500 Halloweens Gone

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luther95thesesOctober 31, 1517. The day wasn’t known as “Halloween” then but by the more formal “All Hallow’s Eve,” and it wasn’t a day for carved pumpkins and gathering candy door to door. On that day, 500 Halloweens ago, in a little known university town called Wittenburg in what was then Saxony, a mostly unknown monk with some reservations about Holy Mother Church’s way of doing business wanted to start a debate on some issues within the Church. In that pre-Twitter time, debates and discussions took place in the open air or in a lecture hall and if one wanted to debate something or other, he (and back then it was ALWAYS “he”) would post an announcement on the cathedral door with the proposed topic for debate and a time for the debate to take place. Following the custom of the day, that little known monk tacked a list of 95 topics or theses onto the door and waited to see what would come of it.

He couldn’t have known at the time, but the little known monk, Martin Luther, just tossed a pebble down a rocky slope and began a landslide we know today as the Protestant Reformation.

It’s important to note the name we’ve come to call this movement — The Reformation. Luther was a monk and quite an accomplished one. He loved the Church and the last thing he wanted to do was tear her down. Still, some aspects of the status quo were too egregious in his mind to ignore. He didn’t want to destroy the church; he wanted to “reform” it. His biggest complaint and the subject of much of his 95 Theses was the way the Catholic Church treated something called indulgences. Basically, indulgences worked like this: at that time, the Church held pretty much everyone who died went not to Heaven but to a middle state called Purgatory. A soul would stay in Purgatory until it had worn away the sins carried into death. Left to progress naturally, this process could take many centuries. It might be thousands of years before dear mother entered the Pearly Gates.

Enter the indulgence. The Church taught that for a price, one could purchase “merit” which could be applied to the soul of one’s choice in Purgatory. This merit would then be applied to said soul’s account and the application of merit would speed the soul’s journey on to Heaven. Instead of thousands of years, the purchase of indulgences could decrease mother’s heavenly journey to weeks or, for enough money, even days.

What this basically means is the Church taught and people believed one could basically “buy” one’s way into Heaven. This was a racket that would make today’s TV hucksters like Joel Osteen turn green with envy. It wasn’t even subtle. Poor people would spend their life’s savings to buy a piece of paper that assured they wouldn’t have to spend long in Purgatory but could count on a smooth, quick trip to Heaven. In the mystical game of Catholic Monopoly, the indulgence was a “Get out of Purgatory Free” card.

Martin Luther called schwachsinn on the whole racket. He claimed he’d read the Bible cover to cover and he couldn’t find ANY mention of the ability of the Church to even GRANT indulgences, much less SELL them. His radical idea was that the only possible way to Heaven was through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Sola Fide.

The Church authorities were less than pleased with Luther.

Turns out Luther had a whole plethora of ideas about how to change Holy Mother Church. The whole idea of clergymen being celibate? Forget that! Nothing in the Bible said a priest couldn’t marry and Martin Luther based everything he proposed or taught in the earliest days of the Reformation on Scripture alone. Sola Scriptura.

In a moment of sublime serendipity, Luther was having all these newfangled ideas at the same time as a brand new contraption called the “printing press” was beginning to catch on. That meant Luther didn’t have to write individual letters to get his message out. The printing press at Whittenberg turned out pamphlets Luther wrote by the thousands. Soon, Luther’s ideas about reforming the Church spread all across Europe and other towns began seizing the banner of the Reformation.

Now the Church authorities were REALLY pissed.

At this time, Luther was still a monk. Remember, he never set out to tear down the Church. He just wanted changes to bring her more in line with the Bible. Since he was a monk, he was ordered to attend a religious council called the Diet of Worms and defend his ideas before the authorities. He went to Worms even though he knew it could mean his arrest and if he was arrested he would probably be burned at the stake as a heretic.

For two days, Martin Luther defended his positions before hundreds of churchmen. He always appealed to the Bible. Finally, the head of the council had heard enough. He pointed towards the stack of pamphlets and books Luther had written before him on the table and told him he had one last chance — recant these heretical views or face the dire consequences.

Turning to the head of the council, Martin Luther gave the reply which has rang down the centuries and which ushered in the era of the Reformation to which almost any denomination of Christian not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox owes its existence. He replied, “I cannot and will not recant anything. My conscience is captive to the Word of God and to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here. I. Stand. I can do no other. So help me God, Amen.”

He escaped Worms with the help of some powerful friends, but he would be excommunicated from the church and branded an outlaw for the rest of his life. It mattered little, though. The pebble tossed by the 95 Theses quickly became a full on landslide sweeping 1500 years of Catholic tradition before it. The Reformation had begun in earnest.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

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Great War Wednesday: Passchendaele

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PasschendaeleImagine drowning, not in water, but in mud. Not thin quicksand, but thick, sucking, grasping mud. Picture your mate up to his armpits in chalky quagmire. He’s been there two days now but you can’t reach him and he’s too weak to grasp a rope. He’s just slowly sinking into the mire and every time you pass he begs you to shoot him so he doesn’t drown in mud.

That is a word picture of the Battle of Passchendaele. Some battles become famous for their commanders, some for where they are fought, some for a new technological advance. All who remembered Passchendaele until their dying days remember mud.

The new tanks couldn’t traverse the muck; they simply sank into it and forced their crews to abandon them in the field and try to reach the safety of the lines without stumbling into the mud themselves. The only way to the trenches from the rear areas wound over a sinuous path of duckboards — basically pieces of board, wide as possible, laid out on top of the mud to spread out a person’s weight. Most of the boards were barely wide enough for two men to pass abreast. Fall, step, or be blasted off the duckboards and you’d likely end up in the mud . . . and then you stood a very good chance of dying from smothering in the crushing mire.

The battle, also known as The Third Battle of Ypres, began in July 1917 and stretched into November. It lasted a total of three months, one week and three days. Like most offensives of the Great War, its aims far exceeded the ability of the forces sent to the fight.

While initially, Ypres had been the hottest spot of the war, little had happened in the sector since mid-1915. As a result, troops on both sides had become somewhat complacent and adopted a live and let live type of existence. All that changed when the British commander, General Haig, took a notion into his head to destroy the submarine bases which lay along the coast of Belgium. Why he felt so strongly about attacking THOSE bases RIGHT THEN is lost to history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the stranglehold the U-boats had around the British Isles. Perhaps he felt compelled to cut the head of the snake and end the U-boat threat. We’ll never know.

What is known is the attack began with the customary shelling by around 3000 British guns firing off about 4 million shells, which churned up the ground even more than it already was. Then the attack began. Then, about three days into the attack, the rains came. It rained more than the inhabitants of the area had seen in thirty years, at least, and did not stop for the entirety of the campaign. The ground turned into glue as the abundant water had no were to drain to and so continued to saturate the battlefield. The soil around Ypres is heavily mixed with chalk and the water simply made soup of the entire area. The mud swallowed up guns, tanks, men, horses, and pack mules. Horrible doesn’t begin to describe it. Passchendaele was the ultimate culmination of the misery of which was trench warfare.

Truthfully, I don’t feel compelled to write up the specifics of the battle for one reason. By this point, if you’ve followed any of my other posts on the Great War, you KNOW how the battle went. The British, later joined by Canadians and ANZACs, shelled the hell out of the German front lines then went screaming over the top, dashed like madmen across no-man’s land, captured the front line of German trenches, whereupon the Germans would launch a counterattack and push the Brits back across the killing zone to their trenches. Just like every other battle of World War I from the Battle of the Frontiers until the stalemate broke in Spring 1918 and things started moving again.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

The battle was a tactical and strategic failure all around. To gain five miles of ground, which included the nearly destroyed town of Passchendaele that gives the battle its name, Haig sacrificed 275,000 soldiers of the British Empire. German casualties weren’t much lighter with 200,000 of the Kaiser’s men destined to never see the Fatherland again. Five miles at the cost of half a million lives.

Probably the saddest commentary on the battle is the fact Haig was under tremendous pressure from the British government to stop the attack during the entire duration OF the attack. Prime Minister David Lloyd George would later write in his memoirs of the war years that the only reason the campaign was allowed to continue at all was because they HAD to attack SOMETHING and no one could come up with any better ideas than what Haig proposed.

Just imagine if you were a British soldier and you knew that fact. You are dying in the mud simply because a bunch of old men can’t think of a better place to spend your life.

Siegfried Sassoon, the brilliant British war poet, wrote about Passchendaele in one of his works called “The Memorial Tablet.” The first stanza reads:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

Drowning in mud for five miles of ground. If that doesn’t sum up the horror of war, I don’t know what does.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

 

Orange Crush

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SyrClemMy beloved Clemson Tigers went down in ignoble defeat last night to the, supposedly, lowly Syracuse Orange by a score of 27-24. This after we started the year as the defending national champions and sporting a six win, no loss record on the season.

Now, this is a bad loss with no way to spin it at all. Well, our starting quarterback DID sustain a concussion before halftime, so there’s that, but with the defense we were supposed to have, Syracuse should have never been able to run up and down the field on us the way they did. Of course, that’s why what’s on paper matters so little in the big picture. On paper, this was a yawner by halftime.

That’s why they play the games anyway no matter what the paper says.

I feel a kindred spirit with dear Oklahoma now. It was just last week the mighty Sooners lost to the disregarded Iowa State Cyclones. OU was number three in the polls and predictably tumbled many spots down. Clemson will no doubt follow a similar freefalling path . . . as we should.

Now I’m writing about this somewhat because of how embarrassing it was to see my alma mater lose a game they should have won, but mostly, this is about college football in general. Budge and I were having a conversation over lunch today about college football fans. I know several people who are voracious Clemson fans. They go to home games and tailgate and even occasionally make a drive to a closer away game. All of them that I know have one thing in common — they all went to Clemson.

What I can’t understand no matter how hard I try is why some people are such rabid boosters of a college THEY never attended, THEIR CHILDREN never attended; in fact, no one in their FAMILY has ever attended. I know some people who are Alabama fans. Now granted, Alabama has been a number one program in the country for years so lots of people are going to jump on the bandwagon, but many of the most fervent Crimson Tide fans I know never graduated from a community college but if you ask them their “blood runs red and white, ROLL TIDE!”

Why?

My own father HATES Clemson and that’s where I WENT TO SCHOOL! You’d think that would garner the Tigers some paternal loyalty, but he is a devout fan of the USC Gamecocks who are the Tiger’s arch-rival in the lower part of the state. It kind of stings a little, to be honest.

Now I would rather have won last night since winning is generally preferable to losing, but it hasn’t really affected my day much. I did make a post on Facebook about how sad I was we were beaten by a FRUIT FLAVORED MASCOT! Other than that though, I haven’t really thought about it. Yet I know one guy I’m almost dead certain was at the game last night in New York. He probably drove up Monday and has been tailgating all week. He is a RABID Tigers fan and he never sniffed the campus. Neither did his children. I’ll bet you he is LIVID right now. His month is ruined! In the past, Clemson losing has caused him to evaluate his life choices and nearly lose his will to live.

Why?

How can people get so wrapped up in a child’s game? A scandal breaks out at one of the major schools and people seem incredulous. That’s ridiculous! When you have an entity generating the amount of revenue big time college football brings in OF COURSE you’ll have people willing to cheat to win. For some ADs and coaches it’s a matter of job security. One could be making bank on Friday and if enough of the money pumping boosters get angry, he could be looking for a U-Haul by Tuesday. It’s savage and it’s just a game.

People are just that way though. I suppose with the chaos reigning in pro football the last few weeks more people are drawn to the “simpler” college games to scream at like banshees. Why? I don’t know. I just hope Clemson gets their act together before we have to play NC State or they’re going to kill us!

Love ya’ll and keep those feet clean!

Heartbroken

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81cP1M78phL._SY355_Another huge piece of my adolescence is irretrievably lost to the world. Tom Petty, front man for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, has died at the age of 66. First Prince, now Tom Petty. The Eagles have begun dying off. Basically, all my good music is slowly falling forever silent.

Petty was one of my favorites. His vocals complemented the sound of my ’69 Chevelle’s 396 engine extremely well and I blared him and the Heartbreakers as loudly as my Sparkomatic 6×9 speakers would let me. He had great songs; songs which spoke to a teenage boy in the midst of figuring out life wasn’t what he’d been told it would be. Songs like “Here Comes My Girl” captured the young love I felt for more than one young lady back then.

My personal favorite Tom Petty song was one of his later ones off his album Wildflowers called “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” It came out in 1994 and the line from the chorus, “You don’t know how it feels to be me,” nearly made me come out of my seat the first time I heard it because is so encapsulated how I felt just out of college with no job, no prospects, and — it felt like — no friends to speak of. I’d drive around in my little white S-10 pickup truck and play it over and over. Sometimes, I still listen to it and it still hits home . . . some days more than others.

Tom Petty had the good fortune of being at the zenith of his fame back when MTV launched and actually played music videos, if any of you can believe MTV did play videos. He had some fascinating and intricate videos I remember well. One, “Don’t Come ‘Round Here No More,” was downright horrific as a distraught Alice was chased through a psychedelic Wonderland ruled by a Mad Hatter with Petty’s face. Several scenes were surreal but the closing shot of Alice, having turned into a girl shaped cake, being devoured by the denizens of Wonderland scored highest on the creep-o-meter.

I also remember “Into the Great Wide Open” as a four minute cautionary tale about seeking fame and fortune only to find it all to brief. In that video, a young, fresh faced Eddie gets off the bus in Hollywood. In the course of the song, he meets a girl who teaches him to play guitar, gets a job as a doorman at a club, and starts trying to make it in the music business. What the video shows that the lyrics don’t quite make as plain is Eddie and his lover actually make the big time . . . at least for a little while before it all comes crashing down around him as he takes his place as a one hit wonder on the scrap heap at the end of the boulevard of broken dreams.

For all his amazing music, I can’t help but feel sorry for Tom Petty in a way though. True, he went out on top of his game — his last three shows of what was to be his last ever tour sold out completely. His fans never deserted him. Unfortunately, he ended up not getting what he hoped for in his golden years. In one of his last interviews he remarked that he and his fellow bandmates were all “on the backside of our sixties now” and it was time to stop touring and settle down. He talked about how he wanted to spend time with his grandchildren and take it easy for awhile.

Now, he won’t get the chance.

Instead, he, George, and Roy can start a jam session while they wait on the rest of the Traveling Wilburys to arrive at the great concert venue in the sky. Rock on Tom.

And for the rest of you all, remember I love you and keep those feet clean.

In Memorium: Another of the Good Ones Dies Young.

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I originally published this five years ago the day I heard April had passed away. I’m reprinting it now in her memory and her honor.

AprilSeventeen years ago I started my first teaching career at Woodmont High School with two classes of English IV and four classes of English II. One of the students in one of those sophomore classes was a little slip of a girl. She was blonde and blue eyed and cute as a button. She didn’t have much to say on the first day, and to be truthful about it, she wasn’t very talkative the entire time I knew her. Her name was April Pruitt and because of a quirk in scheduling, she and many of her classmates from that first sophomore class would be in my English III class the next year and would finish up with me in English IV the year after that. I guess about a third to a half of the WHS class of 1998 had me for English as sophomores, juniors, and seniors. They were the first of my favorite students and quiet, short, but smiling April stood tall among the ones nearest and dearest to my heart.

April wasn’t college bound. She graduated and went into the workforce. From all I’ve been able to ascertain, she held down her job well. Like many of my former students who stayed in this area, I would run in to her at the grocery store or WalMart from time to time. When Facebook came out, she was one of the first of my former students to “friend” me and using that wonderful network of Mr. Zuckerberg’s, we kept in touch over the last few years. Like a great many of her classmates at Woodmont, she never married, but she did have a devoted boyfriend and two beautiful little boys who looked remarkably like their mother.

I never heard anything from or about April these last seventeen odd years to worry me like I had to worry about so many of my former students. She steered clear of drugs as far as I can tell. The picture at the left was taken in April and her face shows none of the ravages an addiction would create. She wasn’t a heavy drinker or a wild party girl.  I don’t even know if she smoked cigarettes or not. Every picture in her Facebook album shows her happy and laughing with friends or, even more often, with her two boys who were obviously the apples of her two eyes. I was more than a little proud of her because she was successful in the quiet, steady way that is so typical of a Southern woman. She was 32 and doing well for herself and her boys.

Until a week ago Friday when she had her accident. From what I can gather through Facebook and other channels, she and her boyfriend were riding his four-wheeler — sans helmets, of course and unfortunately — when they lost control of the ATV while going at a pretty fast rate. Apparently, her boyfriend was able to hang on to the machine and let it bear the brunt of the crash, but April was thrown from the back and flew some distance through the air before landing hard on her head and neck. She was rushed unconscious to the hospital where she spent the last week in a coma with swelling on her brain. I planned to go to see her in the hospital every day last week, but something constantly seemed to come up. Now, I won’t get the chance. April passed away early this (Sunday) morning. She fought hard, but she never regained consciousness.

For several years, I kept a list written on an Olive Garden napkin of all the students and former students I had lost over the years. It was on such a medium because several of my former colleagues and I were at Olive Garden on the last day of school one year discussing the “Woodmont Curse” which seemed to take at least one or more of our students each year. In just the short time I was at WHS, I put nearly 20 names on the list. By the time the napkin disappeared, it held over thirty-five. If I still had it, the total would be somewhere around 42. Forty-two lives cut tragically short by disease, accidents, suicide, and several other reasons.  I knew each one personally and very few of them were nearer and as special to me as April.

I wish her family, especially her boys, able to find peace. I don’t pretend to have anything wise and transcendent to say. I don’t have the answers I once thought I had. All I know is one more little sliver of my heart will join many others in graves, tombs, and even at sea in places far and near and the world will be all the poorer for having lost such a lovely and smiling light.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Resquiescat In Pace, April. Coach Wham will miss you.

#TBT Friday Night Lights Shine on the Friday Night Blues

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I originally published this five years ago. With this being my tenth year out of teaching, I thought it was a good time as any to run it again.

In the five years since my last teaching contract renewed and I left education, I have endure a crippling wave of sadness during the first week of “back to school.” That sadness is never more acute and I never have to struggle harder to keep bullets out of my head, poison out of my system, or my car at the top of cliffs rather than the bottom than at six o’clock on the first full schedule Friday of high school football.

If you’ve never taught in a high school, I can’t adequately describe for you how important Friday nights are, especially here in the Southland. Any school with a football team is a beehive all day on Friday as the guys (and a girl or two) walk the halls in their jerseys and the cheerleaders wear their non-dress-code-conforming uniforms to school. The day is spent making plans for who is riding with whom to where and who is bringing the illicit substances to the bonfire or house party after the game.

I used to eat up every moment of it. Every Friday for the fifteen years I taught, I was young again for ten Fridays in the fall and as long as my school’s team managed to stay in the playoffs. The kids used to take me back to the Friday nights when my friends and I were the ones planning. From my freshman year through my junior year, I went to more games than I missed. I even went to a game or two my senior year even though the taste of bile and ashes had replaced the once-sweet euphoria by then, but that’s another story.

Several of my friends of those days were football players and one of my lasting regrets is never having tried to get on the team. I was acquainted with many of the cheerleaders and wrote essays for more than one of them so they could keep good enough grades to stay on the squad. My best buddy at the time, Robby, was first trumpet in the band, so I always sat as close to the band as possible. Another regret is never trying to get in the band. I guess I can chalk up my lack of participation to a few things. Some are gifted with athletic prowess and some with musical talent. My gift was, and is, memory. Some call it a gift; I lean more towards curse and agree with the Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett when he says

“Memories are killing things. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little.”

God knows I don’t miss much about high school, but I do miss Friday nights. For those aforementioned years in education, I got those Friday nights back, especially the few years when my schools were desperate enough for warm bodies to ask me to be an assistant football coach. I have a painfully entertaining story of my first game as a JV football coach which involves me, an away game, and a whistle. Maybe I’ll tell the entire story sometime, but for now suffice it to say we lost the game and the night in general was a cascade of fiascoes one atop another. Actually, that phrase pretty much describes my whole football coaching career. Still, it was a lot of fun.

Now though, I’m a civilian. Here it is 6:30 on the first big football Friday. Oh, I know I could go to a local game anyway, but it’s not the same. Something about plunking down your teacher id and walking in the gate for free just adds a special sweetness to the night. The greatest reward, though, is the smiles on the faces of the boys on the field when they catch sight of you on the track or in the stands. Little Johnny may have been the bane of your existence in second block all year, but come Monday, when you tell him how awesome his one tackle of the night was, you’ll have him in your back pocket. Trust me on that one . . . I know from experience.

Go out and pull for your favorite teams and take care everyone.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

My Opinion of Being Here

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I got to thinking the other day – always a dangerous event – about the myriad twists and turns my life has taken. I started at the here and now and wound my way back to that fateful day, January 6, 1971, when I made my entry into the world. I noted how some of it has been rather good and other has been rather bad. I even slept on my thoughts for awhile because I wasn’t certain I wanted to publish my conclusions since I have no idea how people would take my findings. Eventually, as this post bears witness, I just decided no one would care one way or another what I put so here is my final analysis: I have absolutely no business being alive.

Now, this isn’t a post designed to race to the deep black hole of morbidity and self-flagellation. I have no plans on ending my earthly existence at the moment. No, I am simply exploring cause and effect, action and reaction as it pertains to me arriving at this particular moment in time. The fact I am here is nothing less than the monument to a disaster of train wreck proportions. Allow me to explain.

It all started, as near as I can sift out from various second hand sources and some recollections given to me years ago by the principles in this endeavor, in the year of our Lord 1965 at a local hangout known as Curry’s Lake. Curry’s Lake was more of a pond than lake and it was designed more or less as a public swimming pool. From what I’ve been told, stands stood around the lake selling concessions and other items of need to what was essentially a teenage clientele.

One particularly hot and fateful summer day in 1965, a thirteen year old girl sat on the sandy beach of Curry’s Lake cavorting and conversing with her circle of friends while letting her gaze roam over the crowd. That barely teen-aged girl was Lawana Hughes and in the fullness of time, she would become my mother. This sunny summer’s day, however, future maternity I’m sure was the farthest thing from her mind. Her thoughts were directed to the top of the hill which separated the lake from the parking lot.

Beginning the descent down said hill was a fifteen year old lad with nearly white blond hair, a stocky build, and a cigarette at a jaunty angle on his lips. He was, if the stories are accurate, attired in white jeans with a navy blue t-shirt for a top, looking for all the world like the second coming of James Dean, or so I’ve been told by others. He too circulated in the center of a group of similarly dressed boys all walking down the hill surveying the surroundings like so many feudal lords. Some of the boys in the crowd were at Curry’s Lake to meet female companions but the young man in question was presently unattached and oh how my burdens would be lighter had he remained so. His name was Frank B. Wham, Jr. and he was destined to be my father.

Wannie, for so my mother was known, and Frankie, to distinguish daddy from Papa, met that day. I have no record of their conversation but apparently it was riveting enough to ensure they would meet again. So, in a short time, Wannie and Frankie became boyfriend and girlfriend. Picture this, a 13 year old girl and a 15 year old boy, both dissatisfied with the way things were going at home, come to lean on each other to the exclusion of others. If this were not a recipe for disaster then I’ve no idea what would constitute one. From the beginning the differences in their backgrounds and home lives would dictate this was a bad idea and maybe one day I’ll go into more detail why, but for the moment suffice it to say this was not a joining of equals and more’s the pity someone with sense didn’t see it coming . . . or maybe they did and just felt powerless to stop it. I’m damned if I know.

In any event, Frankie and Wannie were together as much as decency and schedules would allow. Frankie lived up the road in Fountain Inn while Wannie lived in Gray Court. They would go on dates (who goes on dates at 13?) together with friends or alone in Frankie’s car. They had fights and as teenagers will do they would break up now and again vowing to never speak again. I can only imagine if those vows had held.

I don’t know how things would have turned out had the two youngsters been left to their own devices. Maybe they would have stayed together and married much or at least a little later when youthful fires are cooler and good sense prevails. Perhaps they would have split up irrevocably, gone their separate ways never to reunite. It’s a moot point because after two years and some odd months of dating, events conspired to cast the future into stone and erase any chance of what might have been.

The short summary of a lengthily story is Frankie got into a spot of trouble with the law one night after drinking a little more than was advisable for him. I shun the details in this telling because they really aren’t important, I don’t know from first hand accounts exactly what happened, and the outcome is all that really matters anyway. The trouble Frankie got into landed him in front of a magistrate who, for what perverse reason I couldn’t begin to fathom, decided Frankie needed a lesson. His lesson came in the form of a choice of punishment — he could either risk a trial that might result in a prison term or he could enlist for two years in the armed forces and “all would be forgiven.” That’s how Frankie became Private Wham, US Army.

On the surface this arrangement doesn’t seem so bad. A two year enlistment didn’t amount to much when weighted against prison, right? It was a no brain decision. Unfortunately, as these things always have, there was a little catch. This was 1968, the absolute height of the complete cluster known today as the Vietnam War. Being in the regular army in 1968 meant one simple thing — you were going to spend 13 months in Vietnam where boys were being killed and wounded by the thousands every week. What looked like a way out was tantamount to a death sentence. Frankie . . . Daddy was screwed and no one lifted a finger to help him until it was entirely too late.

Here’s where the train jumped the tracks. Wannie and Frankie decided to make a bad situation exponentially worse. Both were convinced Frankie was going to his death in Vietnam and would never return so they decided the absolute best thing in the world to do would be get married. Frankie was just past his 18th birthday and Wannie was just about to turn sweet 16. So . . . they got married on Wannie’s 16th birthday — December 27, 1968. Frankie left for basic training just a short time later.

My question is simple. Who was steering this catastrophe? I love my four grandparents more than anyone I’ve ever loved. They all walked on water in my eyes and I’ve never thought any of them capable of being anything less than perfect until I started thinking about this disaster that directly got me on this ball of rock. They could have stopped this mess. Wannie couldn’t legally marry in South Carolina at the time. She would have had to be 18. She was 16, really 15 until the day of the wedding. Whatever possessed Granny and Papa Hughes to sign away their permission for her to wed?

Now I know for a fact the two lovebirds had threatened to sneak over the state line to Georgia where the age of marriageable consent was only 16 at the time and I’ve been told Papa and Granny Hughes felt they didn’t have a choice because they didn’t want Wannie running off and getting married. WHY NOT? It’s called a childish bluff! If they want to run off, MAKE THEM RUN OFF! Don’t pave the rough road ahead and make it easier. In the name of all that’s holy why didn’t one or the other set of parents stop this craziness? These were children who were operating under stress and emotion. Someone SHOULD have done something. . . but no one did anything and here’s what happened.

Frankie and Wannie got married on her 16th birthday. Frankie went off to war. Wannie dropped out of school where she was a straight A student with some money set aside for college because according to the draconian codes in schools at the time a girl couldn’t be married and attend school. So Wannie’s chance at a good education went the way of the Great Auk and she went from dead end job to dead end job for most of the rest of her life. I coached her to get her GED during my senior year of college.

Frankie had it worse. He ended up in the middle of Hell on earth in the most unpopular and worst run war this country has ever fought. He saw friends killed and maimed in the worst ways possible. He slept in heat and mud like we’ve never seen here and no one could tell him what he was fighting for and what his friends were dying for. He survived, barely, but the man who came home bore no resemblance to the boy who left.

While Frankie was on leave from Vietnam waiting to go to West Germany for the second year of his enlistment, I was conceived. I will spare you the details, but one interesting thing about my journey to the world . . . Mama was in a body cast from the belly button down. The doctor actually had to cut an arc in her cast so I could grow. I often thought about asking Mama or Daddy about the mechanics involved but I always decided it was one of those multitude of things I was better off not knowing.

Fast forward a year and a half. I’m born, Daddy’s home from the army. Mama is raising me. It was sweet and peaceful while it lasted . . . at least I guess it was because to be brutally honest, I don’t have a lot of memories from Mama and Daddy being together. Things jolted along until I was five, but the deep cracks had already formed. Daddy wasn’t the man Mama married and try as she might she couldn’t get her Frankie back. Daddy met another woman. He liked her better. He and Mama divorced when I was eight and the wheels fell completely off the apple cart. Mama was 23 and Daddy was 25 when they divorced.

All because Romeo and Juliet had to get married and no one had the guts to stop them. No one was thinking about me at the time but in the end, I’M the one who bears the heaviest weight. Sure, it bothered other people. Mama was never the same and I spent forty years trying to fix what the divorce did to her. I was so angry with Daddy that he and I never have managed a good normal father son relationship. But I’m the one who lost my childhood. I’m the one who had to take on responsibilities I didn’t understand and couldn’t hope to bear up under. It’s been forty years and part of me is still angry.

It all could have been so easily avoided if someone had just stopped the marriage. Daddy would have come home and he and Mama probably would have realized how different everything was now and they likely never would have married and I’d have never been born . . . and how different that would have been, but no one stepped up, so here we are.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

#TBT: Adventures in Yard Care

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This was originally posted September 22, 2014, but I had a similar run in when I cut grass earlier this afternoon. Not nearly as serious, but it brought this post to mind.

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Argiope aurantia, Yellow Garden Spider aka: Daughter of Rodan

Lately, I have been remiss in my duty to the grass. This lackadaisical approach along with some recent showers resulted in a stunning greensward behind our home.  Mama, God rest her precious soul, would have called it “snaky” for fear of encountering Mr. No Shoulders. I realized something had to be done before the situation got completely out of hand, so — having finished the ritual Monday “Home Blessing Hour” — I went to cut grass.

First, I reanimated “Frankie,” short for “The Bride of Frankenstein,” my ancient and trustworthy riding mower. She looks a sight. No cowling; no seat cover, and no wires because I cut every wire I could after I got fed up restarting the engine every time I tripped a kill switch. Frankie now cuts forward, backward, and upside down whether I’m on the seat or not. I know because I’ve rolled her twice and both times, the engine kept on trucking until the gravity feed carburetor ran dry whilst I was trapped on my back under her.

With Frankie rolling, I started cutting the back yard. Something nagged at the back of my mind, but try as I might, it just wouldn’t come to the surface so I could remember it. I only knew it was important. Then, I rounded the (unopened, again) pool — aka, “The Bane of My Existence” — and the day got interesting.

I don’t know how many of you have ever seen a Yellow Garden Spider. Here, folks call them “Writing Spiders” because they often have crazy designs in their extremely elaborate webs which might be seen as writing. The tale goes if you see your name in a Writing Spider’s web, you’re going to die soon. I’ve never given that particular lore much credence since EVERY wives tale in the South ends with “that means you’ll die soon!” Seems I may have to rethink my stance.

I’d seen this gal last time I cut grass but, I started cutting the other way round that day and saw her large web with a great deal of warning. I gave her the wide berth she deserved that time. Yellow Garden Spiders are large arachnids, typically about the size of a saucer. She was bigger, about the size of Granny Wham’s turkey platter. I remembered what I couldn’t remember in the back of my mind just as Frankie’s front bumper twanged Daughter of Rodan’s web and things headed downhill picking up speed.

The contact with the bumper caused her web to oscillate, near to me then far from me. Faster than I could see, she scuttled to the center of her web where the amplitude of the web-wave was greatest. I didn’t know spiders understood physics, so I guessed her devious spider mind a split second too late. Just as the web reached its apogee, she hurled herself towards me. Time stopped; she hung suspended in mid-flight. For a moment, we were eyeball to eyeball to eyeball to eyeball to eyeball to eyeball to eyeball to eyeball to eyeball. Time restarted once I registered she did NOT land on my face, neck, or chest. Had she actually landed on me, you would not be reading this, and why the fat man died on the lawnmower from a massive coronary would be a mystery.

Instead, she landed on Frankie’s steering wheel — then looked right at me with malice and forethought gleaming in all eight sparkly eyes.

Now, beloved, I am a gentle man. I don’t kill anything but roaches, mosquitoes and fire ants and only if they bother me. If I see a spider in the house, I trap it and set it outside. If I had to butcher my own meat, I would die of starvation. I’m not a treehugger or anything. I’ve just lived long enough to recognize all God’s creatures are just trying to get by as best they can like the rest of us and I just can’t bring myself to kill something if it’s not an absolute necessity.

Brethren, in addition to being a gentle man, I am also a generous man.  I would happily give a stranger the shirt off my back. If Budge didn’t watch over me, I’d have given the house away by now. When I stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ, I will have a plethora of things to answer for, but neither greed nor lack of charity will be among them. Since charity is always at the forefront in my heart and I possess a giving spirit, I discerned in an instant the Daughter of Rodan needed Frankie more than I did.

In the spirit of generosity, I left her with it.

People often mention the “fact” bumblebees are aerodynamically incapable of flight. I bet those same folks will tell you a 350 lbs 5’10” man can’t possibly do a full backflip off a riding lawnmower from a seated position. Folks are wrong; I even stuck the landing. Then, Frankie started backing up towards me. Right then, cutting the kill switch wires seemed a bit premature. Of course, this eight legged refugee from a B-movie probably weighed enough to keep the switch closed anyway. All I could think was, “She’s coming to finish the job!” Now how’s that for gratitude? Let the spider have the lawnmower and she tries to run me down.

Now those bee people I mentioned earlier will also tell you a 350 lbs 5’10” man can’t possibly vault a six-foot tall chain link fence from a flat-footed position. Folks are wrong. With proper motivation, it is not only possible, it is quite easy. For the record, a spider the size of a manhole cover riding backwards on a lawnmower happens to be proper motivation. Unfortunately, I didn’t stick that landing. I landed flat of my back, knocking all the breath out of me. When I recovered — with some helpful face licks from Bozo, the neighbor’s beagle —  I looked between my feet to see Frankie straining to push through the fence I had just jumped. Daughter of Rodan was gone.

Replaying the events later, I realized I’d probably knocked the mower into reverse in my haste to give over operation to the Daughter of Rodan. I say “probably” because I saw her eyes. She might have decided to take me out and spend the rest of her days bragging about catching “the big one” down at the Spider Club while playing eight handed bridge and munching on candied flies as my stuffed head looked on.

We’ll never know.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!

Writing and Me

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7152014type-blog480This post is somewhat out of desperation. Ever since I started this blog back in September 2008, I’ve always managed at least one post per month. Something stirred my mind yesterday and I realized today was the last day of May and I hadn’t posted anything this month! I didn’t want to break a perfect streak so I went to sleep last night thinking about what to write today. As I was drifting off, I thought I’d settle on telling y’all why I don’t publish any more writing on this blog than I do.

After all, averaging out to 1.5 posts a month over the last few years isn’t going to make me a blogger with a household name and that irritates me somewhat because I really, truly love writing. I’ve written “stuff’ for lack of a better word ever since I was in single digits. When I started this blog, I had great aspirations of publishing an increasing volume of work. Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out quite as I planned and I thought I’d let y’all in on the three major reasons I don’t write more than I do.

First off, it’s not for lack of time. I have PLENTY of time to write. In fact, I’ve got nothing but time. Ever since I went on disability about six years ago, my days have been my own. For all intents and purposes, I’m a house husband, and honestly, not a particularly good one. I could sit and outline stories and type away for hours if I wanted to and lots of times I want to, but I’m hindered.

One great hindrance is a lack of something definite to say. Actually, I have many things I want to say, but I don’t think my audience, such as it is, would want to listen to any of them. I eschew political topics mainly because I have no patience for flame wars and any time someone writes about politics, he is immediately alienating half the people in the country and ignoring the broader world-wide audience who have no interest in our politics at all. I also am too sensitive to deal with the comments political posts generate. I don’t like be called racist or “blank”aphobic because what I believe doesn’t line up with someone else. People say the most hateful things on the internet and I just don’t want to be a part of it.

Of course, I could write about other topics than politics but the truth is I don’t KNOW much about anything worth writing about. I’m not a parent so it wouldn’t make sense for me to join the legions of mainly mommies blogging about how to raise children. History is a great love of mine, but history blogs are all over the internet and are done much better than I could manage.

When I started this blog, I was a librarian and I thought I could join other librarians in writing about my profession. Then I got fired from being a school librarian and no one wants opinions from an also ran. It’s hard to write to a profession when you no longer have a profession to write for. “Watching the Walls Close in on Me” isn’t much of a professional topic.

Another obstacle to my writing more is my desire not to hurt anyone. I’ve got a lot of stories I’d love to tell. I’ve got a lot of angst and passion I’d like to expunge from my soul and I know from reading and from my own therapist just how cathartic and helpful writing would be. Unfortunately, some things I have to say and some opinions about my own life that I hold would be painful if I spread them out on the electronic page for everyone to read. I have an aversion to people who air all their dirty laundry on social media like Facebook, and I’m afraid if I started writing about topics to make myself feel better, I’d be no better than them.

One of my favorite authors is Thomas Wolfe but I don’t want to emulate him. Once he published You Can’t Go Home Again, he really couldn’t go home again. People recognized his portrayals of them even under the veneer of fiction. Several members of his own family turned against him. He lost long time friendships. I don’t think Wolfe intended to hurt anyone with his writing, but despite his best efforts, he ended up with a conflagration of bridges. I don’t have many friends and I’m rapidly running out of family. I’d rather not get the angry calls, emails, and texts some things I want to discuss would actually bring about.

The last best reason I don’t write more, however, is actually medical, or more accurately pharmaceutical. I suffer with depression of varying severity. In an attempt to combat the depression, I take antidepressants. In point of fact, I take quite a few doses of medicine. I may as well own it because it’s a huge chunk of my life that I’m not especially proud of, but it’s part of me. Unfortunately for me, in an effort to keep one from killing one’s self, they attempt to level out emotions and maintain a nice even keel for the person suffering from depression or some other mental disorder like anxiety.

Not to put too fine a point on it, antidepressants are an emotional bulldozer. Sure, they keep the black pit of despair from being quite so dark and they manage to hold off the black dog as well. The emotional stability comes at a price though. The highs go away just as much as the lows. I don’t know of a drug, and I’ve taken a few both legal and not so much, that is as euphoric as a manic state. When you are manic, the world is your oyster. Your mind works at a frantic pace and your creativity explodes. Of course, you also tend to engage in extremely reckless behavior and spend money you don’t have, but oh the EMOTIONAL HIGH!

Well, antidepressants take that all away. You give up the euphoria to keep the depression quiet. You become a nice, docile person, but everything about your personality takes a hit. For me, I can SEE the stories and essays I want to write down in the bottom of the well of my creativity, but I can’t bring them up to the page. It is little wonder so many great writers had mental issues. Imagine if Ernest Hemingway had taken anti-depressants. He probably wouldn’t have been led to blow his head off, but at the same time, would the world have The Sun Also Rises or The Old Man and the Sea? Obviously the people who love us would rather have us here and mostly healthy and damn the writing; I only wish they could understand how to be a writer and not able to write is a high price to pay.

So that’s why I don’t write more than I do. I’m trying to find some exercises to help me get broken out of this long, drawn out funk I’ve been in as far as my creativity so maybe I’ll end up writing more somewhere down the line. If I ever want to get those books written, I have to get going soon.

In the meantime, love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: Vimy Ridge, Canada’s Hour

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The_Battle_of_Vimy_RidgeThe French still recall Verdun; the British have the Somme; the Anzacs, Gallipoli. When the Americans began fighting on their own they would remember Belleau Wood as a place of honor, but for the Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge remains the most important battle of the Great War. This battle, fought from April 8 to April 12, 1917 marked the first time all four all-Canadian divisions had been assembled in one place for one assault. They would make the most of their opportunity.

After spending 1916 mired in offensives on the Somme and counteroffensives down in Verdun, the Entente forces decided to move the war back north to where it all began in the chalk fields, ridges, and valleys near and around Ypres. The assault on Vimy Ridge would be a set piece battle part of the larger 1917 Arras Offensive and it would begin in similar fashion to most battles to this point in the war.

Once all the Canadian forces, strengthened by some British corps of engineers and other specialists gathered at the mustering point, the deluge of supplies began to arrive. Thousands of shells for the guns, food for the men, and all the other necessities of a Great War battle poured into the depots behind the lines. Of course, as usual, this let everyone who took a moment to notice an attack was obviously brewing in the area. Still, this battle would take into account several lessons learned by both sides in 1916.

For the Germans, they began abandoning single line trenches in favor of defense in depth networks which gave their troops greater survival ability under massive bombardment. The Somme taught the Germans the futility of attempting to hold a front line of trenches. Unfortunately for the Germans, the area to be attacked during this battle had little in the way of defense in depth positions established given that the surrounding sector had been so quiet for the better part of the last 18 months. They would start preparations, but wouldn’t have time to get much done.

The Canadians drew on lessons in tactics and strategy learned in the meat grinder of Verdun. This included multiple wave attacks reinforced by close artillery support. The French generals who had successfully broken the German siege of Verdun actually gave a series of lectures detailing the methods they had used in the counterattack which threw the Germans back and regained the territory originally lost around the fortress city. Many Canadian corps commanders attended these lectures and the plan of attack for Vimy Ridge bears the French stamp of the new tactics.

The four Canadian divisions began training for the assault in rear areas as early as February 1917. This training included one extremely important new wrinkle. The allies had learned at great cost the majority of officers and commanders tended to lead from the front of their troops and so became early casualties. This was a problem because those officers were the only ones who knew what the plan was. Once they were killed, attacks often dissolved into little more than disorganized brawls and rarely accomplished anything lasting.

For the Vimy Ridge assault, the Canadians instituted a new policy. Every officer, commissioned and non-commissioned alike all the way down to platoon sergeants would cross train and learn the job of the man above him in the chain of command and the job of the man immediately below him as well. This proved a fateful change of strategy because now enough people knew enough of the plan to ensure that even when the top commanding officers were killed, the attack could go forward with a reasonable chance of success.

The battle began with the usual preliminary bombardments starting 20 March 1917. While the bombardments commenced, British and Canadian miners finished laying underground mines below the German lines to be a nasty surprise for the Germans once the assault began in earnest.

At 5:30 AM on 9 April 1917, the engineers blew the mines, destroying several German strong points and creating a kind of trench across no man’s land. This explosion signaled the supporting Canadian artillery to open up the hurricane bombardment where every gun in the line began firing at maximum rate. Despite sleet and snow, the Canadians managed to advance perfectly. Some units followed tanks in early examples of the later common combined arms attacks.

By 6:30 AM, three of the four Canadian divisions had reached their first objectives known as the Black Lines. After a planned pause to reset their lines of attack, the divisions moved on towards their secondary objectives, the Red Lines. These fell as well and for a time, the Canadians held the bombed out village of Vimy itself. Unfortunately, a German counterattack drove them out of the village but was unable to achieve much more in the way of sweeping the Canadians away.

During the early morning hours of 10 April, the Canadian commanders moved a sizable reinforcing force up to the front to join where the attack had stopped.  These new troops leapfrogged the Red line and began an assault on the Blue line, which they took by 11:00 AM. The original troops then leapfrogged THOSE troops and took the Brown line which ended up falling by early afternoon. By nightfall and despite a German counterattack, the entire area of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands with the exception of a single hill known as “The Pimple.”

After spending 11 April consolidating their gains and digging in against further counterattacks, the Canadian 4th Division renewed its assault on The Pimple and by 6:00 PM on 12 April, the entire ridgeline and surrounding villages and hamlets were in Canadian hands.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge is the greatest source of national pride for Canada to come out of World War One. Recently, however, some revisionist historians have begun to question just how Canadian the attacking force really was. Regardless, the largest Canadian monument to the men of the Great War remains proudly at Vimy Ridge to this day.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.