Read more about the article 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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Read more about the article 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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Read more about the article 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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Read more about the article 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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