The Advantage of Being a Nobody

January 11, 2019

 

I’ve had only a few slight encounters with eminent writers and scholars, yet these brief meetings were memorable.  Frankly, I agree with Pat Conroy’s opinion about associating with writers as stated in his book My Reading Life :  “The world of writers was a snake hole, a circle of hell—a rat’s nest and a whirlpool and a dilemma . . . .”  I knew from reading about them that they could be churlish, vicious, sniping, petty, arrogant, opinionated, acerbic, cold-hearted, crushing, and generally unpleasant.  Best to leave them alone.  Better to try the social amenities with a South Georgia bobcat within the confines of a small room.  Consequently, if my life as a student and teacher brought me into their presence, I tried not to push myself forward, although I did occasionally brave their wrath by asking for an autograph in one of their books.  I had the same trepidations in regard to noted professors and scholars.  Some of them would smile in a pleasant, apathetic way upon my being introduced to them, but behind the smile was the implied question of “Who are you?  Why should I bother with you at all?”  They quickly dismissed me as not worth noticing.  I do not feel that I should blame them too harshly.  This is pretty much the way of the world, whether one is in academia, business, entertainment, or the military.  The general opinion is that people are worth noticing only if they have a lot of money, considerable power or influence, celebrity status, or sex appeal.  Having none of these qualities, I usually attract no attention the way low bushes attract no lightning.  But there are advantages to moving around unnoticed.  This gives one a true sense of freedom.  I can go anywhere without being bothered or feeling it necessary to bother others.  I can sit in the back of the room and be entertained by the human spectacle.  In short, there are some advantages to being a nobody.

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Hobo: An Imagined Journey

July 18, 2017

(In Memory of Milton Clark Shippey, 1911-2001)

My father, a hobo, catching the train

at one in the morning,

bumping, jolting across Alabama,

heading west to Texas.

The rush of air through the open

door, straws on the floor.

Fog in the ravine,

damp early morning air in

the verdant darkness, moving on

towards Mississippi.

A wide space crisscrossed

by steel X’s, metallic water

below, sheathed by dark

trees–the great river at rainy

noon.  Vacant, sitting cross-legged

in the door, staring into Louisiana.

Backs of warehouses, junkyards,

and rusted, unused rails.

Tin roofs of farmhouses

glaring in the afternoon sun.

The blood-splashed sunset, pulling

him on towards the west.

Midnight on a side-track–

dogs barking in the small-town darkness–

Somewhere the lonesome wail

of the on-coming train,

the cyclops brightness

between the rails,

the beating heart throbbing

onward in unbearable intensity.

The emptiness of hunger–

somewhere the steam of

mulligan stew.  Stumbling over

roadbed gravel–the firelight–

the haggard faces crouched over

tin plates, the glint of an eye,

the flash of a spoon.

A hand extended with

a tin bowl and the warm liquid

gulped down.  A harmonica lamenting

in the darkness about times

and kin lost–about loves that

never arrived.  And then the running

again as the boxcars jolt up a hill,

swinging into the open door

with two others, just in time.

Coming into a town in the pre-dawn

darkness, the glare of lights,

and sudden fear of yard detectives

with cudgels.  Beams of light

cutting like knife blades in the

night, oaths, fists swinging.

Dropping silently to the ground

and slinking away into the vines

to lie concealed in the wet leaves,

waiting all day through the fetid

heat, until the next train.

The West luring him onward–

until loneliness in the heart draws

him back to familiar faces that

look up in astonished delight from

the breakfast table and his mother

enfolds him again in her arms.

The laughing, the joking, the extended

plate of hot biscuits, and in that

bowed stillness as the grace is

said by his bald-headed father,

the siren wail of the train,

departing again for the West.

 

–Published Spring 1997 in Pegasus, the literary

magazine of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College

The Rooster

May 30, 2017

My mother kept chickens when I was a boy living on a farm in Calhoun County, Georgia.  Among these chickens was a young rooster that taught me an important lesson.

I enjoyed chasing the rooster.  He looked funny with his scrawny body, long neck, short tail feathers, and big feet.  When he crowed, he sounded like a teenage boy whose voice is changing.  I chased him with a switch, pretending I was a pirate brandishing his sword.  I chased him with a spear made from a chinaberry tree limb, pretending I was a Creek warrior.  Then I was a soldier, and the dirt clods I threw at him were hand grenades.  The rooster flapped his wings and ran with alarmed squawks.  I had vanquished the foe, or so I thought.

A day came when the tables were turned.  The rooster developed into a large white bird with long tail feathers arching downward like scimitars.  His red comb stood on his head with a jaunty flop to one side like a liberty cap.  His feet were covered with waxy yellow scales.  One morning I awakened to the clarion call of a full-throated rooster greeting the new day and announcing to the world that he was a force to be reckoned with.  That call should have been my warning, but I did not heed it.  I continued to chase the rooster, but one day he suddenly stopped and turned.  He raised his head, ruffled his neck feathers, and scratched his feet in the dirt.  I became aware of the inch-long spurs on his legs.  He trotted towards me intent on business, and I turned and sped towards the house, screaming, “Mamma!”  I bounded across the front porch to take refuge behind the screen door.  My antagonist occupied the field and strutted back and forth, exulting in his victory.  He cocked his head to eye me better, daring me to come back outside.  For several days, I was content to play inside the house.  My mother asked, “Why don’t you go outside to play?”  I mumbled excuses.

Eventually, the rooster became too cocky.  My friend James, an African-American boy about my age, came to the house early one morning on some errand for his grandmother.  He awakened us with his urgent cries for help.  He called out, “Mr. Shippey!  Mr. Shippey!”  My father rushed to the front door in his boxer shorts with my mother and me close behind.  We discovered the rooster had James cornered in the front yard, refusing to let him approach the house.  My father ran to the rescue, shooing the bird away.  He knew better than to provoke my father.

Then my mother had a confrontation with the rooster.  He tried to chase her when she went into the backyard to hang out clothes.  But he tried that trick only once.  The next time she carried a load of clothes to the yard she was ready for him.  She had a broom with her, and she knocked him out cold.  He lay there a while and then got up and ran away.

After that incident my mother decided the rooster had to go, so she let James’ grandmother know they could have him if they wanted him.  James and his two brothers came after the rooster and chased him all over the backyard in a flurry of feathers.  There were loud shouts and cries of “Head him off!  Head him off!”  Finally, they caught him and thrust him under a washtub turned upside down on a red wagon and hauled him away for Sunday dinner.  I suspect his drumsticks made tough eating, but maybe James’ grandmother made dumplings to make him more palatable.

Finally, I could again play outside undisturbed.  Looking back now, I realize the rooster taught me a valuable lesson about bullies.  I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end, and I stopped abusing animals, especially those that could turn the tables and fight back.

 

 

 

 

Gun Shy

May 30, 2017

I had a dog once that was gun shy.  He was an excellent hunting dog, until someone fired a gun; then he lit out for the woods as hard as he could go.  The dog was a Brittany Spaniel, and he had a marvelous nose for quail.  He would hold a point without flushing the birds, but as soon as a gun was fired, his beautiful form was ruined.  Some people are like that–excellent in many ways but possessed of one fatal flaw that mars all the other qualities.

The Bond

May 29, 2017

It is a stereotype now, after all the movies and TV programs about war, that men who have been in combat together form a bond unlike any other they may ever have.   This is a phenomenon that Sebastian Junger discusses in detail in his book Tribe (2016).  In DaNang the men in the Navy detachment did not have to trudge through rice paddies or along mountain trails wary of snipers or trip wires, we were not in firefights, we were not dropped by helicopters into the midst of country overrun by North Vietnamese regulars, we were not pinned down by fire or subjected to nonstop shelling, but we did have our dangerous moments. There were times when we did not know if we would die in the next few minutes or even seconds from a MiG 21 attack or a SAM launched from the jungle below us. The planes we flew in had electrical problems, or engines failed. We had to vent fuel, and even the slightest spark could have blown us out of the sky. Sometimes we put on parachutes and lined up ready to bail out, not knowing if this was a drill or the real thing. We knew about the Navy EC 121 that had crashed landed at DaNang, killing nearly everyone on board. Rocket attacks sometimes hit the base; Air Force guys across the field died in these attacks. We felt the barracks shake when a rocket struck nearby, sometimes inside our compound. During attacks we sat in the bunker, slapping mosquitoes and listening to explosions in the distance while guys with M16’s stood guard at the two entrances in case there was a ground attack by sappers who had penetrated the base perimeter. Anywhere was potentially a place for a C4 plastic explosive or grenade suddenly hurled. We were acutely aware of the morgue at the north end of the airfield. At night some of us avoided dark paths between buildings for fear of trip wires. We knew that some of the local people who worked on the base by day probably lobbed the rockets in by night. Typhoons struck the base and stripped the roofs off barracks. The aircraft were sent away, but the men remained. We could be more easily replaced than a jet worth several million. At night returning from the head to the barracks, toothbrush and towel in hand, I sometimes glanced at the stars and wondered, “Will they hit tonight; will there be a rocket attack?” No, we did not do the most dangerous things perhaps, but we knew danger every time we flew. We had our different political and religious views, we came from different parts of the country, we had different cultural backgrounds. Sometimes we had annoying habits or foul mouths. We became irritated with each other. Some sneaked women into the barracks from Dogpatch (the name given by the men to the village next to the base), or they went to the “massage” parlors. Some got drunk and puked all over the floor of the upstairs mess. With all our faults and diversities, however, we had been through danger together. We had flown in the planes and endured the rocket attacks. We had been chewed out by officers from time to time, and we had known homesickness for our families, wives, girlfriends, and buddies back in the States. We had been so wound up with stress that we could hardly eat, or we acted just plain crazy at times, seeking relief from the demons of war that oppressed us. Sometimes late at night we sang, “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do.” We satirically referred to ourselves as “war heroes.” When we returned home, there were no parades down Main Street or welcoming banners at airports, only the ones who loved us to give us a hug. We were ignored, and eyes glazed over if we tried to talk about what we had been through. Sometimes we received outright criticism for having gone to the war. The media vilified us. Most us went quietly back to school or our jobs and continued with our lives. Some were unable to make the adjustment and truly to come home because of severe PTSD. But through all of this, there was still the bond, frayed though it might be because of different ideologies or personal disagreements. We knew what we had experienced that could not really be shared with others. We were willing to listen to each other sometimes, and we could empathize with a member of the detachment who received bad news from home. Now we are old and have not often seen each other.  Some of our number have died after returning home, killed or injured in a car wreck, maybe succumbing to illness, after going uninjured through Nam.  In spite of all of this, the bond remains. We have been there; we know.

 

Arlington National Cemetery: A Personal Perspective

May 26, 2017
Although not technically a part of the District of Columbia, Arlington National Cemetery is patently one of the main sites of interest for any visitor to the nation’s capital.  For approximately a year, I had a personal association with Arlington while I was in the Navy stationed at the north post of Fort Myer, Virginia.  My barracks was right next to the cemetery, and from the window in my room, I could see hundreds of tombstones just over the low wall that separated the cemetery from the post, not an encouraging sight for a sailor scheduled to go to Vietnam in a few months.  The chapel for the cemetery was just a short distance from the Enlisted Men’s barracks, where I was quartered.  Often I saw a horse-drawn caisson, bearing a flag-draped casket, depart from the chapel and enter the back gate of the cemetery, accompanied by an honor guard.  I could hear the beat of the drums and the clop, clop, clop of the horses’ hooves on the paved lane leading into the cemetery.

My barracks was about a five to ten-minute walk from President Kennedy’s grave, and I often strolled down to the site and stood quietly at the foot of the graves of the President and his brother, Robert, watching the eternal flame flicker in the wind.  Sometimes I was content simply to look down at the site from the terrace in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion (now known as Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial).  From there I could view thousands of tombstones arranged in ranks.  Across the Potomac I could see the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol.  Undoubtedly, the panoramic view from the front of the mansion is one of the grandest sights in America.  The striking effect of the view was reinforced by the fact that the tomb of L’Enfant, the city’s planner, was situated on the terrace.  To see the city, one looks across his tomb, a reminder of his continuing legacy.  Sometimes, though, while standing in front of the mansion, I pondered the irony that so many Union soldiers were buried on the estate of Robert E. Lee, the leading general of the Confederacy, who lived at the house with his family for over thirty years.  My barracks stood on land that had once belonged to the Lee family.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was also only a short walk from my barracks, and many times I visited the site and watched a soldier from the Old Guard marching back and forth in front of the tomb, pausing for a few seconds at each end of the mat on which he marched.  Sometimes I was present for the changing of the guard.  One afternoon shortly after arriving in Washington, I went for the first time to the tomb with a Navy friend, whom I will call K__________.  Both of us were wearing our white summer uniforms and, as a result, inadvertently became part of the ceremony. The officer in charge of the guard stated that all men in uniform should render the hand salute at the commands of “present arms.” People in the crowd looked around to see who was in uniform. K_________  and I stood out since we were standing near the front and were the only military personnel wearing uniforms, and we saluted at the appropriate times. I wondered as I held the salutes how K________  felt because I knew that he was adamantly opposed to the war in Vietnam. I made a mental note not to wear my uniform around Washington in the future when not on duty.

One afternoon while at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier I saw a little girl, just a toddler, break free from her mother’s hand and crawl under the chain that separated the crowd from where the guard marched.  The guard immediately halted, turned, clicked his heels, and snapped his rifle to port arms.  He said in a loud voice,  “It is requested that parents keep their children outside the perimeter.”  The horrified mother snatched her child back across the chain.  The guard said, “Thank you,” shouldered his rifle, pivoted, and resumed his march.  The incident reminded me that the guard has a solemn duty that allows no show of disrespect at the hallowed site, whether intentional or unintentional.  This in turn reminds me that those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the nation and its cherished values, either in the military or as private citizens, deserve our unmitigated respect, whether we be at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Vietnam Wall, a memorial on a courthouse square, or an individual grave in a country cemetery.

During the months I was stationed at Fort Myer, I often went for a stroll in the cemetery. I visited the graves of President Taft and Todd Lincoln, as well as those of the Confederate soldiers who were buried around a circular drive near the back wall close to my barracks.  I saw the monument featuring the main mast of the U.S.S. Maine, which exploded in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, leading to the Spanish-American War.  The graves of sailors who died in the explosion were buried nearby.  I enjoyed walking beneath the white vine-covered frames of the Old Amphitheater, located a short distance behind the Custis-Lee Mansion.  Not knowing the official name for this structure, I called it the Pergola.  I noticed that there were many tombstones for those who had died in the Vietnam War and wondered if the death toll might not be higher than the statistics published in the newspapers.

Sometimes after spending the evening in central Washington, I walked back to Fort Myer rather than take the bus, something I would not do today.  I walked along the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial and went up the steps to admire the Daniel Chester French statue.  Visiting the brooding image of Lincoln late at night deeply impressed me and left me in a thoughtful mood as I crossed Memorial Bridge and then proceeded along the road through the cemetery that led up the hill to the fort.  Sometimes security trucks passed by, shining spotlights across the tombstones, but the guards never stopped me, assuming, I suppose, that I was just a soldier returning to the fort after a night on the town.

In the northern section of the cemetery, thousands of tombstones are arrayed in straight lines across the rolling ground.  Seeing such a sight, especially on Memorial Day with a small American flag in front of each stone, prompted somber reflection.  I imagined what the scene might be when Christ returns.  The Archangel Michael would descend and shout in a loud voice, “Attent-Hut!”  The dead in Christ would arise and stand at attention in immaculate uniforms, each man  beside his grave, ready for review by the greatest Commander-in-Chief of all time.

 

Gladiolas 

May 16, 2017

Recently, our gladiolas have been blooming, and I have been again reminded how we came by these beautiful scarlet flowers with golden throats.  My father dug them up from the yard of a house where we lived when I was a small child after we had moved back to Georgia from Jacksonville, Florida.  These “glads” are from an old stock since the house around which they grew was built prior to the Civil War.  No, this was not a house that resembled Tara in the movie Gone with the Wind.  It was simply a large, unpainted farmhouse located at an intersection of dirt roads in Calhoun County.

I know that the house was antebellum because there were other houses similar to it in the central and eastern part of the county that were constructed during the 1850’s by a master builder.  Some were located in the Dickey community, a wide place in the road with two stores, a church, and a few houses.  In fact, the plantation house at Stone Mountain was one of those houses, but it was not nearly so grand as it is now in its renovated glory.  It too was simply a large, unpainted farmhouse.  I remember passing it often whenever we traveled through Dickey on the way to church in Edison.  Sometimes it amuses me to say that the house where we lived was in the suburbs of Dickey.

I was three years old when we moved into the house, which was owned at that time by the Wilkerson’s, the family of my Aunt Geraldine.  If I recall correctly, there were only two large rooms on either side of a central hallway, a front porch, and a small back porch.  There was no indoor bathroom.  We used chamber pots or slop jars, as we called them.  The house stood so high off the ground that I could easily walk under it, and often on hot days I played in the dust beneath the house surrounded by the dimpled pits of doodlebugs.  A large oak tree had fallen in the back yard, and I frequently climbed on it and walked along the trunk.  Sometimes I sat on the long flight of wooden steps that led to the back porch.

We lived on one side of the house, and for a brief time my Uncle Playol and Aunt Geraldine lived on the other side of the hallway.  I remember one morning that I walked into Aunt Geraldine’s kitchen and immediately slipped and fell.  She was mopping the floor and tried to warn me, but I was already in the kitchen and fell among the soap suds left by her corn-shuck mop, a board with corn shucks inserted through holes at regular intervals.  This was the only time I recall seeing anyone use such a mop.  The only other mop like this that I have seen is in the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton, Georgia.

Another vivid memory associated with this house was the time I said a bad word.  I was playing with figures of people cut from a Sears Roebuck catalog.  I kept these paper figures in a shoebox, and one day, while walking along the hall to the front porch to play, I dropped the box and said the word.  My mother overheard and immediately marched me to the kitchen, where she washed out my mouth with soap and water.  Since that time, although I have occasionally let a bad word slip when under stress, I have been careful to guard my language.

My father farmed the land around the house, and whenever he plowed, I followed his Ford tractor, running barefoot and enjoying the feeling of the freshly upturned earth.  I sat on the furrows left by the plow and threw dirt clods.  One day my father had an accident with the tractor near the intersection of the dirt roads.  Returning to the house, he crossed a small creek, little more than a wide ditch spanned by a culvert, and lost control of the tractor in the sand.  The tractor ran off the road and overturned in the creek.  My father had just enough time to jump and land on a log that had fallen across the stream.  I remember seeing the tractor on its side below the road.  Fortunately, my father was not injured.

My mother wanted a washing machine because she had grown tired of washing clothes in a black wash pot and then rinsing them in zinc tubs.  We went to an appliance store in Blakely, where she found a Maytag wringer washing machine that she liked.  She arranged to pay for it in installments, and it was delivered to our house.  Unfortunately, she was not able to keep up the payments, and one of the employees came to repossess the machine. My mother cried over losing the machine, and seeing her in tears, I ran to the back porch and stuck out my tongue at the man.  He was dressed in a dark-blue suit, and he must have regretted having to perform his sad duty.  But I was a child and only knew that he had caused my mother to cry.  So for the next year or two, my mother had to continue washing clothes in the wash pot with water drawn from the well.  Eventually, she got her Maytag washing machine, but ironically, the house where we were then living had no running water.  The new machine sat unused in the back room.  Eventually, when we moved again, she was able to enjoy her machine, setting it up on the back porch and using a garden hose to add water and drain it off.

My Aunt Carolyn and Cousin Elaine, the daughter of my Great-aunt Maude, came to visit us while we lived at the house, and my mother took us swimming at Cordray’s Mill, which was not far away.  My aunt and cousin were both beautiful young women, and I remember how gracefully they swam up and down the length of the pool.  I envied their ability to swim so well since I was afraid of the water.  I simply waded in my swim trunks at the shallow end of the pool.  The water, fresh out of a spring well, was so cold that I could stay in the pool only a short time before my lips began turning blue.

I was an only child, so most days I had to entertain myself.  In addition to playing in the dirt under the house, I sometimes went to watch the chickens.  My mother kept several chickens in a pen to one side of the house.  She clipped their wings so they would not fly out of the pen and tried to be vigilant for hawks.  I often sat inside the pen and watched the chickens.  I was intrigued by the way they drank water.  Mother placed a glass jar filled with water upside down in a dish, and the chickens drank by taking water into their beaks and then holding up their heads to let it trickle down their throats.  I enjoyed watching them feed.  Mother poured feed into a tin trough, and they lined up on either side busily pecking.  Sometimes one of the chickens, with a glob of droppings on its feet, ran down the middle of the trough, but the other hens did not seem to mind.  I sat cross-legged on the ground, and the chickens walked across my lap.  They were my friends, but I was inevitably saddened when Mother decided that she wanted fried chicken for Sunday dinner.

I do not remember flowers other than the gladiolas at the house.  Flowers that commonly grew around country homes at that time included climbing roses, canna lilies, althea, narcissus, daffodils, bridal wreath, and Cherokee roses; so perhaps some of those flowers were also there.  Riding around the South Georgia countryside, I have often noticed pink climbing roses in the spring and canna lilies in the summer blooming among the weeds and briars near the road.  Although the house that once stood on such sites is long gone, these flowers appear every year, attesting that someone who loved beauty, probably a farmer’s wife, had planted and cared for them, perhaps taking delight in them while she sat on the porch shelling peas or walked to the clothes line to hang out the wash.  These flowers, now neglected but somehow surviving, make me wonder what will remain when we have departed from the scene.  Will we perhaps leave behind something to attest that someone who loved beauty once passed this way?

In the next few years my family lived various other places in and around Morgan, the seat of Calhoun County.  Eventually, we moved to Albany, Georgia, where my parents bought a house on the southwest edge of the city.  By then the old house near Dickey had been torn down, but the flowers that marked its location still bloomed every year.  My father returned to the site and dug up some of the gladiolus bulbs and planted them in the flowerbed at our home in Albany, and we enjoyed their blossoms every spring for more than forty-five years.  Before we sold the house after my father’s death, I dug up some of the gladiolus bulbs and planted them in the yard of our home in Tifton, where they have flourished and still remind me every year of their ancestry and my family’s history.  They are to me what the little madeleine cakes were to the French writer Marcel Proust—something cherished from childhood that powerfully evokes the past.

Washington, D. C.: A Personal Perspective. The Capitol

May 3, 2017

During the time I was stationed in the Washington, D. C., area while I was in the Navy, I visited the monuments, historical sites, or cultural centers of the nation’s capital almost every week. I was officially assigned to Anacostia Naval Air Station, but I was actually quartered at the north post of Fort Myer, Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac. As a result, I could easily take a bus across the Francis Scott Key Bridge and get off in Georgetown, if I wanted to visit a site in that area, or continue down K Street to the center of the city. Moreover, as a member of the armed services, I could catch a DOD (Department of Defense) bus on the post and go to any other military base in the Washington vicinity free of charge simply by showing my ID to the driver. Sometimes a friend accompanied me, but more often I went by myself. Every outing was an adventure. I could hardly believe my good fortune to be stationed in or near the capital, where for almost two years I indulged my passion for history and art, something I had been able to do while growing up in South Georgia only vicariously through books.

I often visited the Capitol. Usually, I was content just to walk around the grounds and admire the building from the outside, but a few times I went inside. I remember one morning taking a DOD bus to the Washington Navy Yard and then walking to the Capitol from the south, an approach that few tourists take. It was a beautiful day in late winter, and the dome shown brightly like a huge wedding cake against the blue sky. I was also reminded of a giant beehive, possibly a more appropriate metaphor. The Japanese magnolias were in bloom in various places in the city, including the Capitol grounds. Their light-pink blossoms complemented the white exterior of the building. I do not recall what else I did that day, but perhaps I visited the Supreme Court Building on the east side of Capitol Hill and maybe passed by the entrance to the Library of Congress, saving a visit inside for another day.

Once a friend and I were near the Capitol when a thunderstorm arose. We took shelter on the east portico amid the huge columns while the lightning flashed and the thunder roared overhead. I had the impression of being under artillery fire and was reminded that I would eventually be assigned to Vietnam, where I did, in fact, experience the roar of outgoing ordnance and incoming rockets. I wondered if the storm was an ominous portent for the nation. Certainly, Washington during those days was under siege by regular demonstrations against the war that involved hundreds of thousands of marchers.

While taking refuge from the storm, I recalled seeing the TV broadcast of President Kennedy’s inauguration from the portico, followed by Robert Frost’s unsuccessful attempt to read the poem he had written for the occasion. The sun glare and the dimness of the typing made it impossible for the eighty-seven-year-old Frost to read the poem, so from memory he recited “The Gift Outright,” perhaps a more suitable choice anyway.

On other days I went inside the Capitol and enjoyed standing in the Rotunda and looking up to the eye, where George Washington, a rose-colored cloth over his lap, is depicted rising in apotheosis to heaven, surrounded by a variety of allegorical figures. It was amusing to think what Washington might have thought of this grandiose painting.

I walked through Statuary Hall, the old House of Representatives chamber, where statues from each state are positioned, and searched for the statue of Alexander H. Stephens from Georgia, who had served as a congressman in that very room. It was ironic that he was represented since he was also Vice President of the Confederacy, a rebel against the United States. I also considered the irony that Lincoln had served as a young congressman from Illinois in the room.

One afternoon I visited the Senate chamber and sat in the gallery for a while. I was somewhat surprised that so little was happening. Only a few senators were on the floor, and no one seemed to be paying attention to the one speaking at the rostrum. There was an air of genteel boredom. One senator had his feet propped up on his desk and was reading a newspaper. A few pages and staff were moving about the room, distributing documents. I did not expect an exciting scene similar to one from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or an impassioned debate resembling prints I had seen in history books of Henry Clay or Daniel Webster holding forth with upraised hand to a full chamber; nevertheless, I had hoped for a bit more action. I did have the pleasure of seeing Margaret Chase Smith, wearing a pink suit, walk down the aisle to lay some paperwork on the front desk, but she did not remain long on the floor. Overall, the Senate on that day resembled a gentlemen’s club, where a few members came to lounge, read the paper, talk briefly in small groups, and then leave. The real work of the day, I realized, was going on in the senatorial offices or committees.

Things were not always so calm in the Senate. One of the most dramatic and shocking events occurred on the floor of the old Senate chamber in 1856. Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, was incensed by some remarks of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts during the debates on how Kansas should be admitted to the Union. Sumner, an ardent advocate of abolition, mocked Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, an elderly relative of Brooks, and accused him of having an ugly mistress, namely, “the harlot, Slavery.” Acting according to the honor code of the Old South concerning insults to family, Brooks entered the Senate chamber on the afternoon of May 22, 1856, and proceeded to beat Sumner violently over the head with a cane, severely injuring him. Sumner was unable to return to his duties as senator for a long time. Brooks was censured by the House of Representatives and resigned, but he returned to South Carolina, where he was re-elected. Both men were regarded as heroes by their respective regions.

While I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, I often studied in the main reading room of the South Caroliniana Library, which, by the way, is modeled after the reading room of the old Library of Congress. At the foot of the staircase leading to the reading room, a marble tablet commemorates Preston Brooks. The inscription on the tablet begins with these words: “A Tribute of Tender Love, to the memory of Preston S. Brooks.” Certainly, Brooks did not have any “tender love” for Sumner on the day of his assault, which ominously portended violence on a much larger scale in the nation.

After leaving the uneventful Senate proceedings on the day of my visit, I strolled along the hallway, taking a few photos of the beautiful and elaborate floral designs and landscape scenes decorating the vaulted ceiling and walls. Only recently, in reading David McCullough’s The American Spirit, have I learned that these paintings were designed by the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi and that the hallways in this part of the Capitol are called the Brumidi Corridors. Brumidi was also the artist for The Apotheosis of Washington in the eye of the Rotunda.

My most memorable visit to the Capitol occurred about two in the morning while I was stationed at Fort George Meade after I had returned from Vietnam. President Johnson had just died. Some friends and I were staying up late in the barracks talking when one of them suggested that we ride down to Washington to pay our respects to the President, whose body was lying in state in the Rotunda. We figured that since it was so late the line waiting to go inside the Capitol would not be long.

I had seen the former president while I was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. One weekend two friends and I went to San Antonio, where we toured the Alamo, visited the river walk, and ascended the Tower of the Americas, built for the 1968 HemisFair. Returning to the base Sunday morning, we decided to go through Johnson City to see the LBJ Ranch. We parked the car on the side of the road and walked along the fence, trying to get a glimpse of the ranch house, but all we could see were some trees in the distance that marked the course of the Pedernales River. Standing near the entrance to the ranch, I noticed a cream-colored Cadillac riding around in the pasture among the cattle. The car eventually turned onto the lane leading to the entrance. It stopped at the gate, where I was standing with my camera just a few feet away on the passenger side of the vehicle. I noticed that the driver was wearing a Stetson hat, and then I realized that the person in the front passenger seat was President Johnson. He was wearing a short-sleeved plaid shirt. He put his hand to his mouth and yawned, and the car turned onto the highway toward Johnson City. That brief encounter on a Sunday morning gave me a somewhat more personal interest in the President.

After riding down the Washington-Baltimore Parkway that night, we parked somewhere on the east side of the Capitol. Even at that hour, the end of the line was about two blocks long. In the distance we could see the dome illumined against the night sky. We waited for about two hours. I assumed that, when we finally reached the Rotunda, we would pass by the casket in just a few seconds, but just as we entered, the line was halted, and the changing of the guard occurred. As a result, we were able to stand still for several minutes as the relief watch came on duty. The casket was directly beneath The Apotheosis of Washington, resting on the Lincoln catafalque and covered with the American flag. Guards representing each branch of the service were standing around the catafalque. As the relief guard entered, everything was silent, except for the squeaking of leather shoes on the marble floor. The servicemen marched slowly, carrying their rifles at present arms. They assumed their places and then stood at attention with their rifles at order arms. The relieved guard marched quietly out of the Rotunda.

Several times I had seen the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but this ceremony around President Johnson’s casket in the wee hours of the morning was truly impressive. My friends and I said little on the return trip to Fort Meade.

Forty-five years have passed since my last visit to the Capitol, and my color photographs of the Brumidi paintings taken on that occasion have faded. Much has changed, and it is now possible to watch the proceedings of the Senate live via streaming video on the U. S. Senate web site.

“The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner.” U. S. Senate, n.d. Web. 2 May 2017. <https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_ Sumner.htm>.

Fathers

April 24, 2017

A dark bedroom–a little light comes in from the hall, casting a golden trapezoid on the floor. The father sits in the rocking chair, holding his child, who cries softly into his shoulder from fear of the thunder. He is still in his dirty work clothes, having just come home without time for supper. He rocks back and forth, singing a quiet, monotonous song: “Don’t take me down upon that foggy river, foggy river far away.” Every now and then he says, “Hush now. Don’t cry. Daddy is here.” Then he resumes his song. The steady rocking and quiet singing gradually lull the child to sleep; the thunder diminishes and falls silent. There is only the gentle sound of rain pinging on an overturned pan in the yard. The father rises and carefully places the child in the crib. He pulls up the covers and kisses the child’s forehead one more time before tip-toeing out of the room.

Scenes like this are needed throughout the nation. The children of this country need fathers who are at home for the big and little crises of their lives. They need fathers who can be strong and firm when necessary but who also can be gentle and loving, respecting the fears of a small child, taking time to bring comfort. Mothers like this are, of course, also needed. All too often, though, the mother is present, but the father is absent, whether at home or living at a distance. Fathers need to be present in the lives of their children on a daily basis.

Sometimes fathers try to excuse their absence by spending quality time with their children, but this is a euphemism for not being present often enough. Nothing substitutes for actually being present in a child’s life each day. Dads need to take time to fly a kite with their children on a spring afternoon, to make silly faces with them at the breakfast table, to sit on their bed at night and tell them stories about their childhood, to take them on walks through the woods or the neighborhood, to stand at the window together to watch a cardinal in the pear tree, to walk to the bus stop together on a cold, cloudy morning, or to lie on the grass in the backyard with a pair of binoculars and take turns looking at the craters on the moon. Being present day after day says “I love you” more clearly than any number of words or things purchased.

 

Browsing

April 22, 2017

Browsing

 

On my cell phone

I have seen the changing of the

guard at Buckingham Palace,

the cloudy peak of Mt. Everest,

the radiance of moonlight

on the Tyrrhenian Sea,

polar bears swimming in

James Bay, and morning

sunlight on the roof of the Emerald

Buddha Temple in Bangkok.

Last night, while taking out the trash,

I saw the full moon rising behind

my neighbor’s pine trees.

–hps