Archive for February, 2009

Remembering – Part 6

Friday, February 27th, 2009

My Uncle Cutter , married to my mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Mary, ran the pool hall. Besides being of the wealthiest men in town, and being an inveterate and successful bass fisherman, Uncle Cutter sold one of the best collections of girlie magazines in southeastern Arkansas. In a town where there was no real thing for white patrons unless they wished to cross the color line–prostitution in Back Gate was essentially an African-Americann trade–Uncle Cutter’s pool hall was a veritable den of inequuity. As a young visitor (Uncle Cutter was careful not to let me look at the magazines) I never understood why it was called a pool hall–virtuallly no one played pool in it. So much of life was like that in Back Gate…“smoke and mirrors. The genuine article was hard to procure.

The Graystone Hotel looked like what I imagined a Little Rock or Vicksburg hotel to look like–it was a four story white brick structureâ…“the largest building in town. We were all proud that it greeted train visitors as they debarked from the train.

The Back Corner Hotel, on the other hand, was a one level Ranch that looked like most of the houses in which we lived. That disappointed most of the local people–who wanted to stay in a hotel that looked like your house. But many visitors found it modern facilities–the Baack Gate had toilets in each room–the Graystone asked its patrons to share one on each hall–the Back Gate even had a coffee peculator in each room–more appealing.

Nonetheless, both the Graystone and Back Corner were approximately of the same species, but the Back Corner Hotel had bragging rights–every Friday night the Back Corner Owls, our high school football team ordered steaks, fries, and milk shakes before the big game. This blessed dispensation assured the proprietors of the Back Corner Hotel that they would have a steady stream of customers. If the apex of Back Corner power and prestige chose the Back Corner, who in the general population would argue? To show solidarity with the football team, hundreds of residents would wait in line to eat black-eyed peas, gumbo, collard greens, and fried chicken before the game. They wanted to stand beside their heroes in body as well as spirit.

In addition to our two motels, there was one drugstore that gave credit and dispensed viscous chocolate sundaes to waiting patrons. The great attraction of the drugstore was the proprietor’s daughter whose bosom was the lodestone for dozens of excessive testerone endowed Back Gate male youth. There were two department stores: Wolchanskies and Martins.

Wolchanskies was run by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Dark, dreary, and always smelling different, like a scene from Casablanca, Wolchanskies h ad the latest fashions. Only stores in Greenville, Mississippi, could compete with Wolchanskies.

Remembering – Part 5

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

The marriage was shaky from the start. Big Momma, a southern belle in consciousness if not by vocation, found it hard to adjust to the poverty that post-World War I railroad wages engendered. Besides, she had a potent temper and he was a closet alcoholic. This was a volatile combination and there was an undercurrent of tension in my mother’s family.

They moved to Back Gate where my mother and her eight siblings were born.

Mom had lived all of her sixty-eight years in the same unpretentious, Southeast Arkansas oxymoron/small town named Back Corner. Back Corner neither backed up to anything and nor was it on anyone’s corner. It lay half way between Memphis, TN, and Vicksburg, MS.

Back Corner had 4081 residents when my mother was born in 1931. By that point she had four siblings ahead of her and three, all brothers, were still to come. Big Momma had five girls and then three boys. Like her husband, Big Momma’s family was slightly off-center but at least they came in gender order. This made housing assignments much easier. One daughter, Patricia, the youngest d ied, and while she was sorely missed, her presence set off an equilibrium that was critical to my mother’s fragile household.

Back Gate began at the railroad stock yard north of Edgar Dempsey’s Pepsi Plant and ended at the railroad round house south of Tip Pugh’s Rice Dryer. When the railroads stopped depositing customers and picking up cotton bails, Back Corner weakened and never really recovered. By the end of World War II huge Harvester Trucks replaced the Steam Clippers.

The illness was not fatal, however, and as I sat this last early December enjoying my mother’s last few weeks, Back Corner was still about 5002. By now, though, the tired town had deteriorated to a critical mass of old people too tired to move and young children too young to think about it yet.
When my mother was growing up, in the 1930s, Back Corner boasted of two hotels, the Back Corner Hotel and the Graystone Hotel. If strangers stopped in Back Corner, they were stranded between more comfortable boarding houses in Greenville, Mississippi, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Most gladly traded the ebullience of the Sam Peck Hotel in Little Rock for the pecan pies of the Greystone Cafe.

The Greystone Hotel was strategically placed between the train station and the pool hall. It’s marble floor and chandeliers promised its patrons a luxurious evening with some equally roseate late evening activity at the pool hall.

Remembering – Part 4

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

My mother’s father, James Jesse Bayne, I called him Big Daddy, had run away from his 2 room, Louisiana pine barren home when he was eight. For the next 7 years he lived in woods and swamps in the wild Delta bottoms. Living on the outskirts of early th century southern towns, he experienced poverty that was sublime in its intensity.

Southern cuisine and lifestyle are the epitome of conservation and economy. Practically nothing is discarded from any animal: intestines, gizzards, stomachs–it all was eaten. There was precious little left for hoboes like Big Daddy, who ate crawdads and red-bellied brim.

There was not much that was big about Big Daddy. At 16 His blond…“almost white–hair blue-eyed head oversaw a body that was not symmetrical. His left arm was at least 2 inches longer than his right.

It was not easy being a vagabond in the South. There was not much left for Big Daddy. Therefore, in those early years–far too early“Big Daddy lost all sentimentality and forgot the meaning of metaphor. Life was harsh and unforgiving.

The first complete meal he had was when he was drafted into the army during World War I. While in the army, he drove steam driven trains all over western Europe. He even enjoyed a little i ntruigue: he drove troops over to fight the Bolsheviks in 1919.

He returned to marry my grandmother who was a student at a Bastrop Finishing School for Young Ladies. Much impressed by his good looks Big Momma, also ironically called Jessie Louise, married Big Daddy in the middle of the Great Flu Epidemic. They wore sanitary masks as they stood at the altar in their local Baptist church and exchanged vows. Some snickered later and wonder if they consummated their vows later wearing the same masks!

Big Momma taught Big Daddy to read.

Remembering – Part 3

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Mom’s tumor infected gall bladder was sent to Houston for tests but Dr. Johnny Joe had already announced my mother’s death sentence. It was over just that quickly. With buck season in full swing. Dr. Johnny Joe was still able to kill a four point later that afternoon. Mom went home to die. Mom did not know that her gall bladder had been removed until she received her hospital bill. She thought it would be impolite to say anything. Dr. Johnny Joe could have taken out her heart and she would have still been grateful.

Southern medicine was like that. Doctors politely did as they pleased. I am her son and I live in Pennsylvania. We Northerners want t o know what our physicians do. We make them give us forms to sign and we ask for long lectures. We even get second opinions. We look at their diplomas on their walls and we want to know if they are board certified. All mom wanted was a smile, a nod, and a pat on her hand. “Johnny Joe is a good boy,” mom said. “Josephine says he visits his mother every Saturday and he tithes.”

For the first time my mother was hedged in. She could not fight this thing. Her chances of survival, Dr. T. J. Jackson, the oncologist, who was a Texas Longhorn fan–a grievous shortcoming only overcome by his obvious doctoring skills–adjudged, were zero. But she never wanted to hear the truth. Neither Dr. Johnny Joe or Dr. Jackson told mom. She did not want to know and they were too polite to tell her.

My Yankee blood boiled. I smelled malpractice here. Mom only smelled okra gumbo stewing in the kitchen.

It turns out, however, the okra gumbo probably did her more good anyway. Virginia Maria, her childhood Catholic friend who gambled with her on the grounded riverboats at Greenville, Mississippi, told her, “Nelle, I am so sorry to hear you are going to die. And probably before the July Bonanza Night!”

“I’m sorry to hear that I’m going to miss the July Bonanza Night too,” Mom calmly responded.
As if she was sipping a new brand of orange pekoe tea, Mom tried a little chemo-therapy. No one dared die of cancer in 1999 without having a little chemo-therapy. Hospice care was for colored folks, my mom said, who did not have insurance. She meant to have all the medical care Blue Cross and Blue Shield owed her. Unfortunately, it only succeeded in destroying what hair she had left and caused her to discard her last pack of Winston Lights.

“Do you have, Mr. Vice President,” Larry King leaned across his desk, “anything else to add.”

Although we did not know it, this was the last few weeks of her life. Mom knew it. She had literally moved into her living room. She did not want to die in the backwaters of a bedroom. She did not want to die on the bed she and my father had made love and dreamed dreams that neither lived. She did not want to die on the periphery of life. She wanted to be in the middle of the action. Her living room controlled all accesses to her house. She was the gatekeeper and planned to man her station until she literally dropped dead. A captain at her helm. With her CB radio scanning for police gossip, with practically every light burning, with her television running day and night, mom wanted to feel the ebullience of life until the bitter end. She intended to watch Larry King Live until she took her last breath.

It was Christmas and this was both the last Christmas I would be with my mother on this earth and the first one I had spent with her for two decades. The juxtaposition of these to portentous events seemed strangely ironical to me. I had lost my mother only to reclaim her in death.

I was not proud of the fact that I had not been home for Christmas in twenty-two years. I had too many kids, too many bills, and too little income to justify a two-day trip from my Pennsylvania farm to Southern Arkansas. Besides, who wanted to leave the postcard, snowy Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands to spend Christmas along the dirty black railroad ties of the Delta? Who wanted to replace the pristine Mennonite farms of Western PA with the cotton strewn roads of Southern Arkansas?

“I want to tell you a few things, Jimmy (my name), before I join your dad,” she said. Mom never said that she was “dying” or even “passing away.” She was always going to join dad or Big Momma or Aunt Mary, who all had died many years ago.

My mother told me some stories that changed my history. Not that history changed–my history changed. Those hours, those days before she died changed the way I saw my past, and therefore my present and future, forever. I began to write this novel about my mother. But, while she has a ubiquitous presence in my life, I realized I was unqualified to write about her life. I could barely talk about my own. What I discovered really, was that this is a novel about both our lives. Lives that would thrown together and torn apart in ancestral kinship, in hatred, and finally thrown together again in great love.

Remembering – Part 2

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

It started with a stomach ache. Ordinary in scope and sequence this stomach ache nonetheless was an aberration in my mother’s medical portfolio. Mom simply wasn’t sick. Never. Her delusion of immortality was so endemic to her personality that sickness was beyond the realm of her possibilities.
Unfortunately, the stomach ache ended and the anemia began. In most medical communities anemia is a sure sign that something is amiss in the gastrointestinal cosmos. In the Southern Arkansas universe, where my mother lived, medicine was more empathic than empirical and anemia was perceived as too much fried chicken or turnip greens. This diagnosis worked well enough, perhaps better, that conventional interventions, in colds, flu, and the occasional gall bladder attack. However, in the rea lly big things–like pancreatic cancer–normal rural southern medical practice was hopelessly dilatory and inevitably, therefore, nugatory.

My mother, who walked three miles a day and regularly ate chicken gizzards fried in old lard shrugged her shoulders and forgot about the whole thing. In fact, even after Geritol and BC Powders failed, she refused to visit her doctor. To question a doctor-friend’s diagnosis was worse than a serious illness–it was downright unfriendly, something my mother mannifestly refused to be. With confident sanguineness, old Dr. E. P. Donahue, throat reflector protruding from his head, oversized Masonic ring protruding from his left middle finger, pronounced mom to be in remarkably good health. Dr. Donahue, who had delivered all Mom’s three boys, was infallible. The medical “pope” as it were, whose edicts, once promulgated, were infallible.

Mom’s malady, however, was already fatal. Her stamina and obstinacy propelled her forward for almost a year, but the carcinoma had already ambushed her. No one could tell, though, because she was in such great health. Like a beautiful stallion whose robustness and wholesomeness camouflaged its metastasis malevolent concealed interior. “My health,” my mother ironically shrugged, “killed me.”
By the time our family surgeon and good friend Dr. Johnny Joe Jones, one of Dr. Donahue’s cardinals, called the hogs with mom one last time before she went into the operating room and opened her up with his scalp el, mom was mellifluent with metastatic carcinoma.

Dr. Johnny Joe was the best surgeon in Arkansas. There was one–Dr. Robert P. Howell–who was as good but it was rumored that he was a Unitarian. Besides, he enjoyed Jack Daniels too much. That was ok if one sought his services on a Wednesday. He was sober on Wednesdays out of respect for his Assembly of God mother who always went to church on Wednesdays. And it was Thursday. No one could trust a sober Unitarian anyway.

Trained in Houston, TX–the medical school Mecca of the South–everyone wanted a doctor trained in Houston–he must be good if he was from Houston–Dr. Johnny Joe was a brilliant, skilled surgeon. He had assisted in the first heart transplant attempt (the patient died) in Arkansas. He was also a Presbyterian. Everyone knew that the best doctors were Presbyterians who went to medical school in Houston. In spite of one nasty habit–Dr. Johnny Joe chewed Red Chief Tobacco during surgery–he was much sought after. “Wipe my mouth, nurse,” Dr. Johnny Joe often asked.

Dr. Jones loved the Razorbacks. When he had to miss the game he nonetheless kept the radio blaring in the operating room. Once, while removing Mrs. Nickle’s appendix, Texas intercepted a pass and ran back for a touchdown.20Reacting to this tragedy, Dr. Jones’ scalpel accidently cut out Mrs. Nickle’s appendix and spleen. No one blamed him. Texas won the game.

No, my mother was fortunate to have him. H e was pretty busy but since he was a good friend of my mother’s old neighbor Josephine Mae Stuart, he agreed to take my mom’s case.

Five minutes after Dr. Johnny Joe opened my mother up, he determined that the villainous corporeality had begun in the pancreas but it had progressed too far too quickly and it was not worth it for him to do anything but remove a particularly nefarious and ripe-with- cancer gall bladder. This small token would be appreciated but would only slightly delay my mother’s death sentence. Deep inside my mother’s liver, with his rubber clad left hand, Dr. Johnny Joe had rolled the marble-size tumors between his thumb and index finger. “Wipe my mouth, nurse,” He sighed. “Nellie ain’t going to make it to basketball season.”


Friday, February 20th, 2009

Larry King was gently scolding Al Gore. CNN Larry King Live was blaring from my mother’s opaque Panasonic twenty-five inch screen. Electrons danced across this colander of 21st century entertainment. Cable television munificence clashed with dancing electronic intruders. Bounteous contradictions were everywhere evident.

It did not matter, though, because my mother only accessed one third of her available channels. The effort to ingress more exotic offerings in the upper channels was fatuous anyway. From Mom’s perspective, she only needed CNN, the Weather Channel, and the History Channel. Even the local news did not interest her now. This was all the entertainment she needed and, to her, news was entertainment. Mom was dying of pancreatic cancer.

Lying under a crocheted brightly colored afghan knitted by her mother, affectionately called Big Momma by all other generations, mom was obviously defeated by the cancer interlopers who had completely subdued her body and were now skirmishing with her spirit. With her blonde frosted wig slightly askew on her forehead mom very much appeared the defeated warrior.

She needed the bright color in the afghan to tease vigor from her emaciated frame and color from her pallid skin. Big Momma had shamelessly knit bright chartreuse, gold, and pinks into her afghan. Her cacophonic choices doomed the afghan to family coffers or to the most destitute recipient who had no ardor for natural, appealing, subtle hues or had no affordable choice anyway. My mother’s body, naturally big boned but until recently pudgy, unnaturally jutted out from loose knitted afghan perimeters. Her angular right knee was lassoed by a frayed portion of Big Momma’s much used, little appreciated afghan. It looked like a reptile peeking through the burnished flora of a viscous jungle thicket.

It suited my mother just fine now, though. She herself felt frayed, tattered, and very old. She also felt used and useless. In the dim hue of Larry King Live the afghan and my mother had a bizarre, surrealistic demeanor that accurately depicted the environs of her crumbling world.

800,000 Lives Saved

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The WASHINGTON TIMES estimated last week that former President Bush’s pro-life administration limited abortions so much, that perhaps 100,000 lives were saved in every year he served.

That would be about 800,000 lives that President Bush saved.

I don’t care about how you feel about President Bush’s politics, saving 800,000 people is something more important, don’t you agree?

I think so.

Pray for our new president.


Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

My wife Karen often scolds me for avoiding perfection by “making do.” She means it, I know, as a pejorative comment. Of course she is hyper critical (!) (not really); she should learn to compromise more (but alas, she is cursed by her oldest sibling perfectionist syndrome–she is the oldest of 14 children/siblings).

Seriously though, Karen is right (but boy am I glad she rarely reads my blog! Don’t tell her I said this!). Too often I am too lazy, or too busy, to seek perfection in what I do. I compromise too often I fear.

And compromise is not all bad. We compromise about what restaurant we frequent–that is a good compromise.

Here is a bad compromise.

In the 1950s I remember my mother voting for Governor Orville Faubus (a notorious segregationist). “Why?” a friend asked mom, “would you vote for a man who is diametrically opposed to your world view (mom was opposed to Faubus’ racial views)?”

“Because,” mom softly responded, “He is in favor of widening Highway 65 (an important road in our small Arkansas town).”

Do you see what I mean? Mom, a good woman really, principled in her own way, voted against her conscience to advance a laudable, even necessary improvement: expansion of an important roadway. This roadway would bring life and prosperity to our region. No doubt Highway 65 was a good thing.

But Faubus was elected and Faubus tried to stop desegregation at Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas. President Eisenhower had to mobilize the American army. How awful!

But we also got a beautiful new road!

Friends, the present pro-choice administration was elected by a solid majority of Americans. If one examines closely the voting patterns, the administration won support–overwhelming support–from some pro-life evangelical groups. Come by me again? That is right, a ton of us pro-lifers voted for a pro-choice candidate for . . . well, perhaps we needed Highway 65 built. And Highway 65 will bring us prosperity and nothing is wrong with prosperity, is there?

Pray about it.


Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

How did our world lose the loving God we Christians know is in control? All of us are trying to understand why and how this happened, and, perhaps, that is the first task for apologetics.

Whatever the answer to that question is, we stand in astonished prayer with Starbuck as he reflects on his own situation: “For an instant in the flashing eyes of the mate [Starbuck], and his fiery cheeks, you would have almost thought that he had really received the blaze of the leveled tube. But, mastering his emotion, he half calmly rose, and as he quitted the cabin, paused for an instant and said: ‘Thou hast outraged, not insulted me, Sir; but for that I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; thou wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.’ (Ch. CIX)

Like Ahab a world that ignores God has no more nightmarish enemy than himself. . . “let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”

Beware of thyself, America . . .

Beware of thyself, America . . . Or as Pogo in a 1960 comic says, “we has [sic] met the enemy and he is us [sic]!”

Young people and coaches, help our nation find this loving God! The John 3:16 God we all know.

Our poor tired world. I feel no pity for Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost but I understand his frustration. In one scene, as Lucifer, the fallen angel, languishes in hell, his partners in crime, lesser fallen angels, beseech him to repent and to return to heaven. “No!” Lucifer retorts. “I would rather rule in hell than serve God in heaven!”

So our poor world would rather rule in their hell than serve God in our heaven!

I have so much more I want to tell you! But I will stop for now.

One final, personal word.

There are days when I wonder what happened to me – the presumptuous saint who saw himself influencing millions, makiing millions, changing worlds and making new ones. I confess this hubis, it is true.

But here I am, a lowly English teacher in a public school wishing I could be with you – influencing millions rather than telling Aneetra to be quiet. But here I am. Knowing that you are in Austin, doing this great work for me, for all believers, gives me reason to celebrate. It makes my ordinary days seem extraordinary! Thank you.


Monday, February 16th, 2009

Students and coaches, welcome to the 2009 Master’s event. I am very sorry that I cannot be with you this week. My prayers are with you, though, and no doubt this week will one of the benchmarks of your life. Indeed, nothing more important in this country is happening this week than what is happening in your conference! And I know what is happening in Washington D.C.!

Many of us talk about apologetics and a few of us are able even to do it. But no one is doing apologetics more effectively, more consistently, more often, with more students, than Teresa Moon. She and her work are quietly transforming the world view of a nation. Congratulations for being a part of that great effort.

Mrs. Moon (Teresa) asked me to present a few words to you.

Our country is in crisis. It really is.

In the ACT II of Arthur Miller’s 1950ish anti-Red Scare play, The Crucible, the adulterer protagonist John Proctor is comforted by his forgiving wife Elizabeth.

John Proctor cries, “Let you think of the goodness in me, Elizabeth, and judge me not!”

Elizabeth Proctor quietly responds, “John, I never thought you but a good man, but somewhat bewildered!”

I love my country and it is a good country. I think of and I celebrate its goodness. I love America. But it certainly is bewildered!

Os Guinness, scholar and author, in his book Beyond the Culture Wars, argues that America is in trouble. He says that America is undergoing the fourth major crisis in its history. “Under the impact of modernity, the beliefs, ideals and traditions that have been central to Americans and to American democracy . . . are losing their compelling cultural power.” Guiness reaches a disturbing conclusion: America’s problem is much deeper than certain discrete problems such as family breakdown, the deficit, drugs, AIDS, discipline in the schools, or crime. . . there is a crisis of cultural authority which means that once inspired, disciplined, and restrained Americans have lost their binding addresses, their inner compelling power to shape culture. . . One of America’s greatest achievements and special needs has been to create . . . a widely shared, almost universal, agreement on what accords with the common ideals and interests of America and Americans . . . shared ideals, such as honesty and loyalty; shared commitments, such as the place of public service; and shared understandings, such as the relation of religion and public life.” In short, Guinness argues that America has lost its soul; has lost its ability to affect its future in a productive way.

That is one of your most important challenges, young people and coaches: to create a new generation of leaders, or to be a new generation of leaders, who will shepherd our nation throughout the dangerous two or three decades of this new century.

You must not merely speakers of the Word, but you must be doers of the Word also.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to communicate with an unsaved world, a world with whom we have so little commonality. For instance, many of my public school students openly talk about promiscuity. Being married to one woman, all my life, and having all my experience in that area, centered on this one person, I find it difficult to empathize with their struggles, and certainly I would never sympathize with their struggles. In that sense, we have different myths defining our identities.

Joseph Campbell reminds us that myths define a culture. We all have certain myths that more or less define who we are. Myths may be true or not, but they are at the root of how we relate to our world. In 2009 America, there was no collective memory, no commonality. There is nostalgia, but no memory. Theologian Walter Brueggemann in his seminal book Hope in History argues that Americans swoon over “the good old days.” In fact they worship “the good old days” without really understanding that investment that our forefathers made in their Judeo-Christian traditions that made that possible. 21st century reformers forget, for instance, that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a born again Baptist pastor. They only remember his Civil Rights marches. Memory learns from the past; nostalgia tries to retrieve the past. We need to remember and to honor the past, but be open to new paradigms as they emerge. Indeed, we need to create a few of these new paradigms!

The “nostalgia” that grips our nation does not mitigate its profound rage, and at the heart of this country’s rage, is its hopelessness.

Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is on a vendetta quest to destroy the famous white whale, Moby Dick. But his quest is far more malevolent than a revenge quest..

Early in the novel the first mate, Starbuck confronts Ahad, “To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct is blasphemous.”

Captain Ahab responds, “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. ‘Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.”

Ahab no longer knows a loving, sustaining God. Ahab’s “power” behind nature is a “malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began.”

Elie Wiesel lost his faith in the fires of Auschwitz. Ahab lost his faith in an insane quest against a dumb animal. Where did 2009 America lose its faith and therefore its hope?

Today, in our country, we have lost a lot of our abiding, ubiquitous myths. No one believes that there are absolute values, for instance, which is at the heart of the American experience. No one respects authority. And so forth.