s entire demeanor changed. He dropped his head and sighed—the metaphoric wind knocked out of his sails—and a smile appeared on his brightly illuminated face. The queen had prevailed, and she drove away with only a warning…spoken slowly for comprehension.

I bowed before my queen in complete awe of her power as we sailed down the highway humming the Sonny Curtis song, “I Fought the Law;” a tune, I thought, was  unfamiliar to the queen’s daughters. But then was shocked to learn that the newest queen in the family had herself used similar charms in her criminal past to talk her way out of traffic violations proving once again that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Where had I failed?

Marilyn Monroe, a true Hollywood queen
Marilyn Monroe, a true Hollywood queen

I have gladly accepted Kay’s call to “Watch Me” for a host of reasons. She is worthy of viewing by those throughout the land for all manner of estimable qualities, except perhaps, and only on occasion as the dark side of her queenly nature rears its ugly head, when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a car. We have been married for many decades, and I can say with each passing year her wisdom, grace, humility, and beauty confirms what a fortunate man I am. And while she does not adjust her crown before the start of each day (it remains stored in the attic), royalty suits her. She wears it well, and without hesitation, I can point with pride and say, “I’m with her.”

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