Sep 182013
 

I once was pastor of a church in Silver Spring, Maryland. My office window looked out over a large parking lot behind the church. Over the years I worked in that office, I saw many things from that window.

Parking Lot & TruckCouples would arrive in separate cars, park one car in a far corner, look around nervously, then depart together in one car–returning after hours or sometimes days.

Teenagers would come at night to drink and party, leaving trash and urine behind. I often called the county police, but usually to no avail. The kids had police scanners and a mass exodus took place as soon as the police were heard to be on the way.

I once heard a ruckus right below my window and found a man forcibly holding a woman down. A pistol was lying near them on the ground. The man said he was a plainclothes policeman and would I please come and help him. I thought that he could just as well been the criminal of the two. With no way to verify and not being inclined to join a fight, I helped by calling the police.

There was an orthodox Jewish synagogue adjoining this parking lot. Now orthodox Jews are supposed to walk to synagogue, and most did. I would see many of them walking in all kinds of weather. But I also observed some less strict ones who drove and parked in our lot, then walked the rest of the way. One Saturday, I observed one of them hiding behind his car as a group of others passed. He watched until the coast was clear and then emerged.

There were many other interesting sights, but the the following has always been my favorite.

One clear, summer day I noticed a pickup truck parked in the back of the lot. That was nothing unusual, except that there was a man standing behind or around it and now and again there was something bright rising up out of the truck. I kept trying to figure out what it was and had no clue. It went on for a long time and I decided to investigate.

The man with the pickup was from Baltimore. The bright objects I had seen from the distance were homing pigeons being released. The man had brought them in a large cage in the back of the truck. He explained that pigeon racing was his hobby and he was training his pigeons for an upcoming event.

As we talked, he took out and released a new pigeon.  The bird climbed upward in ascending circles and was visible for a long time. The man explained that it was hoping for others to be released and waiting for them to fly up and join it.  But finally the bird headed off in the direction of Baltimore.

The man explained that the nature of pigeons is to gather as a flock and fly together. But he said that if they do that, they will fly at the speed of the slowest pigeon. One bird in the flock might be flying at its best speed, but all the others will not. So he forces them to fly alone, despite their wish to do otherwise. Only by training this way will each bird have a chance to achieve its speed potential.

I thought how flocking together and taking it easy is a human trait as well. Unless you want to be exceptional.

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The Goat

 Posted by at 6:00 pm  No Responses »
Jul 082013
 

The goat sat wisely on his tree stump. It was his place to observe the world and to think. There on his stump he felt royal and in possession of his surroundings. Other animals knew this. Other animals knew better than to try to take his place on the stump.

Goat on stumpHe observed a car pass by on the winding road out front. He saw a head jerk around and brake lights come on. “They’ll be back,” he thought. “They’ll turn around and come back for a better look.”

The goat was used to this, and he enjoyed the attention. He gazed back at them as they pointed and clicked their cameras. There atop his stump he was perfectly poised. From the tips of his horns to the whiskers of his chin he expressed the confidence and satisfaction of his years. His steel-grey eyes never blinked. The ears adjusted only slightly.

After the car drove away, the goat turned his head from the road. His hearing was good, and if another car came he would know before it came into sight. He would also know if it was a familiar car, one that was used to seeing the goat on his stump. Those cars might notice, but they had no need to turn around. Others would come along that did.

The goat imagined the pictures they made of him from those cars. He knew that the colors of his fine coat matched those of the wood he sat on, as if intended. His health was apparent in the shine of his eyes, his polished horns, his damp nose.

Somewhere nearby was the mother of his recent offsprings. He thought of how she gazed at him adoringly and craved his attention. A dusty chicken was pecking small gravels around the base of his stump. The best a chicken can hope for, he supposed. The horse nearby swatted flys with its coarse tail.

There are worse things to be than a goat on a stump in Pennsylvania.

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Gregory’s Cave

 Posted by at 5:44 am  No Responses »
Jun 082013
 

When I was a high school student in Maryville, Tennessee, I knew three things about the name "Gregory." I knew that my girlfriend/later wife's relatives were named Gregory and were buried in Cades Cove in the Primitive Baptist Church cemetery. I knew that Gregory's Bald was named for them. I had climbed it and camped there numerous times. And I knew that somewhere in Cades Cove there was a cave by the name of Gregory. So one weekend Charlie and David and I set out to find this cave.

I don't recall just how we learned about the area we searched, but I well recall our discovery of the cave entrance. It was inconspicuous and grown up, down underneath a ridge near a barn and an abandoned house. This was in the 1950's in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The cave was unmarked and unsecured. We found there was hay in the nearby barn, and that seemed an ideal place to unroll our sleeping bags and spend the night.

Over the weekend we explored every foot of Gregory's Cave. The cave was largely one long channel with a series of connected rooms and a few short offshoots. Despite our looking we found no weapons, skeletons, gold coins, or other items of interest.  The cave was mostly empty except for some wood lying around. 

On one of our trips into the cave, we decided to gather up wood and make a fire. The wood was dry, of course, and the fire was started easily. We settled down around the fire and were taking it easy. But after awhile, we began to notice something peculiar. The ceiling of the cave had disappeared. The ceiling was now like the sky on a cloudy day. Then we noticed that the ceiling was getting lower and lower. Our smoke had been rising up and the ceiling was lowering down. 

There was no water to put out the fire. We soon became alarmed and decided we must beat it. By the time we reached the entrance to the cave we were almost crawling to keep our heads beneath the smoke. But we did escape.

According to an article in smokies.com the cave was actually a commercial operation of the Gregory family in the 1920's with a charge of 50 cents for tours. And during the cold war it was stocked with food and equipped as a fallout shelter. Also, it is said that the Missionary Baptist Church once held services in the main room of the cave. 

The national park has never chosen to make an attraction of the cave, or to advertise its location. I believe it is now boarded up and inaccessible. 

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A Honda Story

 Posted by at 4:34 pm  No Responses »
Apr 282013
 

In the early '60's I was a seminary student in Louisville, Kentucky and pastor of a rural church about 70 miles away. Most of the church members were farmers, although some worked at Fort Knox and a few drove in to Louisville to work. I had come from neighboring Tennessee and was well accepted in the community. Like most of the men and young men, I was a hunter and fisherman. Like my father before me, I read "Field and Stream" magazine, and that is how my Honda story begins.

I noticed a classified ad in the back of Field and Stream. It showed a small two-wheeled vehicle with a luggage rack. A hunter was riding it down a trail in the woods and carrying a deer on the back. It looked like, and was, a small motorcycle, but it was described as a "trail machine." I was immediately curious and intrigued, for this was unlike anything I had ever seen. Motorcycles, at that time, were large and loud and ridden by disreputable characters, or so said the popular stereotype.

The trail machine was made by a company I had never heard of — Honda. It was also a company America had never heard of. Turned out it was a Japanese company. At that time Japanese companies were stereotyped as flooding American markets with "cheaply made foreign goods." But this did not deter my interest in the Honda Trail Machine.

I  learned there was a store in Louisville, just one, where you could buy the Honda Trail Machine. It was Tinsley's Tire and Marine on Shelbyville Road, somewhat out of town. It sold boats and motors and tires, along with rifles and shotguns. My kind of place. And in the back of the store on the right side as you come in the front door, there were several of these new things. I found they had a trail out back and would actually let you ride one, which I did. And came back and did again. Then came back and bought one.

going up jump GaryAt the time I bought my Trail Machine it was the only thing Honda sold in the U.S.  People were puzzled about Honda because they never heard of it. But despite the lack of brand recognition, it was an immediate hit in the small community where I lived. Crowds gathered in our yard to see it and be taken for a ride. Lucky kids got to try riding it themselves. The owner of the store almost immediately drove to Louisville and brought back two of them, one for each of his boys. A migration of other buyers followed. To say these were a sensation is not to overstate.

Those of us who had them began riding in groups together and people watched from their porches as we zoomed by. Peer pressure built up on others. And at Tinsley's Tire and Marine, the Hondas began driving out the Evenrude and the Johnson motors, the Remingtons and Winchesters and Browning automatics, the Goodyear and Firestone tires, and the boats. Honda soon added newer and larger models. The marine store became a Honda place.

In 1966 Honda launched a national ad campaign that changed the way people thought of motorcycles. Its slogan was "you meet the nicest people on a Honda." It showed regular middle-class citizens, even women, riding these small two-wheelers. It created a market where none existed. The following is the best example:

As sales boomed and more and larger Honda motorcycles began to appear, other ads were remarkably effective. My favorite it the following one, showing how the Honda revolution took hold on the local minister.

Over the succeeding years and many thousands of miles, I rode a variety of Hondas including the 150, the 305 Super Hawk, the 450, the 750, and eventually an early Honda Gold Wing. Gold Wings are still made and sold by Honda today.

I was back in Tinsley's on one of those early days, maybe looking over the new 150 or something like that, and I heard a strange thing. They said that Honda was coming out with car.

A car??  We have all the cars we need — American cars. A Japanese car will never sell in this country. What on earth are they thinking?

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Repetition

 Posted by at 6:33 pm  No Responses »
Feb 022013
 

The man would wake up early trying to remember the night before. There was always a nagging fear that he had messed up. But he must get dressed now and get to work. The man was well thought of there, a nice man, everyone said. And he did his work well, so  things were good apparently. But as the office morning turned to afternoon, the man’s thoughts were drawn to leaving work and to the evening ahead. The day was about the evening.

repetition-champane-glassesHe had quit keeping liquor in the house because he drank too much if a supply was present. Getting some at the store and drinking in the evening became a day-to-day decision. He had more control that way. Often he would start the day determined to drink nothing. But by afternoon the urge would take hold and reasons appear as to why he deserved it today. Something bad had happened, or something good to celebrate, it didn’t matter. Any reason was a good reason. Always it seemed justified.

His present routine was to get two large bottles of fortified beer for the drive home, and a jug of wine for the evening. White chablis was his current choice. As he drank the beers in the car, bottle between his legs, he timed it so other drivers would not see, especially policeman drivers. And as the familiar feelings appeared, he reminded himself often to drive carefully. He considered himself a skilled drinking driver.

The man was always eager to get home and get started on the wine. Anything that might delay this could wait. If a neighbor waved and seemed to want something he would fail to notice. Once inside the door, all seemed right with the world. There was plenty to drink and an evening ahead.

The evenings were predictable. They began with drinking along with other activity such as eating, music, reading, writing, and thinking. They ended with unconsciousness and sleep. Drinking was a way to get to sleep. They were also predictable in that things generally moved from pleasure to misery. The welcome effects of the alcohol were pleasant at first. A time for writing poems and singing songs. But as the hours wore on and the supply diminished, a gloom settled in. The gloom had many faces that came and went like slides changing: guilt, shame, self-pity, rage. In a world now filled with enemies, the glass was his only friend.

Each evening proved again the unfairness of life. Only the list of hurts varied, some replacing others, others returning. Old hurts were revisited like favorite tunes. Except for these variations, the days were always the same. Even days when the man decided he should quit drinking and did so for a short while were the same, because they had happened again and again. The man reflected on the curious fact that in his daytime work he did many things successfully, but in the evenings he was unable to keep himself from drinking heavily.

He never talked with others about his drinking, and he thought of it as a secret life. But friends who had called him in the evenings soon learned to call early instead of late.

The man liked to write and would often do so while he drank. He had taken notice of the great writers whose drinking seemed to enhance their gifts. He imagined it did the same for him, and indeed there was some evidence to that effect. After a night of drinking, he sometimes read what he had written as if it came from a different source. And sometimes he was greatly impressed.

The one thing he tried not to write was emails. Many of those he wrote late at night he had lived to regret. He finally set himself a rule that he must save them in draft to be reviewed when sober. But like all the rules he established for his evenings, it only worked now and then. He wondered that he could not even keep such a simple rule.

repEvery morning the man wondered about many of these things. He accused himself of being weak and stupid and lacking in character. He made lists of  steps that needed to be taken. But then every afternoon he began planning for the evening. And every evening he drank.

Weeks became months, and months became years, and years repeated themselves. The days did not vary.

Actually, looking back on it now, there was only one day for this man.

His life was this single day, repeated over and over.

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The Cardboard Box

 Posted by at 6:01 pm  No Responses »
Jan 252013
 

My father grew up poor in the mountains of western North Carolina. He was one of eleven children and the only one to finish high school, much less earn a Ph.D. Although he became a college professor, he never forgot his early struggles. Also he lived through the Great Depression, which those who did so always remembered. They seemed to carry in the back of their minds that this could happen again. They must not waste things. They must “save for a rainy day.”  Because of this I never heard my parents complain about the rationing during World War II. I did hear them complain about families in our town who were alleged to cheat on the rationing and get more than their fair share of rationed items.

My father would have listened with sympathy to all the complaints about wasteful government spending today. But he would not have failed to notice that many of the complainers are wasteful spenders themselves. The idea of people owning mansions all over the country and some with elevators not only for themselves but for their expensive cars, that would not have been well received. My dad never bought a car that was not a Chevrolet, and it was always the simplest and lowest priced model available. If it had a radio and windshield wipers and room enough in the trunk, it would do.

He made a large garden every year. We had fresh corn, peas, onions, tomatoes, squash, okra, beans of all kinds including soy, cabbage, carrots, beets, broccoli, turnips and their greens, collards and kale, garlic, lettuce, and always something new and experimental. The arrival of the Burpee seed catalog each year was welcomed with much interest. Before there was a grocery store called “whole foods” my parents made much use of them. Mother canned and froze food from the garden and dad helped. It was economical, and it was healthier.

Dad disapproved of cigarettes and soft drinks, which he considered wasteful. He also disapproved of the local bowling alley. If kids needed something to do, they could throw the football in the yard, which cost nothing. When his church voted to move and build an elaborate new building, he joined a group that split off and met in a large old house.

When Dad died at the age of 93, I was the only surviving member of his immediate family.  His oldest son had been killed in The War, and his second son had died in his late 40’s.  His wife had been gone for 20 years. As the remaing child I was left with the arrangements.

He had begun telling me some years previous that he wanted to be cremated. He reminded me again and again. He said an expensive funeral was a waste of money and made no sense. He did suggest that we could bury his ashes in the grave with mother and put his name on her headstone.

I was at a meeting in South Carolina when the call came. Dad had been in the nursing home for several years. His doctor said that his kidneys were failing and time was short. When I arrived he was still living but seemingly unconscious. I talked with him because seemingly unconscious patients often hear and understand even though there’s no sign of it. But his breathing slowed and slowed and after several hours of sitting by his bed he finally took his last breath.

As instructed, I arranged for the cremation. I also arranged with the cemetery to hold a short burial service at the grave and have the inscription done on the tombstone. Then I went to the funeral home to pick up the ashes.

They took me to a room that had shelves with all sorts of containers for such ashes. They were brass, pewter, silver, gold, ivory, marble, and other things. Some were plainer and some were fancier. They were nicely lit. The man said that I could take my time and pick out the one I wanted.

I thought of my dad whose earthly body was now a few handfuls of ashes. I thought of his life and asked myself what he would want me to do in this situation. It wasn’t hard to decide. I said to the man, “Now, if I don’t buy one of these containers, how do I get the ashes?”

And he said that they just come in a plain cardboard box.  And I said, “Then I’ll take the cardboard box.”

So we met at Mother’s grave there in the cemetery, and there was a hole dug in the ground, and a small platform beside it covered with artificial grass. And on the artificial grass was a small, almost square cardboard box.

I laughed and I cried. My father would have liked this.

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Dreading Hebrew

 Posted by at 2:05 pm  No Responses »
Nov 052012
 

Greek and Hebrew were both required languages when I was a seminary student. I was happy enough to take Greek–I had started learning it in college. But Hebrew I dreaded. Such a funny looking language, and I thought of no good use for it. Hebrew was the language of the Old Testament, and I was more of a New Testament kind of guy.

Every semester I kept putting it off, as in denial. But the requirement was not going away, although I was acting as if it might. I put off Hebrew until there were no semesters left except my last one. So I registered, then went to class with the enthusiasm of a person in line to renew a driver's license.

Hebrew text of Genesis 1_1-10The picture to the left shows the text of Genesis 1:1-10 in the original Hebrew. This is what I starred at on my first day of Hebrew class. I had to learn to read this stuff?

There are two directions this story could take. Either my prejudice was confirmed and I hated Hebrew class, or it was overturned and I learned to love it.

The latter is what took place. It turned out that my teacher was personable, smart, funny, engaging, and self-depricating. He seemed to know that students with my attitude were sitting in the rows before him. He loved Hebrew, and soon I loved him. And so I began to love Hebrew also. I ended up with an A in this class, got an A+ on a major paper, and ended up wishing I had done this sooner so I could take advanced courses.

As cautious, self-protective human beings, we all tend to pre-judge our situations. If a stranger approaches, we put ourselves on guard. And if the stranger is strange, we do so even more so. If we're given an assignment, we form an opinion about the outcome. We gauge whether we will like it or not, and whether it will turn out well or not. And these assessments tend to stick. They are difficult to reverse later on. If we decide initially that we do or don't like a person or situation, a momentum is established. Had you been betting on my experience with Hebrew, the safest bet is that I hated it, just like I expected to.

A funny thing happend just now. I interrupted these thoughts for a quick trip to the Safeway. There I glanced at a man who made a negative impression. I can't explain why, but I didn't like his looks. This took all of about two seconds. Then on the way home I stopped for gas. As I was folding and filing the receipt in my billfold, a car behind me blew its horn. There were plenty of open pumps, but for some reason they wanted mine. I noticed the driver was a young Black woman, and I made certain assumptions that were not flattering. Then I came home to continue these thoughts about prejudice.

All this suggests that we need a certain humility about our assumptions and prejudices. We will always make assumptions, even two second ones, but we must realize these may be totally wrong and keep from stubbornly persisting in them. It will help to remember how many times the things we dreaded worked out for good. 

I don't use my Hebrew much these days, but I know I would enjoy it if I did.

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Dec 062011
 

 

I received the following notice with my mail: “Dear Customer, the Postal Service depends on you to meet postal requirements regarding delivery and collection of mail to curbside boxes. Please keep the full approach and exits to your mailbox clear, as illustrated in the examples below. Removing trash cans, snow, vehicles, and any other objects from the area allows the carrier to deliver your mail safely and efficiently without exiting the vehicle. Your cooperation in this matter is sincerely appreciated.  Thank you. Your Postmaster.” Continue reading »

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Bygone Shame

 Posted by at 7:50 am  No Responses »
Nov 202011
 

Our current news focus on the Penn State athletic department has likely caused a lot of people to reflect on bygone shame. I am one of those who has. The following is a personal experience I have never written about. Moreover I have not spoken about it with any parent, relative, spouse, or friend. So why am I about to tell of it now, and publish it on the Internet with my actual name? I do not know. And as i begin to write, I wonder if I may change my mind and keep it as a private account. Time will tell. Continue reading »

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May 082011
 

He had served in the U.S. Navy in World War Two. His ship had been in battle, with many killed and injured. He was among the injured. He wasn’t killed, but they thought he would be dead soon. They must care for the ones who had a chance. Unconscious, they rolled him into a room that was out of the way. The men of the ship had a name for this room.  It was “Saint Peter’s Room.” My friend told afterward that he kidded the medics for putting him in Saint Peter’s Room when he didn’t need to be there. He recovered from his wounds and lived a long life afterward. Continue reading »

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