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James R. Stout

Sojourns

Paw-Paw Gonna Fall In The Low!

            When I was a growing up our family made a once a month trek to visit my grandparents on their farm in East Texas. It was always something that we all looked forward to. In those days, we lived about 120 miles from the farm and in the very early years the trip was made on two-lane roads with speed limits not exceeding 55 mph. We generally would leave our house on Friday evening after Mom and Dad got home from work and a quick sandwich for dinner. Money was too tight to spend on eating out. It usually took us about 2 and a half hours or so to make the trip. It depended a lot on how much traffic there was. Those drives are great memories for me. We would play games such as the “alphabet” game in which we would look for letters of the alphabet on billboards and road signs. We started with “A” and of course ended with “Z”. The winner was the first person to get through the alphabet. You had to be the first person to point out a letter in order for it to be “yours”. We also would sing songs and harmonize. The songs were usually either hymns or American standards such as “Little Annie Rooney” or “In the Good Ole Summertime”. My sister Barbara would also insist on singing her junior high school “fight” song!

            We would sometimes listen to the radio, but generally we made our own music. We each had opportunities to share about our day or the week that was just ending. I was the youngest of we three kids and I was always relegated to having to sit in the middle of the back seat or sometimes my sisters would get the seat and I got the floor, hump included! Note we didn’t even think about wearing seat belts. In fact, our first car to have seat belts in the rear seat wasn’t until much later when my parents bought a 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 in June of 1967. Most of my memories of those drives were in our 1961 Ford Galaxie 500 that my parents bought as a demo in the spring of 1962. I loved those cars. They were roomy inside and very sturdy. I do have some of my earliest memories of those trips when we still had a 1956 Ford Fairlane Station Wagon. Dad was a Ford man up until the early 80’s.

            All children are branded for life by things that they say when they are kids. For my sister Debbie it was her asking Dad, in a tearful voice, if she could have some Debbie-Q instead of “Barbara-Q”. She thought Bar-B-Q just wasn’t fair! Being the youngest meant that I got laughed at a lot by all hands-on deck. When I was about 3-years-old we were making one of our trips to the farm and as we crossed the Trinity River, I suddenly burst out with one of the sayings that I was stuck with for years to come. I loudly exclaimed while pointed at the river below, “Paw-Paw gonna fall in the low!” Well, my parents thought that was just hilarious. They had no idea where I came up with it. For that matter, neither did I. But I do remember being fearful that my grandfather would drive his tractor off the bridge someday and fall in the river. It apparently got to the point that every time we were in the car and crossed any bridge, I would repeat my exclamation of concern for my grandfather’s safety. It was soon relayed to extended family members and friends of my parents that Randy, as Art Linkletter used to say, “Said the darndest things”.

            Life marched on and even as a young adult my parents would occasionally remind me of my exclamation, “Paw-Paw gonna fall in the low!” Fast-forward to 1990. I was just about to finish my college education. I had started very late at the age of 31 and would graduate from Houston Baptist University two months shy of my 35th birthday in 1990. That spring, as I was finishing up my requirements for my B.A., I had to take 6 college hours of a foreign language to complete my credits. I wasn’t really interested in taking any particular language. Anything would do. I just needed to get those 6 hours. I decided on taking French. I soon learned how to order breakfast in French, count in French, ask for directions in the event I was ever in France, learn how to address someone properly in French, and generally get a taste for the language. Heck, I can still count to cinq (five) in French all these years later and I figure I’ll survive in Paris on “omelette au fromage” (cheese omelet).

            One day in French class we were learning about common words and imagine my surprise when I learned that the French word for water is “L’eau”. It’s basically pronounced “low”. Holy water buffalo, Batman! Apparently, I was speaking French at the age of 3. To be honest, it kind of freaked me out a bit. The next time I saw my parents I told them about this revelation and Dad started singing the Twilight Zone theme! Now, I don’t actually believe in nonsense such as reincarnation, but it is odd how such things as this happens to us in life. Coincidence? Maybe so. But then again, who knows? There’s no rhyme or reason that I can think of that would explain how a 3-year-old child born and being raised in East Texas, where twang is most definitely fixin’ to git er dun, could come up with referring to a body of water as “low”. Well, it does give one pause.

            Over the years I still think of “Paw-Paw falling in the low” when I drive over a bridge. Only now I’m the Paw-Paw. There’s a large creek that runs through the farm and there’s a county road that crosses that creek about 3/10’s of a mile from the farmhouse. I have crossed the wooden bridge over that creek countless times in my 63 years of living. I pretty much cross it every time I go anywhere. I’ve crossed it on foot, on a tractor, in several cars, a 4-wheeler, a “mule”, and in my trusty Dodge pick-up truck over the years. Every single time I cross it I think of my Paw-Paw either on his 1953 Allis-Chalmers tractor or in one of his Chevrolet trucks (a 1955, 1958, 1961 or 1964) crossing that bridge and I worry about him falling in the “low” or “l’eau”. Thankfully, he never fell in the l’eau-low. Isn’t it funny how we carry these things for life?

            How about you and any sayings that you made as a child that became family folklore? If you have one, then share it in a comment to this blog. I think we could have some fun looking back on those things. Now, don’t go fall in the l’eau, mes amies!

The Raid of Forgiveness

            Some of you may remember learning of the Doolittle Raid during World War II. It has been depicted many times in movies and books. It was a daring raid that was intended to let the Japanese military know that they were not invincible. It was led by Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle a mere 4 months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The effect of the raid on the morale of not only American soldiers, but the entire nation as well, was immense. Some say it was the point at which America determined to say “no” to defeat or even the thought of defeat.

            There were 80 Army Air Corps men who took part in the raid. 52 of them were officers and 28 were enlisted men. All of them volunteered to participate. It was considered that survival would be unlikely. These were America’s finest during a time when heroism was the norm rather than the exception. I won’t go into depth on the preparation for the raid or the raid itself. You can look it up if you wish to. What I want to do is tell you about one of those 80 men. I should mention that of the 80 men 3 were killed in action during the raid. An additional 5 died either from injuries sustained when they were forced to crash land or in the case of 4 men during imprisonment after being captured by the Japanese following their crash landing in enemy territory. 3 of those 4 men were executed for “war crimes” by the Japanese. They had committed no crime though. 1 of the 4 men died from malnutrition and beatings. The man I want to tell you about is one of the other 4 men who were tried and sentenced to life in prison. His name was Jacob DeShazer.

            Jacob DeShazer was a staff sergeant. During imprisonment as a P.O.W. he suffered for 3 years at the hands of cruel captors. He endured beatings and near starvation during those 3 years. However, for a 3-week period of time he was loaned a copy of the Bible to read by a sympathetic guard. After reading as much of the Bible as he could during that 3 weeks, he dedicated his life to Christ and became a Christian. He determined that for however long that he might live he would dedicate his life to Christ. In August of 1945 he was liberated from his imprisonment following the surrender of Japan. He returned stateside in early 1946 and decided to go to college at Seattle Pacific College. He graduated in 1948 and started a career that spanned the next 30 years. That career was as a Christian missionary in Japan. You read that right. Rev. DeShazer returned to the country where he had been beaten and mistreated to preach and lead others to Christ. That’s some kind of forgiveness, huh? He even started a church in Nagoya, Japan, the town in which he raided during the Doolittle Raid.

            Now, have you ever heard of Captain Mitsuo Fuchida? He was the man who lead the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Following Rev. DeShazer’s return to Japan the two men met and became close friends. In fact, Captain Fuchida became a Christian after reading a pamphlet that Rev. DeShazer had written. Captain Fuchida then became a missionary serving in both Asia and America for years. On several occasions the two men preached together in Japan.

            Among the medals that Staff Sergeant DeShazer received were the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, and following his death at the age of 95 in 2008 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor). All of that said, I have no doubt that none of these medals compares with what Jesus must have said to Rev. DeShazer upon his entry into Heaven. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

            After reading about Rev. DeShazer I had to marvel at his faith in Christ. After the brutality and mistreatment that he suffered while in captivity he could have hated the Japanese and his captors for life. But that isn’t what Jesus tells us we should do. Jesus told us to love our enemies. I can’t think of a better example of loving your enemy than the case of Rev. DeShazer. He had what my grandfather called “walking faith”. Grandpa said that some of us have “talking faith” and some of us have “walking faith”. It was his way of saying that we should put our faith into action. Rev. DeShazer certainly put his faith into action. Can you imagine how many people must have come to Christ due to Rev. DeShazer’s willingness to put his faith into action? Oh, that we all were as dedicated as Jacob DeShazer.

The Gift of Life

            It’s been a cold day here in East Texas. Cold for East Texas that is. The temperature at my house never got above 36 degrees. That may not be the below zero temperatures of some of our northern states, but for around here it’s cold. All that cold air outside went a long way in helping me decide to not go outside today. There was nothing that had to be done so bad that it required of me going outside. The only problem was that I found myself doing too much sitting in my chair bundled up and trying to stay warm. Oh, I could have done some things around the house such as cleaning it, but the fact is I just didn’t want too. So, I didn’t. I did manage to get some recording done, but I had to turn the heat off while recording so that the sound of the furnace wasn’t picked-up by the microphone. Although I have some soundproofing in my studio, it still needs a/c and heating. I recorded until my fingers got too cold and I was shivering then I stopped and ramped up the heat again.

            What ended up happening was I went back to my chair, bundled up, and did some thinking. I started thinking about my grandfather after a while and I realized that tomorrow (February 9th) will mark the day that I will turn 63 years and 5 months old. What does that have to do with my grandfather, you ask? Well, I figured out that on April 22, 1963 my grandfather turned 63 years and 5 months old. Stay with me for a little bit longer and this will all make sense. That fact made me think back on what my grandfather was like when he was my exact age. My perspective on him has changed over the years and the change has accelerated over the last couple of years.

            When I was a kid, I thought my grandfather was ancient. To be honest, most people looked older back then. Not just how I perceived them at the time, but also when I look at pictures from those days. Grandpa had thinning hair, had started to put on a little extra weight, and had quite a few wrinkles and age lines. To me he was old. I probably am diluting myself, but I don’t think I look as old at my age as he did at my age. However, after recalling his every day life in those days I realized Grandpa was in far better shape than I am now. At least, so far as we could tell. He got out and worked hard every day. I don’t. He raised cattle, built fences, did tractor work, chopped wood with an axe, and all the things that go into owning a real working ranch. He had no employees. He did the work himself. Frankly, I couldn’t keep up with him if my life depended on it. In many ways he was in far better shape than I am, and he certainly worked physically harder than I do. He still went to bed early but got up early too. When I would be visiting, he didn’t stay in the house on cold days. Wood had to be brought in and the stove tended too, but he also had to go check on the livestock, make sure that they were fed and not in distress, mend any fences that might need mending, and sometimes get on his tractor that had no cab and do whatever might need doing while cold winds blew in his face. I supposed if I absolutely had to do some of those things today, then I would. But I’m soft (most of us are these days) and I don’t have to do those things. Of course, in my defense I should point out that Grandpa never had to work in the corporate world and put up with the stress entailed with office politics, the politically correct police, or the stress of dealing with bosses. He never had a boss. He started farming his own land when he was 20 years old. He worked on his parent’s family farm before that. I worked in the corporate world for most of my adult life and the only time I didn’t have a boss was when I didn’t have a job. I worked hard in a different way for a long time so that I could retire at 62. Grandpa never retired. Interestingly enough, he died 4 years to the day after the day he turned 63 years and 5 months old. Gulp! Two days before he died, he was digging post holes and building a fence about 100 yards from where I am now sitting and writing this blog. If I only live as long as Grandpa did, then I have only 4 years left. Here’s hoping that won’t be the case. But it does give me pause.

            While I am ready to meet God and to spend eternity in Heaven, I’m not in a hurry to do so. This is the only life I get in human form. I want as much of the human experience as I can get. After all, I’ll have eternity for what comes next. When Grandpa died, he had 7 grandchildren ranging in age from 4 to 17. I was smack in the middle at the age of 11. I have 5 grandchildren ranging in age between 7 months and 11 years. I get to see three of them very often, but there are two that I don’t get to see much at all. It’s not my desire for that to be that way and it is my prayer that I will get to see them more often in the future. I love them all so very much. Thinking about my mortality tends to make me want to see them all more and more. I suppose that is only natural. In a way, there is a fence that needs mending in my life too. I will continue to make that effort.

            My grandmother lived for 22 years after my grandfather died. She got a whole lot more of the human experience than he did. But in some ways that might have been a blessing for Grandpa. He didn’t have to go through some of the indignities that befall us in our old age. But still, Grandma got to see all of their 7 grandchildren become adults. She also got to enjoy all 4 of her great-grandchildren. She got to see many more sunrises and sunsets. She got to enjoy spending time with her 4 children, 7 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren. She got to sing praises to her savior that many more years. Life is so very precious.

            I also found myself thinking today about recent legislation in New York that allows the abortion of a full-term baby only minutes from being born. I won’t get into how on Earth our country could get to such a point, but I will say that it literally makes me sick to my stomach to think about. I mentioned that I have a 7-month-old granddaughter. I have a picture taken of her only minutes after she was born. The thought of such a precious life being murdered only minutes earlier is beyond reprehensible. Any baby whose life is snuffed out in such a way will never have the chance to be 63 years and 5 months old. That baby will never have children and grandchildren. That baby will never enjoy a single sunrise or sunset. That baby will never get to enjoy the human experience other than the 9 months spent in his/her mother’s womb. That baby might have discovered a cure for cancer or might have saved lives by being a police officer or firefighter. That baby might have been a teacher that profoundly touched and affected the lives of thousands of children over a decades long career.

            I’ll get off my soapbox now. This started out as a blog about how different the lives of my grandfather and myself are at the same age. But there are some similarities too. Probably more of those than differences. By the time I did all that thinking today two things happened. First, I got a headache from doing too much thinking! More importantly, I realized that I am so fortunate to still be alive and to have time to be a better person. Not that I’ve been a bad person, but I don’t have to look long at my life to know that I made some big blunders and missed the mark too many times. I still have time to do better. I said earlier that life is precious and that is a fact. I’d have to be some kind of colossal fool not to realize that life is a gift. I plan on making the most of that gift with whatever time I have left here on Earth. How about you?

History 101

            I started a new recording project about 6 weeks ago. It’s a massive undertaking. Why? Because when I’m done it will amount to about 40 new recordings of songs that I have written over the years. That amount of songs could easily be the equivalent of 4 albums. Why so many? Because I want to. I hope that’s a good enough reason! Most of the songs are songs that I have never had a chance to record or any existing recordings are demos or were recorded on inferior equipment decades ago and have needed to be recorded properly for a long time. The songs span a period of time from 1972 through the present. Why is it going to take me so long to record all of them? Well, first off hand I do have other things to do. As some of you may know, I am single and live alone on my small ranch. Simply put, that means that if something needs doing, then I’m the one who has to do it. Secondly, while I am like many men in that I don’t multi-task well, I do have a creative mind with the ability to have more than one project going on at the same time. Most notably for now is that I am also in the research stage for what will be either a collection of short stories linked together with the same main characters or it may turn into a couple of books. Thirdly, as my then 91-year-old father once told me, “You’re not a spring chicken anymore, son!” To be clear, if I were 25 years younger than I am, then I would have much more energy, and would no doubt get things done quicker. Alas, I am NOT 25 years younger now and that as they say, is that. Finally, and this is perhaps the main reason for the length of time that it will take me to complete these new recordings, is the fact that I am doing it all myself. All instruments and vocals will be done by me. That means I have to record individual tracks for each part (some of the songs will have as many as 32 tracks), do the mixing, and I have the equipment now to do professional mastering of the finished mixed songs. Look at it this way: If I had three other musicians working with me on a song, I would likely record the basic rhythm tracks all at once. The drums, bass, and rhythm instruments such as guitar and piano would all be recorded in a matter of a couple of hours. It would then require me to overdub additional instruments and vocals. But I don’t have three other musicians on 24/7 call which is what it would take. So, what would take only a couple of hours to accomplish may take me 2 or 3 days (providing there are no major interruptions). Generally, I have to start with a basic drum track. I play some percussion instruments myself such as a cajon, bongos, congas, tambourine, shakers, and assorted other such instruments, but I don’t have a drum set. I do have a snare drum, but it is better at collecting dust than anything else. What I have to do is make a scratch recording of the song on my guitar or piano. Then I experiment with drum set samples to get the correct tempo and style that works best. I do that using a variety of drum machines, pads, and loops. It’s darned time consuming is what it is. Once the basic drum track is done, I then record the main rhythm instrument which is usually either an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, or electric piano. Then I start stacking the parts. A basic bass track is recorded but may be re-recorded after the other parts are added. Why? Because if I record a cool bass track that just sounds great, then it’s liable to end up interfering with the vocals or another necessary part. So, after 45 years of recording I have learned to do the final bass track late in the process. It allows me to craft a bass part that stands out but doesn’t get in the way. Am I boring you? I hope not. There is a point to all this if you hang on.

            Okay, now more to the point of this blog entry. A week ago, I started recording a song that I wrote when I was 18-years-old. I had long ago buried it thinking it was just not mature enough for usage. But when I sat down and started going through songs to choose which one would be next, I came upon the original handwritten lyrics and chord sheet that I wrote in November of 1973. I started to play the song and things got interesting. Before long I had raised the key a couple of steps to fit my voice of today (I’m unusual in that I actually sing higher now than I did then – go figure). I also changed up the rhythm of the song by speeding it up and giving it a bit of syncopation that it had lacked. I kept the melody with the one exception of one line that just seemed to need to be changed and I suddenly realized that the song had a lot of potential. Well, before I knew it, I had a basic rhythm track worked out. So, I’ve been recording on it now for a week and it’s coming along quite nicely. I like it. But here’s the deal. I got the drums and percussion recorded as well as the bass, acoustic rhythm guitar, an opening electric guitar solo, a flute solo, electric piano (a sort of muscle shoals Fender Rhodes feel to it), a four-piece string quartet part on the chorus, a violin solo in the background on the chorus and violin ensemble that matches the acoustic rhythm guitar part, and a processed grand piano part on the chorus. I have also got the lead vocal recorded. Then I hit a wall. I like the lead vocal, but I kept thinking it needed some harmony. But every harmony part that I came up with just stunk the place up. What to do?

            So, I was just about to fade off to sleep last night and I was thinking of the problem. That’s when I remembered something. Somewhere in a box in the walk-in closet of the studio there was probably an ancient cassette tape with the only other recording of the song that has ever been made. We’re talking about a cassette that would be at least 41 or so years old. But I thought perhaps that recording could shed some light on the harmony part that I am missing. I vaguely remembered that the song had a good harmony part to it, but I just wasn’t remembering it. Therefore, I went to sleep with a mission on my mind for this morning: Find that tape.

            I got up this morning, bleary-eyed as usual, and after breakfast I went into the studio and opened the door to that closet. The closet that is wall-to-wall packed with boxes of old tapes, equipment, instrument cases, mic stands, the aforementioned snare drum, my baby high chair – wait – is that right? Yea, my mother kept it and now I have it. It’s 63-years-old, made of wood, and painted yellow. I must have been the cutest baby boy sitting in that thing! I digress. The point is the closet is packed. I began my search. Two hours later I found the tape. Ahhh. Yes, I still have a cassette player to listen to it on. In fact, I have three of those buggers. I put it in the one that is currently hooked up to my stereo system and after fast-forwarding and doing some searching, I found the ancient recording. What it lacks in quality was all worth the end result. The harmony part was there for me to hear and yes, by golly, it is a good harmony part. What I realized was that I had been trying to come up with an intricate harmony part above the lead vocal. But that’s not what I did 42 years ago on that recording. It’s a very tight harmony below the lead vocal. I listened to it several times and it all came back to me. It felt natural as can be. So, I went into the studio, que’d up the new recording, and sang the harmony under the lead vocal. Voila! By George, I think I’ve got it! Now, I’m waiting for the washer and dryer to finish so that I can go back into the studio and record that harmony vocal. I should have this one all finished by this Saturday. I still have to record a lead instrument part, then do the mixing and mastering.

            So, what have I learned? A few things. First, sometimes the simple way is the best way. Second, persevere until you get it the way you want it. Third, just because you have all the new up to date equipment it doesn’t mean that the old ways were bad. That old recording is pretty bad on the whole, but it has the perfect harmony vocal part saved for this project 40 plus years later. That’s really the most important thing I’ve learned. Yes, I have improved the song with some changes and obviously the recording itself will be far better than that old one, but there was a vital part on that old recording that is needed and if I hadn’t saved the recording for all these years, then I might not ever have come up with the harmony part again. We can all learn a lot about life if we keep history true and saved as it was. It’s not a good feeling to go back and look at our mistakes but knowing the mistakes should prevent us from making the same mistakes again. On the flip side of that coin, knowing the good things that were done in history can light our paths into the ever dark and unknown future.

Quite a Summer

           The summer before I turned 14-years-old was quite a summer. I spent the summer doing most of the things that kids did in the summer during those days. I listened to the latest hit records, I hung out with friends, went swimming at the local public pool, listened to my hometown Houston Astros games on the radio, watched the news with my parents and wondered what on Earth was happening to our country, and for one week I went to a summer camp from our church. The latest hit records included “Get Back” by The Beatles, “In The Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, “Get Together” by The Youngbloods, “Sugar On Sunday” by The Clique (a great group of guys that I came to know many years later and greatly admire), “Green River” by CCR, and probably one of my all-time favorite records, “Soul Deep” by The Box Tops. It was a great summer for music.

            The Astros had their best season that year up until then finishing .500 for the first time with an 81-81 win/loss record. It was the year that we had our first 20 game winning pitcher with Larry Dierker, we thrilled to “The Toy Cannon” Jimmy Wynn, and we didn’t realize that a guy named Jim Bouton who had just joined the team was writing a book about the inside workings of the team that would become a bestseller the next year. A big part of that summer was listening to the west coast games late at night on my transistor radio.

            As for watching the news, there was a four-week period of time from July 20, 1969 through about August 20, 1969 that had everybody talking. It started with Neal Armstrong’s first step on the moon. I remember going outside that night and looking up at the moon and marveling at the fact that there were two human beings up there on that celestial body. To say that it thrilled our nation is a gross understatement. As John Denver would later say many times, it was “far out”. The astronauts had barely been back home when we heard about some grisly murders in California that included an 8-month pregnant actress by the name of Sharon Tate. It would be a story that unfolded over the next several months and while we didn’t know the name Charles Manson yet, we would. Then, on August 15th we watched on the 10 o’clock news the goings on in a place called Woodstock. My parents were quite simply appalled. I didn’t know what to think at the time. I recently happened on the movie of the three-day event as it was showing on TV and to be honest, I now understand why my parents were appalled. At the time, I just liked the music. Well, most of it anyway. I never much cared for Joan Baez, Country Joe, or Janis Joplin, but I always liked Crosby, Stills, and Nash (musically speaking – I loathe their politics), The Who, Arlo Guthrie, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and CCR. But the “festival” was more about a bunch of fairly young people doing drugs, going naked, having sex, and thumbing their nose at authority of any kind. You couldn’t have paid me enough money to be among that crowd. I’m always amazed at how many people claim to have been there and think that its such an achievement. As a famous American general said, “Nuts”.

            I mentioned earlier about spending a week at summer camp. It was a place known as Peach Creek Baptist Encampment. Located near a small East Texas town called Porter, about 40 miles northeast of Houston, Texas, it was a large facility with several “dorms”, a large cafeteria, and a big semi-outdoor tabernacle.  None of it was air conditioned. Did I say it was in July in East Texas? Unless you have been in East Texas in July you probably don’t know what the weather is like there that time of year. It is hot and impossibly humid. Let’s recap. No A/C, very hot, and impossibly humid. Our youth group caravanned to the facility in cars. I’m guessing there were probably about 75 kids from our church there that week. There were probably about 800 kids all together from different churches. It was my first time being away from home like that. I would love to tell you that it was a great experience. But I won’t lie to you. It wasn’t. Community bathrooms, powered eggs for breakfast, sweat, no money for concession items due to my parents thought it wasn’t needed, being among the younger aged kids at a camp with mostly high schoolers, and the incessant pranks in the boy’s dorm rooms made for a pretty miserable week. So much so that I wouldn’t go to another camp for 4 years and only then because my girlfriend was going.

            There were a couple of good things though. The last night there I did experience a drawing nearer of God into my life. I also made a couple of new friends. It was a precursor for more profound moments involving such experiences a few years later. I’ll never forget the last day at camp. It was the usual morning Bible study, a break, a final worship service, and then we all packed our gear and got our car assignments. It turned out I would be riding in the youth minister’s car along with 4 other kids and the youth minister. I will never forget sitting in the back seat of that car with the windows down waiting for the youth minister so that we could leave. There were three of us packed into the back seat. Sweat was literally pouring off of us. I was sitting next to a girl named Patty and I kind of had a crush on her. The only thing that saved me from complete embarrassment regarding my prodigious sweating was the fact that she too resembled a drowned rat! Finally, the youth minister got in the car and that was when we learned that he didn’t have an AC in his car. The only thing that saved us was once that we were moving the air coming in the open windows dried the sweat enough to make it bearable.

            We got back to the church and my father was there to pick me up. When I got home, I think my mother thought I must be going crazy because the first thing that I did was take a shower. She usually had to fight me to get me to take a shower. But I had a week’s worth of sweat and grime to get rid of given I was too embarrassed to take a shower at camp. I only took one shower that week and some kid stole my towel leaving me to have to air dry and be made fun of the whole time. I must have been one ripe puppy by that Friday!

            Following that week at camp were the aforementioned events that the whole nation was watching unfold on TV. Before long, September rolled around, and it was time for school to start. 8th grade was going to be the end of junior high school and I was more than a little excited to finish junior high. As I look back on that summer, I have mixed emotions. Some of it was great. A lot of it was good and some of it was not too good. But nothing horrible happened in life. I turned 14 the first week of 8th grade and life was marching forward. As I get older and older, I realize that, for the most part, I’m glad to have experienced many things in my life, but I wouldn’t want to have to go back and do it all again. Moving forward is about the most natural thing that we do. Mainly because we can’t move backward. And that’s a good thing. Eventually we will all get to a point where life has been exhausted in the form that we know it here and now. The good news is that for those of us who accept Jesus as our savior we keep moving forward forever. That is indeed good news. I pray that all who read this have accepted Jesus as their savior. I’d like to see you in Heaven when we shed these earthly bodies and move forward.

Reflections

             I was surfing on YouTube last night just looking to listen to some old songs that I don’t hear much anymore. I also like to see the artists when they were younger which reminds me of when I was younger. I started out watching a live performance from 1967 by The Bee Gees doing my favorite song by them, “To Love Somebody”. Now, I do have that one on my iPod and on CD but seeing them so young and wearing the fashions of 1967 always takes me back. I remember my older sister bringing that 45-rpm record home and we played the grooves off of it. I vividly remember the record label in yellow and white on Atco Records. I even remember the flip-side “Close Another Door” which is a good song as well. I looked it up and at the time of the release of that record and the taping of the performance Barry Gibb was 21 while his twin brothers, Maurice and Robin, were only 18. They should have been called “The Geez Gees”. So talented and so young. Sadly, Maurice and Robin are both gone now leaving Barry as the only survivor of the group.

            After watching that video, I progressed through several more all from about the same time period. “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers, “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang, “Windy” by The Association, “The Letter” by The Box Tops, “Incense and Peppermints” by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and “Beautiful People” by Kenny O’dell were all from 1967. I then moved forward to 1968 and enjoyed videos of “Just Dropped In” by The First Edition, “Too Much Talk” by Paul Revere and The Raiders, “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Lady Willpower” by Gary Puckett and The Union Gap, “The Smell of Incense” by Southwest F.O.B., “Suzie Q” by CCR, and “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I might add here that when I get on YouTube and start surfing it becomes a marathon! I kept moving forward and went through several songs from 1969.

            Then I got to early 1970. Something triggered a memory and I looked up one of my all-time favorite recordings. It’s by a Scottish band called “Marmalade” and the song is “Reflections of My Life”. I was in 8th grade when that song came out and I was a die-hard Beatles fan. The first time I heard the song I thought it was a new Beatles record. But it wasn’t and that was OK. There were a lot of groups then that sounded like The Beatles and I enjoyed their music very much. Bands like Badfinger come to mind. “Reflections” was special though. It just hit on something right. As I sat there listening to the song and viewing a video of the band doing the song in 1970, I thought I might look up the members of the group and see what they were up to nearly 50 years later. They were all pretty young in 1970 and I figured there was a good chance that most of them were still with us. I soon learned that the lead singer and the writer of “Reflections”, Dean Ford, had just passed away on December 31st. That made me sad to hear. Yes, he had been 72 years-old, but that’s not exactly ancient. He passed away due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. I read-up on his biography and learned that he was born in Scotland in 1946. By early 1967 Marmalade had been formed and they had some hits in the U.K. But it wasn’t until they released “Reflections” that they had big success in America. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much further success here or in England. They did a cover version of The Beatles “Oh-Bla-Di-Oh-Bla-Dah” that was stellar, but barely cracked the charts in America.

            One thought that I had while watching that video from 1970 was that Dean Ford was only 24 years-old when it was made and when he wrote that song. Now that I’m in my 60’s I have a different perspective on many things than I did when I was 24. There was Dean singing about reflecting back on his life and his “old home” and the truth is it was really all just in his imagination at that time. He hadn’t really lived long enough to reflect back very far. As I thought on that I noticed on the right side of the screen a bunch of “suggested” videos that were related to the one I was watching. One of them was of Marmalade reformed and performing “Reflections” in 2009 live. Well, I had to watch that one to see what they all looked like and how they sounded. As to the latter, they were in top form. The live version they did in 2009 was spot on perfect. As for the way that they looked it was pretty much what you might expect after what was then 40 years later. Dean Ford was bald while he had been a typical for the day long-haired young man in 1970. There were wrinkles too. A couple of the other guys had gray hair and had put on weight (boy, I can identify with those two things!). But if you closed your eyes and just listened, they sounded just as good as they had back in 1970. I don’t mean this with conceit at all, but so do I. Let’s face it though. If you take care of your voice and keep singing there is no reason that you shouldn’t actually get better with age. Some people abuse their voices, and some have illnesses that affect their singing voices. Those people probably don’t sound “as good” as they once did. But up to a certain point you can keep getting better. Sure, eventually time takes its toll and your voice starts to weaken etc. But in 2009 Dean Ford sounded every bit as good as he did in 1970.

            Then the thought came to me that his perspective on reflecting back on his life in 2009 had to have been completely different than in 1970. After all, by 2009 he had lived long enough for life to have left a few scars, had no doubt seen him lose loved ones that he missed, and he had surely grown wiser than he had been at 24. It dawned on me too that when that performance in 2009 was made Dean Ford was exactly the age that I am today. Ten years later and he is gone. I had to let that sink in a bit.

            By the end of his life I have to think that Dean Ford must have looked back on his “old home” and been melancholy. I know that I have those moments. A line from the song goes, “I’m changing, arranging, I’m changing everything, Everything around me.” Now isn’t that the truth? We are all changing even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment. Take a drive through the neighborhood that you grew-up in and tell me that things haven’t changed. For that matter, look in the mirror and tell me you haven’t changed. Both inside and out. Those were some pretty insightful words for a 24-year-old. There’s a darker part of the song too that kind of hits home to all of us. It goes, “The world is a bad place. A bad place. A terrible place to live. Oh, but I don’t want to die.” If you’ve been paying attention to things at all, then you have to admit that the world is not what most of us would wish it to be. But this life is what we get and despite all the bad stuff in the world, life can be very sweet and I for one am very thankful for my life. In a way, I think that’s what Dean Ford was trying to say. As bad as the world may be, I’m glad I’m here and alive to share it with my loved ones.

            I ended my video surfing with that song last night. It made me do some heavy thinking. That’s a testament to Dean Ford’s songwriting ability at the ripe old age of 24. I didn’t know Dean Ford, but I’m sure glad that I know his song. It’s not only a haunting melody, performed with great harmonies, and possessing a personal nostalgia for myself and I’m sure many others, but it’s got lyrics that hit home whether you’re 24 or 63 or 72. Thanks for allowing me to have some reflections on “Reflections of My Life”. How about you? Have you got some reflections too?

Monkey Blood

            The year was 1976. I’d love to tell you that it was a wonderful year for me, but I made myself a promise to always be honest and truthful in these blogs. So, it wasn’t a good year. The first few months were OK, but by the time June came around things got bad. Really bad. I apologize for disappointing you, but I simply can’t talk about that month nor most of July for that matter. It’s just too painful. But thankfully, that’s not what this blog post is about. So, get it out of your head. Oh, and don’t ask because I won’t tell.

            By the end of July, I was determined to get a full-time “permanent” job that would make enough money so that me and my girlfriend could get married. In July I was still 20 and she was 17. Way too young to even be thinking about getting married, but hey, we all get stupid sometimes. I applied at several places on my own and although I was offered a couple of jobs, none of them would allow me to earn enough to get married. As ridicules as it may seem, I determined that $4 an hour would get me where I needed to be. I wasn’t thinking about my future or my girlfriend’s future. We just had to get married. No, not that kind of had. It was the kind where you’re young, want to be together, and in those days being “together” without being married still wasn’t done.

            I applied for a job at a vending company, a steel fabrication company (those guys were NUTS – wanted me to work for $3 an hour on the midnight shift), a couple of sales jobs including selling pianos, and I even went to the government’s employment services (can’t remember the actual name of the agency) where they gave me a bunch of aptitude tests to help me figure out what I would be good at. I started feeling like Jim Croce in his song, “Working at The Car Wash”, where nobody could see how brilliant he was and offer him the executive position he deserved. The phrase that I kept hearing was, “Come back when you get more experience.” My question was, “How do I get experience if nobody will hire me without experience?” You know the drill.

            I went to an employment agency around the 17th of July and they sent me out on a job interview at a place that was looking for a route salesman. I knew what that job entailed because my girlfriend’s father was a route salesman. I thought he did alright. I was always good in interviews. At least that’s what I have been told. It must have been true that day because they offered me the job the next day at $4 an hour. I heard wedding bells ringing when the agency called to give me the news.

            I started the next Monday. My job was to drive around in a big underpowered van and deliver supplies and do minor maintenance to the machines that the company sold. The machines? Icee machines. I packed on 20 pounds in the next 5 months from drinking the product! I went from 165 pounds to 185. But to tell the truth it was as much muscle as fat. The job entailed carrying, loading, and unloading heavy boxes that had the syrup in gallon containers as well as the heavy CO2 bottles, etc. My legs and arms got pretty muscled up in that time. I like the job – for about 2 weeks. Then the reality of driving routes based in Houston to Galveston, Bryan, Freeport, Baytown, East Bernard, Brookshire, Humble, and all points in-between got old. A different route each day for two weeks and then start over again. The worst route was the downtown route. Parking was horrible and, in those days, there weren’t any handicap ramps onto the sidewalks which meant tugging and manhandling a two-wheel dolly loaded with product up some curbs that were two feet high. No wonder I was developing muscles in my arms.

            But the job did what it was supposed to do. We made the plans for the wedding and were married on September 24, 1976. A date that shall live in infamy. OK, it wasn’t that bad. But, what’s a little revisionist history? The Democrats do it all the time. Things went along OK for the next few months. While I enjoyed living with my new bride (we had both turned a year older right before the wedding) and all that goes with being young and in love, the truth of our existence started to weigh on my mind. She was still a senior in high school. Did I say we were stupid? I had the responsibility of a wife now. Rent to pay, car insurance, food, gas, phone bill, and the truth was I brought home $504 a month. Our expenses were about the same. Living pay check to pay check had a whole new meaning to me. It wasn’t just a phrase that I heard people bounce around. It was my reality. Worst of all, I felt like I was not pursuing the dreams that had been a part of my life for several years. I got up early, dropped my wife off at school, worked until 5 o’clock, got home around 6 o’clock and I was beat. On most days I was driving 200 miles a day and doing all that loading and unloading and cleaning the machines and so forth. We only had the one car (I bought it when I was 18) and that meant that in the evening’s groceries had to be bought, clothes had to be washed and dried (at a washeteria), and other errands had to be done. And, when you’re newly married you just don’t tell your new bride that you are going to work on some music instead of spending the evening with her. It was a tug of war.

            Christmas rolled around and it was fairly bleak. No extra money for presents. But we each got the other some little something or other and made up for it by putting on “The Best of Bread” and turning the lights out! Then January 3, 1977 came. It was a Monday. I went into work as usual and when I got there my friend Steve (a great guy and co-worker) sheepishly told me that the boss wanted to see me. I asked what was up and Steve just looked down at his shoes and didn’t say anything. Well, a whole flock of butterflies started to bat their wings in my stomach. What did I do? What didn’t I do? I went into the boss’s office and he promptly fired me. He had some trumped-up reasons that didn’t make any sense to me and I said, “Hey, if I can change something and do better, then I will. Just tell me what I need to do.” He told me that he had made up his mind and that was that. I would have to turn in my uniforms by the end of the week if I wanted my last paycheck. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

            I drove back to our apartment in a state of shock. What was I going to do? How was I going to tell my wife? She was still off for the Christmas break from school, so she was home when I got there. I told her and I have to give her credit here. She didn’t get mad. She didn’t start to cry. She didn’t do anything like that. She just hugged me and said, “It’ll be alright. We’ll make it.” That was perhaps one of her finest hours.

            And she was right. We would make it. We had a lean few weeks. I was offered a temporary job doing custodial work for our church. Frankly, it knocked me down more than a few pegs. Church members that I had known for years were getting to see me vacuuming the floors, dusting, cleaning the restrooms, taking out the trash, and doing minor maintenance. My first feeling was humiliation. But then I realized that God had provided me a stop-gap solution. It was low pay, but the church allowed me time off to go on interviews. It helped us to pay rent in February and buy gas etc. One week, after paying all the bills, we only had $12 left for food and gas. I told my wife that we needed $5 for gas. That gave us $7 to buy groceries. We went to the grocery store and I had one of those little red clicker things that added up as you pushed little white buttons on it. Mechanical, not electronic. We got some hot dogs, bread, cheese, and a few other items for about $6.50. We drank water that week. But we made it.

            On February 10, 1977 I interviewed for a job that I saw posted in the newspaper. I was hired and started working on Valentine’s Day. The same day that my Dad had quadruple bypass surgery. I wanted to be at the hospital, but I couldn’t be until I got off work. The job actually paid more than I had been getting paid before. $4.50 an hour! It wasn’t a great job, but it was gainful employment. Oh, and I had been told later that the reason I was fired from the other job was to make room for the boss’s nephew to have a job. I was learning some valuable lessons in life at the ripe old age of 21.

            What I learned from the whole ordeal was that I had a wife who I could count on and more importantly that God provided a way to get through it all. No, He didn’t give me a windfall. But sometimes God allows us to struggle because he knows that through struggles we learn and grow stronger. It was a lesson that God would teach me many times in the future, and I have no doubt that there’s still some teaching yet to come.

            So, when you’re going through hard times and you’re struggling and things look bleak, remember Psalm 46:10. It says, “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s the being still part that we’re supposed to do and sometimes it’s so very hard to do, but I’m reminded of something that happened when I was young. I was outside playing, and I stepped on a ground wasp. The stinger broke off in my foot. It hurt like the dickens and I was rolling around like a big baby and trying not to cry. My best friend’s mother was outside working in her flowerbed and heard all the commotion and came over to investigate. She knelt down and looked at my foot and then she looked at me and said, “Now, shhh! Just be still and I’ll fix it.” And she did. I didn’t even feel her pull the stinger out. She got some “monkey blood” (if you’re of a certain age, then you’ll know what that is) and put it on my foot and within 30 minutes I was back to playing dodgeball. Sometimes it just takes us being still and letting God put some “monkey blood” where it’s needed.

The Fog

            I was newly divorced. It wasn’t what I wanted, but along with the sadness of it all there was also relief. The ordeal of experiencing the marriage fall apart over the last 5 years or so plus the process of getting the divorce had left me spent and ready for a new trail to blaze. My two kids, both out of high school and busy with their own interests, were rarely at home anymore. But they had chosen to live with me in the house. There really wasn’t much choice for that matter. Their mother had wanted her freedom and moved out prior to the divorce being final into a one-bedroom apartment. Not exactly room there for anyone but herself and her new guy. But I was more than happy to have the kids live with me. That said, I would be a liar if I didn’t say that when they were off doing their own things, I alternated between being lonely and enjoying the solitude.

            One Saturday afternoon my daughter came home from her part-time job and said that she was going to spend the night at a friend’s house. Not long after that my son came home and told me that he and his two best friends were going to a concert that night and then crash at one of his friend’s houses. About 4 p.m. I was sitting in the recliner in the living room and I decided that I needed a change of scenery, however brief it might be. So, I packed an overnight bag, got in the car, and drove down to Galveston. I didn’t have a plan other than to just get away for a day and night. By the time I got to the island it was already dark. I drove down to the seawall and trolled westward looking for an inexpensive motel to spend the night in that would have a view of the Gulf of Mexico. I found a room in a chain motel and the room had a balcony that would allow me to sit outside and listen to the surf, smell the salt air, and look at the waves as they came ashore. That was the plan.

            Just as I was parking the car at the motel and making my way to the side entrance that would lead to the elevator to take me to my room on the third floor, a fog about as thick as I have ever seen rolled in off the sea and it brought with it a muggy sticky soup that seemed to envelope me in a cloak that was apropos regarding my frame of mind. I entered my room, threw the overnight bag on the bed, and went to the sliding glass door that lead to the balcony. I opened the drapes and was thrilled to see that the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see the parked cars below. NOT! I wasn’t hungry yet, so I laid on the bed and watched some cable TV while I thought about what I wanted to do. An hour later I had decided to go to an Italian restaurant down on Seawall Blvd that I had been to before. I liked their pizza.      

            As I made my way down to the car in the parking lot the fog was just as thick as it had been an hour earlier. I would not be deterred though. I drove down to the restaurant, went inside, and was seated at a table for two by a window that looked out on a side street. I ordered my pizza and as I waited, I did some thinking. I saw a few couples sitting together and laughing and obviously enjoying themselves. I couldn’t help but envy them. It would have been nice to be sharing my meal with someone. I wasn’t yet accustomed to eating alone in restaurants. I got over that before long. I watched as several classic cars drove into a parking lot on the side street and the drivers all got out to check out each other’s rides. There was a 1971 Chevy Nova SS, a 1967 Chevy Impala SS, a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, and several other very nicely restored classic cars. The waitress delivered my pizza and smiled at me in a way that made me feel like perhaps I wasn’t Quasimodo after all. After the divorce I felt that I must be unlovable. Break out your violins!

            The fog was unrelenting. I ate my pizza and watched as the yellow orbs of light coming from passing cars appeared and then faded away as they passed the restaurant. I took notice of the red tail lights as well and decided that there must be a fad at the time with vehicle designers to make the tail lights look like angry cat eyes. After I finished my dinner, I wanted to take a walk down the seawall, but it was just too foggy to do so. I got back in my car and I sat there for a few minutes trying to decide what to do next. I finally settled on the only reasonable thing to do. Go back to my motel room and crash. How exciting.

            Now here’s the part where things took a turn. When I drove into the parking lot of the motel the fog was thick as ever. But in the short amount of time between getting out of my car and making it back into my room something happened. I looked out the sliding glass door of the balcony and it was crisp and clear outside. I couldn’t believe the difference. There were a couple of chairs on the balcony and I sat down, and it was like someone had removed severe cataracts from my eyes and now I could see everything. Way out in the distance sea I saw the lights from some oil rigs and a large ship passing somewhere between them and where I sat. I could see down Seawall Blvd in both directions and the night had suddenly come alive. Neon signs and colorful billboards advertising the many things to do in Galveston filled my eyes. It wasn’t just the sights that were now crisp and clear. The night had come alive with the sounds of the city by the sea. The susurrant waves that were a lullaby of calm, the cacophony of voices of people in conversations along the Seawall and in the parking lot, the swishing sounds of automobile tires as they drove on the damp payment, and the distant sounds of more than one car stereo were like a perfectly orchestrated piece of music. My mood was instantly transformed. I sat there and started to think about where I was in life at the time and I realized that the whole evening had been an allegory of what was unfolding in my life. The fog would lift. It would happen suddenly and wonderfully. There would be wonderous life after the divorce.

            And so there has been. That evening was about 16 years ago. There has been and is a wonderful life for me. I have 5 beautiful granddaughters now. I have my two kids. I am older, but I’m also retired and now free to do many things that I once could only dream of doing. Life can get us down. Nobody survives without a few scars and memories of scars, but there were things to learn from those experiences. If you find yourself in a fog, a dark place, a sad place in your life, don’t give up. At any moment while you aren’t looking the fog could lift. Nothing is permanent. We can’t go back, and perhaps that is a true blessing, so we must go forward even when it feels like we’re just standing still. Start wearing a watch. Nothing fancy. A cheap digital $10 model will do. Take note that time keeps on ticking by. It doesn’t stand still. Make the best of that time and look for the fog to clear. It will clear and most likely when you least expect it. Live a life worth living. The choice is yours.

Mama's Jonquils

 

            When my mother was about 8-years-old, sometime in either 1937 or 1938, she asked her grandmother, my great-grandmother, if there was some way that she could plant some jonquils like my great-grandmother had at her home. Great-grandma then helped my mother take some cuttings from Great-grandma’s jonquils and plant them on my grandparent’s yard. Mom tended the flowers every year until she left home. They didn’t die after that though. My grandparents made sure that the jonquils continued to survive and bloom every year. I remember being cautioned to not step on them when I was a child and would visit my grandparents. They were planted on side of the garage and they always bloomed sometime in January and February.

            Fast-forward about 45 years. My parents moved to the old farmhouse in 1983 and my grandmother lived with them there for a year. Unfortunately, the old house was just too drafty and cold that winter and my grandmother could barely stand the cold. She was in her 80’s by then. I must admit that they picked one of the coldest years on record to live in the farmhouse. Despite some extensive remodeling, the old house had little in the way of insulation like the insulated homes that they had become accustomed to. It was certainly not up to the 10 degrees weather that happened several times that year. But those jonquils survived anyway. They had continued to thrive through all those years. Mom and Dad bought a piece of property near Trinity, Texas and built a home there. The three of them moved into that home in August of the next year.

            Grandma passed away in June of 1989 at the age of 86. Mom and Dad made frequent trips out to the farmhouse to take care of things including making sure the jonquils were doing fine. Every year after that they would make sure to go out to the farm when the jonquils were blooming so that Mom could enjoy them. I have attached a picture of the jonquils in bloom from about 2001. Somewhere in all of my “stuff” I believe there is a later picture that I took of Mom and my daughter standing beside the jonquils in bloom. I couldn’t find that picture for this blog entry, but now it’s a mission for me!

            Through the next several years I would take Mom out to see the jonquils. She loved them so much and they brought back warm memories of her childhood and her grandmother. Dad passed away at the age of 93 in 2016. In January of 2017 I took Mom out for a drive to the farm and we noticed that the jonquils were not blooming. The green leaves were sprouting and looking good, but no blooms on them. We figured that they just hadn’t quite got to that point yet. But given I had to pass by the farmhouse every day I took note of the fact that they never did bloom in 2017. I didn’t tell Mom though. She had enough on her plate. Her health took a turn for the worse in October of 2017 and we almost lost her then. Unfortunately, she spent the next three months in rehab and then we faced the fact that she would need to live in an assisted living facility. She seemed to rally in January of 2018, but that ended when my sister, Mom’s oldest child, passed away on January 21, 2018 at the age of 68. It just took the wind out of Mom’s sails. One of the last visits that I had with her before she passed away, she asked me if the jonquils were blooming. It hurt me to have to tell her that they had not bloomed that year. She seemed to get a faraway look in her eyes, and I knew that it saddened her. She would pass about two weeks later in late March of 2018.

            I drove by the farmhouse yesterday and made a point of looking to see if the jonquils might be blooming. The green leaves are there, but no blooms. I’m not an expert on flowers or botany, but it appears to me that they have run their course. I sat there in my truck looking at the green shoots next to the old garage and a thought came to me. Perhaps those jonquils and Mom were somehow or other connected in more ways than her simply planting them as a child. The cuttings that she got from Great-grandma were probably first planted about the time that Mom was born. She transplanted them as a young child, and they thrived and bloomed every year until about the same time that Mom passed away. I believe that I will find some jonquils near or on the farm and at the proper time transplant them to my place. They won’t be Mama’s Jonquils, but every year when they bloom, I can remember Mama and how much she loved her jonquils. They can be a tribute to a great lady who was simply the best mom that a person could hope for.

Better, Not Bitter

            Chances are you are wearing something made out of cotton. I know that I am. In fact, just about everything that I am wearing as I write this is made out of cotton or some kind of cotton blend. Most of us don’t think about what it took to get from a field of planted cotton seeds to the clothes that we wear. While it’s likely that most of the cotton used to make our clothes today was planted, tended, harvested, and processed by machines operated by people, the fact is that it hasn’t been that way but for perhaps 60 or 70 years. Even now some cotton is still grown and picked by hand although it has become more and more rare over the past several decades.

            Most people from my generation never picked cotton. By the time I was 10-years-old most cotton farmers were using machines that tilled the soil, planted the seeds, watered the plants, picked the cotton once it was ready, and bailed the cotton for transport to a cotton gin. I mainly grew up in the city, but I spent a great deal of time on my grandparent’s farm. At one time cotton was the cash crop for my grandfather. But by about 1950 he switched from growing cotton, corn, and peanuts to raising cattle. He still grew most of their food and corn and hay for the cattle, but he no longer depended on cotton production for his main source of income. To be honest, he was more than happy to switch over to raising cattle. Weather wasn’t nearly as much of a concern for him in raising cattle as it had been for growing cotton. A lot of rain at the wrong time could ruin a season’s worth of cotton. It could be devastating on their finances.

            Now that I’ve given you a little background, I’d like to tell you about my parents and their experiences with cotton. Their generation was primarily rural and the family farm was as common as tattoos are on young people today. I’ll start with my mother. She was born in 1929. Cotton was the main source of their “cash”. Grandpa grew vegetables and some fruits, had milk cows, raised chickens for eggs and meat, raised a few hogs for pork, and even shot the occasional duck, dove, rabbit, or squirrel for dinner. Nothing went to waste either. Milk cows produced milk, but from the milk they churned butter and skimmed the cream. I am old enough to remember the chickens and milk cows. Fresh eggs and freshly churned butter were part of every breakfast. All that said, the other things that were needed had to be paid for. Oh, there was some bartering still, but mostly it required cash to buy many things. Even though Grandma made most of their clothes she still had to buy the material, thread, buttons, and patterns. After Grandpa got his first tractor in 1939, he had to buy diesel, oil, and items to maintain the tractor and implements. So, as you can see their cotton money was very important to them.

            Until Grandpa got that first tractor, he had to plow the fields with a plow and a mule. It was hard work, but he was fortunate to own land that was not rocky. Although, he did spend a great deal of time clearing the land in the early years. That meant cutting down trees, pulling stumps, and then learning proper crop rotation to ensure the soil was not overworked. He also had to build fences and dig and build burms in the field to channel water away from the crops during heavy rains. Those burms are still present on most of the pastures of the farm land today.

            By the time my mother was 7 or 8-years-old she helped in the planting of seeds and then in late August or early September it was all hands-on deck for picking the ripe cotton balls. She couldn’t fill the 100-pound bags like my grandfather did or her older brother, but she could do her best for her age. Here’s the deal though. Grandpa felt it was only fair to pay her per pound for what she picked just the same as he paid hired hands. It wasn’t much, perhaps a few cents per pound, but it was real spending money for a little girl and Mom spent a lot of that money on books. I came by my love for reading naturally!

            Another crop that they grew a few years was potatoes. My mother used to talk about the year that cured my grandfather from wanting to grow potatoes. Just about the time to dig up the potatoes rolled around they had two weeks of downpours. The fields were nearly flooded and all those potatoes were going to just rot if they didn’t get out there and dig them up by hand. Mom said that it devolved into a mud bath for everyone for several days. She said that she had fun “playing” in the mud. My grandfather, not so much. But they got the potatoes dug up and saved the crop. That was the last year Grandpa grew potatoes as a cash crop. Mom said that in his usual stoic way he simply said, “I think I’ll let the Irish grow the potatoes.”

            By the time my mother left home in 1946 after graduating from high school and going to business school to sharpen her typing skills, learn shorthand, and basically how to be a secretary, Grandpa was already switching over to cattle. She said picking the cotton was hard work, but it was also rewarding. She felt like she had done something worthwhile. She made a little spending money and all the exercise kept her in fine shape for the time to come when she would catch my father’s eye in 1947.

            My father’s experience with cotton was not nearly as pleasant as my mother’s. In fact, it wasn’t decidedly unpleasant. He spent his years between 3 and 12 in an orphanage in Shreveport, Louisiana. That experience was a mixed bag for him. I’ll be writing all about it in a forthcoming book. When he was 12-years-old he was told by the Matron of the Orphanage that he was going to be sent to live at a Baptist home for boys. Frankly, Dad figured it would be a whole lot better than the orphanage. It helped that he had recently become a born-again-Christian and had been attending a nearby Baptist church. He thought that going to a Baptist home for boys was going to be great. But the Matron lied through her teeth. In reality, she paid a man to come and take Dad and get rid of him. Not get rid like kill him, but to take him somewhere else. The Matron apparently did this with all boys about the time that they turned 12. She figured they were going to start being a problem once entering puberty and she didn’t want to deal with it.

            So, on the big day my dad stood outside of the orphanage with his box of worldly possessions and waited for the man to come take him to the Baptist home for boys. The man showed up in a nice new car. Dad thought it was a fancy car. It had big running boards and was painted green. He got into the car and they drove away from the orphanage. Dad thought it was a dream come true. He asked the man how long it would take to get to the home and the man said that they needed to make a stop first. The stop was at the county courthouse. Dad followed the man inside and was told to sit down on a bench for a few minutes. The man went into an office that had a doctor’s name on it. A few minutes later the man came out and got Dad and took him into the doctor’s office. While the man waited out on the bench the doctor examined Dad and then asked him about 100 questions. All kinds of questions. Dad started to wonder why all of this was being done. After a while he was told to go back out and sit on the bench. The man went back into the doctor’s office and before long Dad could hear them arguing. The man that had brought Dad was yelling at the doctor and finally Dad heard the doctor say, “I am NOT going to certify that boy as mentally ill or challenged! He’s a perfectly good boy and I will NOT do it and I will NOT give the OK to have him dumped into a sanitarium.”

            The man stormed out of the doctor’s office and roughly pulled Dad to his feet and they left the courthouse. When they got back in the car the man told Dad that he needed to make a phone call and to stay in the car. The man went to a pay phone nearby and a few minutes later came back with a big smile on his face. Dad figured that the man had arranged to drop Dad off at the Baptist home. They started driving and before long they were out of the city. They drove for an hour or so and then the man turned off on a road outside of Monroe, Louisiana. A few minutes later they pulled through some gates that said, “Louisiana Technical Institute”. LTI for short. The man pulled to a stop and told Dad to sit still and that he would be right back. A few minutes later a rather severe looking man came out and told Dad to get his box of stuff and come with him. Dad did as he was told. He was taken to a barracks and shown a bed where he could put his box of stuff. He was then taken to a communal shower, told to strip out of his clothes, scrubbed raw with a stiff horsehair brush and lye soap, and given a set of clothes to wear. By the time he came outside he noticed the car that he had come in was gone. At dinner that night he received his first whipping for talking at the table. After dinner he asked another boy if this was the Baptist home for boys and the other boy started to laugh and in turn all of the other boys started to laugh.

            “Are you stupid?” the other boy said.

            “No.” Dad said while barely containing tears.

            “This is a reform school. What did you do to get sent here?” The boy asked Dad.

            “I didn’t do anything. I was told I was being taken to a Baptist home for boys.” Dad replied.

            “Well, if you’re Baptist, then I guess since this is your new home it’s a Baptist home for boys”. The boy said and started to laugh again.

            The next morning was a hot summer morning in the year 1935. Dad was taken into a room where a man shaved Dad’s head. He was told they didn’t want any boys with lice. Dad was marched out to a field with the other boys and was shown how to pick cotton. It was his first time to pick cotton. He made some kind of mistake and damaged a ball of cotton and a man on a horse galloped over and knocked Dad to the ground. He had a whip and told Dad that if he ruined any more cotton, he’d be taken to the whipping room. Dad did his best not to damage anymore cotton, but he was so inexperienced that finally he made another mistake. He was hauled upstairs into a room that they called the whipping room. He was told to drop his pants, get on his knees and bend over and grab hold of a long pipe that was mounted to the floor. As soon as he grabbed the pipe, he felt an electric current and try as he might he couldn’t let go of that pipe. That’s when the man whipped him with the whip. Dad said he never damaged another cotton ball for the next 5 and a half years that he spent at LTI. That was Dad’s experience with cotton. No spending money. Worked in the hot son with a shaved head with fingers that bled.

            Two very different perspectives regarding cotton. Fortunately, the corruption of the State of Louisiana no longer exists and children are not treated as slaves. Cotton is grown now by corporations and done so with very expensive machines. Even so, sitting here wearing mostly cotton I can’t help but think about all the hard work that once went into the growing of cotton. I’m thankful for my blessings. And one of the biggest blessings that I have had in life was my Dad. Many people would have turned bitter and mean after the abuse that he experienced. But Dad wasn’t made that way. He told me many times that he believed that his accepting Christ only a few months before his ordeal at LTI began got him through those years. Dad was a kind and gentle man. He was tough when he had to be (including being a United States Marine in WWII), but he was a loving father who I and my sisters were blessed to have. The next time you think you have it bad think about how you might have reacted to spending your teenage years the way my father did. I know that I never came close to anything like that. But if you do go through something bad it doesn’t mean you have to let it turn you bitter or mean. You can learn from it. You can let it make you a better person. Better, not bitter.

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Paw-Paw Gonna Fall In The Low!

            When I was a growing up our family made a once a month trek to visit my grandparents on their farm in East Texas. It was always something that we all looked forward to. In those days, we lived about 120 miles from the farm and in the very early years the trip was made on two-lane roads with speed limits not exceeding 55 mph. We generally would leave our house on Friday evening after Mom and Dad got home from work and a quick sandwich for dinner. Money was too tight to spend on eating out. It usually took us about 2 and a half hours or so to make the trip. It depended a lot on how much traffic there was. Those drives are great memories for me. We would play games such as the “alphabet” game in which we would look for letters of the alphabet on billboards and road signs. We started with “A” and of course ended with “Z”. The winner was the first person to get through the alphabet. You had to be the first person to point out a letter in order for it to be “yours”. We also would sing songs and harmonize. The songs were usually either hymns or American standards such as “Little Annie Rooney” or “In the Good Ole Summertime”. My sister Barbara would also insist on singing her junior high school “fight” song!

            We would sometimes listen to the radio, but generally we made our own music. We each had opportunities to share about our day or the week that was just ending. I was the youngest of we three kids and I was always relegated to having to sit in the middle of the back seat or sometimes my sisters would get the seat and I got the floor, hump included! Note we didn’t even think about wearing seat belts. In fact, our first car to have seat belts in the rear seat wasn’t until much later when my parents bought a 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 in June of 1967. Most of my memories of those drives were in our 1961 Ford Galaxie 500 that my parents bought as a demo in the spring of 1962. I loved those cars. They were roomy inside and very sturdy. I do have some of my earliest memories of those trips when we still had a 1956 Ford Fairlane Station Wagon. Dad was a Ford man up until the early 80’s.

            All children are branded for life by things that they say when they are kids. For my sister Debbie it was her asking Dad, in a tearful voice, if she could have some Debbie-Q instead of “Barbara-Q”. She thought Bar-B-Q just wasn’t fair! Being the youngest meant that I got laughed at a lot by all hands-on deck. When I was about 3-years-old we were making one of our trips to the farm and as we crossed the Trinity River, I suddenly burst out with one of the sayings that I was stuck with for years to come. I loudly exclaimed while pointed at the river below, “Paw-Paw gonna fall in the low!” Well, my parents thought that was just hilarious. They had no idea where I came up with it. For that matter, neither did I. But I do remember being fearful that my grandfather would drive his tractor off the bridge someday and fall in the river. It apparently got to the point that every time we were in the car and crossed any bridge, I would repeat my exclamation of concern for my grandfather’s safety. It was soon relayed to extended family members and friends of my parents that Randy, as Art Linkletter used to say, “Said the darndest things”.

            Life marched on and even as a young adult my parents would occasionally remind me of my exclamation, “Paw-Paw gonna fall in the low!” Fast-forward to 1990. I was just about to finish my college education. I had started very late at the age of 31 and would graduate from Houston Baptist University two months shy of my 35th birthday in 1990. That spring, as I was finishing up my requirements for my B.A., I had to take 6 college hours of a foreign language to complete my credits. I wasn’t really interested in taking any particular language. Anything would do. I just needed to get those 6 hours. I decided on taking French. I soon learned how to order breakfast in French, count in French, ask for directions in the event I was ever in France, learn how to address someone properly in French, and generally get a taste for the language. Heck, I can still count to cinq (five) in French all these years later and I figure I’ll survive in Paris on “omelette au fromage” (cheese omelet).

            One day in French class we were learning about common words and imagine my surprise when I learned that the French word for water is “L’eau”. It’s basically pronounced “low”. Holy water buffalo, Batman! Apparently, I was speaking French at the age of 3. To be honest, it kind of freaked me out a bit. The next time I saw my parents I told them about this revelation and Dad started singing the Twilight Zone theme! Now, I don’t actually believe in nonsense such as reincarnation, but it is odd how such things as this happens to us in life. Coincidence? Maybe so. But then again, who knows? There’s no rhyme or reason that I can think of that would explain how a 3-year-old child born and being raised in East Texas, where twang is most definitely fixin’ to git er dun, could come up with referring to a body of water as “low”. Well, it does give one pause.

            Over the years I still think of “Paw-Paw falling in the low” when I drive over a bridge. Only now I’m the Paw-Paw. There’s a large creek that runs through the farm and there’s a county road that crosses that creek about 3/10’s of a mile from the farmhouse. I have crossed the wooden bridge over that creek countless times in my 63 years of living. I pretty much cross it every time I go anywhere. I’ve crossed it on foot, on a tractor, in several cars, a 4-wheeler, a “mule”, and in my trusty Dodge pick-up truck over the years. Every single time I cross it I think of my Paw-Paw either on his 1953 Allis-Chalmers tractor or in one of his Chevrolet trucks (a 1955, 1958, 1961 or 1964) crossing that bridge and I worry about him falling in the “low” or “l’eau”. Thankfully, he never fell in the l’eau-low. Isn’t it funny how we carry these things for life?

            How about you and any sayings that you made as a child that became family folklore? If you have one, then share it in a comment to this blog. I think we could have some fun looking back on those things. Now, don’t go fall in the l’eau, mes amies!

The Raid of Forgiveness

            Some of you may remember learning of the Doolittle Raid during World War II. It has been depicted many times in movies and books. It was a daring raid that was intended to let the Japanese military know that they were not invincible. It was led by Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle a mere 4 months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The effect of the raid on the morale of not only American soldiers, but the entire nation as well, was immense. Some say it was the point at which America determined to say “no” to defeat or even the thought of defeat.

            There were 80 Army Air Corps men who took part in the raid. 52 of them were officers and 28 were enlisted men. All of them volunteered to participate. It was considered that survival would be unlikely. These were America’s finest during a time when heroism was the norm rather than the exception. I won’t go into depth on the preparation for the raid or the raid itself. You can look it up if you wish to. What I want to do is tell you about one of those 80 men. I should mention that of the 80 men 3 were killed in action during the raid. An additional 5 died either from injuries sustained when they were forced to crash land or in the case of 4 men during imprisonment after being captured by the Japanese following their crash landing in enemy territory. 3 of those 4 men were executed for “war crimes” by the Japanese. They had committed no crime though. 1 of the 4 men died from malnutrition and beatings. The man I want to tell you about is one of the other 4 men who were tried and sentenced to life in prison. His name was Jacob DeShazer.

            Jacob DeShazer was a staff sergeant. During imprisonment as a P.O.W. he suffered for 3 years at the hands of cruel captors. He endured beatings and near starvation during those 3 years. However, for a 3-week period of time he was loaned a copy of the Bible to read by a sympathetic guard. After reading as much of the Bible as he could during that 3 weeks, he dedicated his life to Christ and became a Christian. He determined that for however long that he might live he would dedicate his life to Christ. In August of 1945 he was liberated from his imprisonment following the surrender of Japan. He returned stateside in early 1946 and decided to go to college at Seattle Pacific College. He graduated in 1948 and started a career that spanned the next 30 years. That career was as a Christian missionary in Japan. You read that right. Rev. DeShazer returned to the country where he had been beaten and mistreated to preach and lead others to Christ. That’s some kind of forgiveness, huh? He even started a church in Nagoya, Japan, the town in which he raided during the Doolittle Raid.

            Now, have you ever heard of Captain Mitsuo Fuchida? He was the man who lead the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Following Rev. DeShazer’s return to Japan the two men met and became close friends. In fact, Captain Fuchida became a Christian after reading a pamphlet that Rev. DeShazer had written. Captain Fuchida then became a missionary serving in both Asia and America for years. On several occasions the two men preached together in Japan.

            Among the medals that Staff Sergeant DeShazer received were the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, and following his death at the age of 95 in 2008 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor). All of that said, I have no doubt that none of these medals compares with what Jesus must have said to Rev. DeShazer upon his entry into Heaven. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

            After reading about Rev. DeShazer I had to marvel at his faith in Christ. After the brutality and mistreatment that he suffered while in captivity he could have hated the Japanese and his captors for life. But that isn’t what Jesus tells us we should do. Jesus told us to love our enemies. I can’t think of a better example of loving your enemy than the case of Rev. DeShazer. He had what my grandfather called “walking faith”. Grandpa said that some of us have “talking faith” and some of us have “walking faith”. It was his way of saying that we should put our faith into action. Rev. DeShazer certainly put his faith into action. Can you imagine how many people must have come to Christ due to Rev. DeShazer’s willingness to put his faith into action? Oh, that we all were as dedicated as Jacob DeShazer.

The Gift of Life

            It’s been a cold day here in East Texas. Cold for East Texas that is. The temperature at my house never got above 36 degrees. That may not be the below zero temperatures of some of our northern states, but for around here it’s cold. All that cold air outside went a long way in helping me decide to not go outside today. There was nothing that had to be done so bad that it required of me going outside. The only problem was that I found myself doing too much sitting in my chair bundled up and trying to stay warm. Oh, I could have done some things around the house such as cleaning it, but the fact is I just didn’t want too. So, I didn’t. I did manage to get some recording done, but I had to turn the heat off while recording so that the sound of the furnace wasn’t picked-up by the microphone. Although I have some soundproofing in my studio, it still needs a/c and heating. I recorded until my fingers got too cold and I was shivering then I stopped and ramped up the heat again.

            What ended up happening was I went back to my chair, bundled up, and did some thinking. I started thinking about my grandfather after a while and I realized that tomorrow (February 9th) will mark the day that I will turn 63 years and 5 months old. What does that have to do with my grandfather, you ask? Well, I figured out that on April 22, 1963 my grandfather turned 63 years and 5 months old. Stay with me for a little bit longer and this will all make sense. That fact made me think back on what my grandfather was like when he was my exact age. My perspective on him has changed over the years and the change has accelerated over the last couple of years.

            When I was a kid, I thought my grandfather was ancient. To be honest, most people looked older back then. Not just how I perceived them at the time, but also when I look at pictures from those days. Grandpa had thinning hair, had started to put on a little extra weight, and had quite a few wrinkles and age lines. To me he was old. I probably am diluting myself, but I don’t think I look as old at my age as he did at my age. However, after recalling his every day life in those days I realized Grandpa was in far better shape than I am now. At least, so far as we could tell. He got out and worked hard every day. I don’t. He raised cattle, built fences, did tractor work, chopped wood with an axe, and all the things that go into owning a real working ranch. He had no employees. He did the work himself. Frankly, I couldn’t keep up with him if my life depended on it. In many ways he was in far better shape than I am, and he certainly worked physically harder than I do. He still went to bed early but got up early too. When I would be visiting, he didn’t stay in the house on cold days. Wood had to be brought in and the stove tended too, but he also had to go check on the livestock, make sure that they were fed and not in distress, mend any fences that might need mending, and sometimes get on his tractor that had no cab and do whatever might need doing while cold winds blew in his face. I supposed if I absolutely had to do some of those things today, then I would. But I’m soft (most of us are these days) and I don’t have to do those things. Of course, in my defense I should point out that Grandpa never had to work in the corporate world and put up with the stress entailed with office politics, the politically correct police, or the stress of dealing with bosses. He never had a boss. He started farming his own land when he was 20 years old. He worked on his parent’s family farm before that. I worked in the corporate world for most of my adult life and the only time I didn’t have a boss was when I didn’t have a job. I worked hard in a different way for a long time so that I could retire at 62. Grandpa never retired. Interestingly enough, he died 4 years to the day after the day he turned 63 years and 5 months old. Gulp! Two days before he died, he was digging post holes and building a fence about 100 yards from where I am now sitting and writing this blog. If I only live as long as Grandpa did, then I have only 4 years left. Here’s hoping that won’t be the case. But it does give me pause.

            While I am ready to meet God and to spend eternity in Heaven, I’m not in a hurry to do so. This is the only life I get in human form. I want as much of the human experience as I can get. After all, I’ll have eternity for what comes next. When Grandpa died, he had 7 grandchildren ranging in age from 4 to 17. I was smack in the middle at the age of 11. I have 5 grandchildren ranging in age between 7 months and 11 years. I get to see three of them very often, but there are two that I don’t get to see much at all. It’s not my desire for that to be that way and it is my prayer that I will get to see them more often in the future. I love them all so very much. Thinking about my mortality tends to make me want to see them all more and more. I suppose that is only natural. In a way, there is a fence that needs mending in my life too. I will continue to make that effort.

            My grandmother lived for 22 years after my grandfather died. She got a whole lot more of the human experience than he did. But in some ways that might have been a blessing for Grandpa. He didn’t have to go through some of the indignities that befall us in our old age. But still, Grandma got to see all of their 7 grandchildren become adults. She also got to enjoy all 4 of her great-grandchildren. She got to see many more sunrises and sunsets. She got to enjoy spending time with her 4 children, 7 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren. She got to sing praises to her savior that many more years. Life is so very precious.

            I also found myself thinking today about recent legislation in New York that allows the abortion of a full-term baby only minutes from being born. I won’t get into how on Earth our country could get to such a point, but I will say that it literally makes me sick to my stomach to think about. I mentioned that I have a 7-month-old granddaughter. I have a picture taken of her only minutes after she was born. The thought of such a precious life being murdered only minutes earlier is beyond reprehensible. Any baby whose life is snuffed out in such a way will never have the chance to be 63 years and 5 months old. That baby will never have children and grandchildren. That baby will never enjoy a single sunrise or sunset. That baby will never get to enjoy the human experience other than the 9 months spent in his/her mother’s womb. That baby might have discovered a cure for cancer or might have saved lives by being a police officer or firefighter. That baby might have been a teacher that profoundly touched and affected the lives of thousands of children over a decades long career.

            I’ll get off my soapbox now. This started out as a blog about how different the lives of my grandfather and myself are at the same age. But there are some similarities too. Probably more of those than differences. By the time I did all that thinking today two things happened. First, I got a headache from doing too much thinking! More importantly, I realized that I am so fortunate to still be alive and to have time to be a better person. Not that I’ve been a bad person, but I don’t have to look long at my life to know that I made some big blunders and missed the mark too many times. I still have time to do better. I said earlier that life is precious and that is a fact. I’d have to be some kind of colossal fool not to realize that life is a gift. I plan on making the most of that gift with whatever time I have left here on Earth. How about you?

History 101

            I started a new recording project about 6 weeks ago. It’s a massive undertaking. Why? Because when I’m done it will amount to about 40 new recordings of songs that I have written over the years. That amount of songs could easily be the equivalent of 4 albums. Why so many? Because I want to. I hope that’s a good enough reason! Most of the songs are songs that I have never had a chance to record or any existing recordings are demos or were recorded on inferior equipment decades ago and have needed to be recorded properly for a long time. The songs span a period of time from 1972 through the present. Why is it going to take me so long to record all of them? Well, first off hand I do have other things to do. As some of you may know, I am single and live alone on my small ranch. Simply put, that means that if something needs doing, then I’m the one who has to do it. Secondly, while I am like many men in that I don’t multi-task well, I do have a creative mind with the ability to have more than one project going on at the same time. Most notably for now is that I am also in the research stage for what will be either a collection of short stories linked together with the same main characters or it may turn into a couple of books. Thirdly, as my then 91-year-old father once told me, “You’re not a spring chicken anymore, son!” To be clear, if I were 25 years younger than I am, then I would have much more energy, and would no doubt get things done quicker. Alas, I am NOT 25 years younger now and that as they say, is that. Finally, and this is perhaps the main reason for the length of time that it will take me to complete these new recordings, is the fact that I am doing it all myself. All instruments and vocals will be done by me. That means I have to record individual tracks for each part (some of the songs will have as many as 32 tracks), do the mixing, and I have the equipment now to do professional mastering of the finished mixed songs. Look at it this way: If I had three other musicians working with me on a song, I would likely record the basic rhythm tracks all at once. The drums, bass, and rhythm instruments such as guitar and piano would all be recorded in a matter of a couple of hours. It would then require me to overdub additional instruments and vocals. But I don’t have three other musicians on 24/7 call which is what it would take. So, what would take only a couple of hours to accomplish may take me 2 or 3 days (providing there are no major interruptions). Generally, I have to start with a basic drum track. I play some percussion instruments myself such as a cajon, bongos, congas, tambourine, shakers, and assorted other such instruments, but I don’t have a drum set. I do have a snare drum, but it is better at collecting dust than anything else. What I have to do is make a scratch recording of the song on my guitar or piano. Then I experiment with drum set samples to get the correct tempo and style that works best. I do that using a variety of drum machines, pads, and loops. It’s darned time consuming is what it is. Once the basic drum track is done, I then record the main rhythm instrument which is usually either an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, or electric piano. Then I start stacking the parts. A basic bass track is recorded but may be re-recorded after the other parts are added. Why? Because if I record a cool bass track that just sounds great, then it’s liable to end up interfering with the vocals or another necessary part. So, after 45 years of recording I have learned to do the final bass track late in the process. It allows me to craft a bass part that stands out but doesn’t get in the way. Am I boring you? I hope not. There is a point to all this if you hang on.

            Okay, now more to the point of this blog entry. A week ago, I started recording a song that I wrote when I was 18-years-old. I had long ago buried it thinking it was just not mature enough for usage. But when I sat down and started going through songs to choose which one would be next, I came upon the original handwritten lyrics and chord sheet that I wrote in November of 1973. I started to play the song and things got interesting. Before long I had raised the key a couple of steps to fit my voice of today (I’m unusual in that I actually sing higher now than I did then – go figure). I also changed up the rhythm of the song by speeding it up and giving it a bit of syncopation that it had lacked. I kept the melody with the one exception of one line that just seemed to need to be changed and I suddenly realized that the song had a lot of potential. Well, before I knew it, I had a basic rhythm track worked out. So, I’ve been recording on it now for a week and it’s coming along quite nicely. I like it. But here’s the deal. I got the drums and percussion recorded as well as the bass, acoustic rhythm guitar, an opening electric guitar solo, a flute solo, electric piano (a sort of muscle shoals Fender Rhodes feel to it), a four-piece string quartet part on the chorus, a violin solo in the background on the chorus and violin ensemble that matches the acoustic rhythm guitar part, and a processed grand piano part on the chorus. I have also got the lead vocal recorded. Then I hit a wall. I like the lead vocal, but I kept thinking it needed some harmony. But every harmony part that I came up with just stunk the place up. What to do?

            So, I was just about to fade off to sleep last night and I was thinking of the problem. That’s when I remembered something. Somewhere in a box in the walk-in closet of the studio there was probably an ancient cassette tape with the only other recording of the song that has ever been made. We’re talking about a cassette that would be at least 41 or so years old. But I thought perhaps that recording could shed some light on the harmony part that I am missing. I vaguely remembered that the song had a good harmony part to it, but I just wasn’t remembering it. Therefore, I went to sleep with a mission on my mind for this morning: Find that tape.

            I got up this morning, bleary-eyed as usual, and after breakfast I went into the studio and opened the door to that closet. The closet that is wall-to-wall packed with boxes of old tapes, equipment, instrument cases, mic stands, the aforementioned snare drum, my baby high chair – wait – is that right? Yea, my mother kept it and now I have it. It’s 63-years-old, made of wood, and painted yellow. I must have been the cutest baby boy sitting in that thing! I digress. The point is the closet is packed. I began my search. Two hours later I found the tape. Ahhh. Yes, I still have a cassette player to listen to it on. In fact, I have three of those buggers. I put it in the one that is currently hooked up to my stereo system and after fast-forwarding and doing some searching, I found the ancient recording. What it lacks in quality was all worth the end result. The harmony part was there for me to hear and yes, by golly, it is a good harmony part. What I realized was that I had been trying to come up with an intricate harmony part above the lead vocal. But that’s not what I did 42 years ago on that recording. It’s a very tight harmony below the lead vocal. I listened to it several times and it all came back to me. It felt natural as can be. So, I went into the studio, que’d up the new recording, and sang the harmony under the lead vocal. Voila! By George, I think I’ve got it! Now, I’m waiting for the washer and dryer to finish so that I can go back into the studio and record that harmony vocal. I should have this one all finished by this Saturday. I still have to record a lead instrument part, then do the mixing and mastering.

            So, what have I learned? A few things. First, sometimes the simple way is the best way. Second, persevere until you get it the way you want it. Third, just because you have all the new up to date equipment it doesn’t mean that the old ways were bad. That old recording is pretty bad on the whole, but it has the perfect harmony vocal part saved for this project 40 plus years later. That’s really the most important thing I’ve learned. Yes, I have improved the song with some changes and obviously the recording itself will be far better than that old one, but there was a vital part on that old recording that is needed and if I hadn’t saved the recording for all these years, then I might not ever have come up with the harmony part again. We can all learn a lot about life if we keep history true and saved as it was. It’s not a good feeling to go back and look at our mistakes but knowing the mistakes should prevent us from making the same mistakes again. On the flip side of that coin, knowing the good things that were done in history can light our paths into the ever dark and unknown future.

Quite a Summer

           The summer before I turned 14-years-old was quite a summer. I spent the summer doing most of the things that kids did in the summer during those days. I listened to the latest hit records, I hung out with friends, went swimming at the local public pool, listened to my hometown Houston Astros games on the radio, watched the news with my parents and wondered what on Earth was happening to our country, and for one week I went to a summer camp from our church. The latest hit records included “Get Back” by The Beatles, “In The Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, “Get Together” by The Youngbloods, “Sugar On Sunday” by The Clique (a great group of guys that I came to know many years later and greatly admire), “Green River” by CCR, and probably one of my all-time favorite records, “Soul Deep” by The Box Tops. It was a great summer for music.

            The Astros had their best season that year up until then finishing .500 for the first time with an 81-81 win/loss record. It was the year that we had our first 20 game winning pitcher with Larry Dierker, we thrilled to “The Toy Cannon” Jimmy Wynn, and we didn’t realize that a guy named Jim Bouton who had just joined the team was writing a book about the inside workings of the team that would become a bestseller the next year. A big part of that summer was listening to the west coast games late at night on my transistor radio.

            As for watching the news, there was a four-week period of time from July 20, 1969 through about August 20, 1969 that had everybody talking. It started with Neal Armstrong’s first step on the moon. I remember going outside that night and looking up at the moon and marveling at the fact that there were two human beings up there on that celestial body. To say that it thrilled our nation is a gross understatement. As John Denver would later say many times, it was “far out”. The astronauts had barely been back home when we heard about some grisly murders in California that included an 8-month pregnant actress by the name of Sharon Tate. It would be a story that unfolded over the next several months and while we didn’t know the name Charles Manson yet, we would. Then, on August 15th we watched on the 10 o’clock news the goings on in a place called Woodstock. My parents were quite simply appalled. I didn’t know what to think at the time. I recently happened on the movie of the three-day event as it was showing on TV and to be honest, I now understand why my parents were appalled. At the time, I just liked the music. Well, most of it anyway. I never much cared for Joan Baez, Country Joe, or Janis Joplin, but I always liked Crosby, Stills, and Nash (musically speaking – I loathe their politics), The Who, Arlo Guthrie, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and CCR. But the “festival” was more about a bunch of fairly young people doing drugs, going naked, having sex, and thumbing their nose at authority of any kind. You couldn’t have paid me enough money to be among that crowd. I’m always amazed at how many people claim to have been there and think that its such an achievement. As a famous American general said, “Nuts”.

            I mentioned earlier about spending a week at summer camp. It was a place known as Peach Creek Baptist Encampment. Located near a small East Texas town called Porter, about 40 miles northeast of Houston, Texas, it was a large facility with several “dorms”, a large cafeteria, and a big semi-outdoor tabernacle.  None of it was air conditioned. Did I say it was in July in East Texas? Unless you have been in East Texas in July you probably don’t know what the weather is like there that time of year. It is hot and impossibly humid. Let’s recap. No A/C, very hot, and impossibly humid. Our youth group caravanned to the facility in cars. I’m guessing there were probably about 75 kids from our church there that week. There were probably about 800 kids all together from different churches. It was my first time being away from home like that. I would love to tell you that it was a great experience. But I won’t lie to you. It wasn’t. Community bathrooms, powered eggs for breakfast, sweat, no money for concession items due to my parents thought it wasn’t needed, being among the younger aged kids at a camp with mostly high schoolers, and the incessant pranks in the boy’s dorm rooms made for a pretty miserable week. So much so that I wouldn’t go to another camp for 4 years and only then because my girlfriend was going.

            There were a couple of good things though. The last night there I did experience a drawing nearer of God into my life. I also made a couple of new friends. It was a precursor for more profound moments involving such experiences a few years later. I’ll never forget the last day at camp. It was the usual morning Bible study, a break, a final worship service, and then we all packed our gear and got our car assignments. It turned out I would be riding in the youth minister’s car along with 4 other kids and the youth minister. I will never forget sitting in the back seat of that car with the windows down waiting for the youth minister so that we could leave. There were three of us packed into the back seat. Sweat was literally pouring off of us. I was sitting next to a girl named Patty and I kind of had a crush on her. The only thing that saved me from complete embarrassment regarding my prodigious sweating was the fact that she too resembled a drowned rat! Finally, the youth minister got in the car and that was when we learned that he didn’t have an AC in his car. The only thing that saved us was once that we were moving the air coming in the open windows dried the sweat enough to make it bearable.

            We got back to the church and my father was there to pick me up. When I got home, I think my mother thought I must be going crazy because the first thing that I did was take a shower. She usually had to fight me to get me to take a shower. But I had a week’s worth of sweat and grime to get rid of given I was too embarrassed to take a shower at camp. I only took one shower that week and some kid stole my towel leaving me to have to air dry and be made fun of the whole time. I must have been one ripe puppy by that Friday!

            Following that week at camp were the aforementioned events that the whole nation was watching unfold on TV. Before long, September rolled around, and it was time for school to start. 8th grade was going to be the end of junior high school and I was more than a little excited to finish junior high. As I look back on that summer, I have mixed emotions. Some of it was great. A lot of it was good and some of it was not too good. But nothing horrible happened in life. I turned 14 the first week of 8th grade and life was marching forward. As I get older and older, I realize that, for the most part, I’m glad to have experienced many things in my life, but I wouldn’t want to have to go back and do it all again. Moving forward is about the most natural thing that we do. Mainly because we can’t move backward. And that’s a good thing. Eventually we will all get to a point where life has been exhausted in the form that we know it here and now. The good news is that for those of us who accept Jesus as our savior we keep moving forward forever. That is indeed good news. I pray that all who read this have accepted Jesus as their savior. I’d like to see you in Heaven when we shed these earthly bodies and move forward.

Reflections

             I was surfing on YouTube last night just looking to listen to some old songs that I don’t hear much anymore. I also like to see the artists when they were younger which reminds me of when I was younger. I started out watching a live performance from 1967 by The Bee Gees doing my favorite song by them, “To Love Somebody”. Now, I do have that one on my iPod and on CD but seeing them so young and wearing the fashions of 1967 always takes me back. I remember my older sister bringing that 45-rpm record home and we played the grooves off of it. I vividly remember the record label in yellow and white on Atco Records. I even remember the flip-side “Close Another Door” which is a good song as well. I looked it up and at the time of the release of that record and the taping of the performance Barry Gibb was 21 while his twin brothers, Maurice and Robin, were only 18. They should have been called “The Geez Gees”. So talented and so young. Sadly, Maurice and Robin are both gone now leaving Barry as the only survivor of the group.

            After watching that video, I progressed through several more all from about the same time period. “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers, “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang, “Windy” by The Association, “The Letter” by The Box Tops, “Incense and Peppermints” by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and “Beautiful People” by Kenny O’dell were all from 1967. I then moved forward to 1968 and enjoyed videos of “Just Dropped In” by The First Edition, “Too Much Talk” by Paul Revere and The Raiders, “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Lady Willpower” by Gary Puckett and The Union Gap, “The Smell of Incense” by Southwest F.O.B., “Suzie Q” by CCR, and “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I might add here that when I get on YouTube and start surfing it becomes a marathon! I kept moving forward and went through several songs from 1969.

            Then I got to early 1970. Something triggered a memory and I looked up one of my all-time favorite recordings. It’s by a Scottish band called “Marmalade” and the song is “Reflections of My Life”. I was in 8th grade when that song came out and I was a die-hard Beatles fan. The first time I heard the song I thought it was a new Beatles record. But it wasn’t and that was OK. There were a lot of groups then that sounded like The Beatles and I enjoyed their music very much. Bands like Badfinger come to mind. “Reflections” was special though. It just hit on something right. As I sat there listening to the song and viewing a video of the band doing the song in 1970, I thought I might look up the members of the group and see what they were up to nearly 50 years later. They were all pretty young in 1970 and I figured there was a good chance that most of them were still with us. I soon learned that the lead singer and the writer of “Reflections”, Dean Ford, had just passed away on December 31st. That made me sad to hear. Yes, he had been 72 years-old, but that’s not exactly ancient. He passed away due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. I read-up on his biography and learned that he was born in Scotland in 1946. By early 1967 Marmalade had been formed and they had some hits in the U.K. But it wasn’t until they released “Reflections” that they had big success in America. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much further success here or in England. They did a cover version of The Beatles “Oh-Bla-Di-Oh-Bla-Dah” that was stellar, but barely cracked the charts in America.

            One thought that I had while watching that video from 1970 was that Dean Ford was only 24 years-old when it was made and when he wrote that song. Now that I’m in my 60’s I have a different perspective on many things than I did when I was 24. There was Dean singing about reflecting back on his life and his “old home” and the truth is it was really all just in his imagination at that time. He hadn’t really lived long enough to reflect back very far. As I thought on that I noticed on the right side of the screen a bunch of “suggested” videos that were related to the one I was watching. One of them was of Marmalade reformed and performing “Reflections” in 2009 live. Well, I had to watch that one to see what they all looked like and how they sounded. As to the latter, they were in top form. The live version they did in 2009 was spot on perfect. As for the way that they looked it was pretty much what you might expect after what was then 40 years later. Dean Ford was bald while he had been a typical for the day long-haired young man in 1970. There were wrinkles too. A couple of the other guys had gray hair and had put on weight (boy, I can identify with those two things!). But if you closed your eyes and just listened, they sounded just as good as they had back in 1970. I don’t mean this with conceit at all, but so do I. Let’s face it though. If you take care of your voice and keep singing there is no reason that you shouldn’t actually get better with age. Some people abuse their voices, and some have illnesses that affect their singing voices. Those people probably don’t sound “as good” as they once did. But up to a certain point you can keep getting better. Sure, eventually time takes its toll and your voice starts to weaken etc. But in 2009 Dean Ford sounded every bit as good as he did in 1970.

            Then the thought came to me that his perspective on reflecting back on his life in 2009 had to have been completely different than in 1970. After all, by 2009 he had lived long enough for life to have left a few scars, had no doubt seen him lose loved ones that he missed, and he had surely grown wiser than he had been at 24. It dawned on me too that when that performance in 2009 was made Dean Ford was exactly the age that I am today. Ten years later and he is gone. I had to let that sink in a bit.

            By the end of his life I have to think that Dean Ford must have looked back on his “old home” and been melancholy. I know that I have those moments. A line from the song goes, “I’m changing, arranging, I’m changing everything, Everything around me.” Now isn’t that the truth? We are all changing even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment. Take a drive through the neighborhood that you grew-up in and tell me that things haven’t changed. For that matter, look in the mirror and tell me you haven’t changed. Both inside and out. Those were some pretty insightful words for a 24-year-old. There’s a darker part of the song too that kind of hits home to all of us. It goes, “The world is a bad place. A bad place. A terrible place to live. Oh, but I don’t want to die.” If you’ve been paying attention to things at all, then you have to admit that the world is not what most of us would wish it to be. But this life is what we get and despite all the bad stuff in the world, life can be very sweet and I for one am very thankful for my life. In a way, I think that’s what Dean Ford was trying to say. As bad as the world may be, I’m glad I’m here and alive to share it with my loved ones.

            I ended my video surfing with that song last night. It made me do some heavy thinking. That’s a testament to Dean Ford’s songwriting ability at the ripe old age of 24. I didn’t know Dean Ford, but I’m sure glad that I know his song. It’s not only a haunting melody, performed with great harmonies, and possessing a personal nostalgia for myself and I’m sure many others, but it’s got lyrics that hit home whether you’re 24 or 63 or 72. Thanks for allowing me to have some reflections on “Reflections of My Life”. How about you? Have you got some reflections too?

Monkey Blood

            The year was 1976. I’d love to tell you that it was a wonderful year for me, but I made myself a promise to always be honest and truthful in these blogs. So, it wasn’t a good year. The first few months were OK, but by the time June came around things got bad. Really bad. I apologize for disappointing you, but I simply can’t talk about that month nor most of July for that matter. It’s just too painful. But thankfully, that’s not what this blog post is about. So, get it out of your head. Oh, and don’t ask because I won’t tell.

            By the end of July, I was determined to get a full-time “permanent” job that would make enough money so that me and my girlfriend could get married. In July I was still 20 and she was 17. Way too young to even be thinking about getting married, but hey, we all get stupid sometimes. I applied at several places on my own and although I was offered a couple of jobs, none of them would allow me to earn enough to get married. As ridicules as it may seem, I determined that $4 an hour would get me where I needed to be. I wasn’t thinking about my future or my girlfriend’s future. We just had to get married. No, not that kind of had. It was the kind where you’re young, want to be together, and in those days being “together” without being married still wasn’t done.

            I applied for a job at a vending company, a steel fabrication company (those guys were NUTS – wanted me to work for $3 an hour on the midnight shift), a couple of sales jobs including selling pianos, and I even went to the government’s employment services (can’t remember the actual name of the agency) where they gave me a bunch of aptitude tests to help me figure out what I would be good at. I started feeling like Jim Croce in his song, “Working at The Car Wash”, where nobody could see how brilliant he was and offer him the executive position he deserved. The phrase that I kept hearing was, “Come back when you get more experience.” My question was, “How do I get experience if nobody will hire me without experience?” You know the drill.

            I went to an employment agency around the 17th of July and they sent me out on a job interview at a place that was looking for a route salesman. I knew what that job entailed because my girlfriend’s father was a route salesman. I thought he did alright. I was always good in interviews. At least that’s what I have been told. It must have been true that day because they offered me the job the next day at $4 an hour. I heard wedding bells ringing when the agency called to give me the news.

            I started the next Monday. My job was to drive around in a big underpowered van and deliver supplies and do minor maintenance to the machines that the company sold. The machines? Icee machines. I packed on 20 pounds in the next 5 months from drinking the product! I went from 165 pounds to 185. But to tell the truth it was as much muscle as fat. The job entailed carrying, loading, and unloading heavy boxes that had the syrup in gallon containers as well as the heavy CO2 bottles, etc. My legs and arms got pretty muscled up in that time. I like the job – for about 2 weeks. Then the reality of driving routes based in Houston to Galveston, Bryan, Freeport, Baytown, East Bernard, Brookshire, Humble, and all points in-between got old. A different route each day for two weeks and then start over again. The worst route was the downtown route. Parking was horrible and, in those days, there weren’t any handicap ramps onto the sidewalks which meant tugging and manhandling a two-wheel dolly loaded with product up some curbs that were two feet high. No wonder I was developing muscles in my arms.

            But the job did what it was supposed to do. We made the plans for the wedding and were married on September 24, 1976. A date that shall live in infamy. OK, it wasn’t that bad. But, what’s a little revisionist history? The Democrats do it all the time. Things went along OK for the next few months. While I enjoyed living with my new bride (we had both turned a year older right before the wedding) and all that goes with being young and in love, the truth of our existence started to weigh on my mind. She was still a senior in high school. Did I say we were stupid? I had the responsibility of a wife now. Rent to pay, car insurance, food, gas, phone bill, and the truth was I brought home $504 a month. Our expenses were about the same. Living pay check to pay check had a whole new meaning to me. It wasn’t just a phrase that I heard people bounce around. It was my reality. Worst of all, I felt like I was not pursuing the dreams that had been a part of my life for several years. I got up early, dropped my wife off at school, worked until 5 o’clock, got home around 6 o’clock and I was beat. On most days I was driving 200 miles a day and doing all that loading and unloading and cleaning the machines and so forth. We only had the one car (I bought it when I was 18) and that meant that in the evening’s groceries had to be bought, clothes had to be washed and dried (at a washeteria), and other errands had to be done. And, when you’re newly married you just don’t tell your new bride that you are going to work on some music instead of spending the evening with her. It was a tug of war.

            Christmas rolled around and it was fairly bleak. No extra money for presents. But we each got the other some little something or other and made up for it by putting on “The Best of Bread” and turning the lights out! Then January 3, 1977 came. It was a Monday. I went into work as usual and when I got there my friend Steve (a great guy and co-worker) sheepishly told me that the boss wanted to see me. I asked what was up and Steve just looked down at his shoes and didn’t say anything. Well, a whole flock of butterflies started to bat their wings in my stomach. What did I do? What didn’t I do? I went into the boss’s office and he promptly fired me. He had some trumped-up reasons that didn’t make any sense to me and I said, “Hey, if I can change something and do better, then I will. Just tell me what I need to do.” He told me that he had made up his mind and that was that. I would have to turn in my uniforms by the end of the week if I wanted my last paycheck. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

            I drove back to our apartment in a state of shock. What was I going to do? How was I going to tell my wife? She was still off for the Christmas break from school, so she was home when I got there. I told her and I have to give her credit here. She didn’t get mad. She didn’t start to cry. She didn’t do anything like that. She just hugged me and said, “It’ll be alright. We’ll make it.” That was perhaps one of her finest hours.

            And she was right. We would make it. We had a lean few weeks. I was offered a temporary job doing custodial work for our church. Frankly, it knocked me down more than a few pegs. Church members that I had known for years were getting to see me vacuuming the floors, dusting, cleaning the restrooms, taking out the trash, and doing minor maintenance. My first feeling was humiliation. But then I realized that God had provided me a stop-gap solution. It was low pay, but the church allowed me time off to go on interviews. It helped us to pay rent in February and buy gas etc. One week, after paying all the bills, we only had $12 left for food and gas. I told my wife that we needed $5 for gas. That gave us $7 to buy groceries. We went to the grocery store and I had one of those little red clicker things that added up as you pushed little white buttons on it. Mechanical, not electronic. We got some hot dogs, bread, cheese, and a few other items for about $6.50. We drank water that week. But we made it.

            On February 10, 1977 I interviewed for a job that I saw posted in the newspaper. I was hired and started working on Valentine’s Day. The same day that my Dad had quadruple bypass surgery. I wanted to be at the hospital, but I couldn’t be until I got off work. The job actually paid more than I had been getting paid before. $4.50 an hour! It wasn’t a great job, but it was gainful employment. Oh, and I had been told later that the reason I was fired from the other job was to make room for the boss’s nephew to have a job. I was learning some valuable lessons in life at the ripe old age of 21.

            What I learned from the whole ordeal was that I had a wife who I could count on and more importantly that God provided a way to get through it all. No, He didn’t give me a windfall. But sometimes God allows us to struggle because he knows that through struggles we learn and grow stronger. It was a lesson that God would teach me many times in the future, and I have no doubt that there’s still some teaching yet to come.

            So, when you’re going through hard times and you’re struggling and things look bleak, remember Psalm 46:10. It says, “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s the being still part that we’re supposed to do and sometimes it’s so very hard to do, but I’m reminded of something that happened when I was young. I was outside playing, and I stepped on a ground wasp. The stinger broke off in my foot. It hurt like the dickens and I was rolling around like a big baby and trying not to cry. My best friend’s mother was outside working in her flowerbed and heard all the commotion and came over to investigate. She knelt down and looked at my foot and then she looked at me and said, “Now, shhh! Just be still and I’ll fix it.” And she did. I didn’t even feel her pull the stinger out. She got some “monkey blood” (if you’re of a certain age, then you’ll know what that is) and put it on my foot and within 30 minutes I was back to playing dodgeball. Sometimes it just takes us being still and letting God put some “monkey blood” where it’s needed.

The Fog

            I was newly divorced. It wasn’t what I wanted, but along with the sadness of it all there was also relief. The ordeal of experiencing the marriage fall apart over the last 5 years or so plus the process of getting the divorce had left me spent and ready for a new trail to blaze. My two kids, both out of high school and busy with their own interests, were rarely at home anymore. But they had chosen to live with me in the house. There really wasn’t much choice for that matter. Their mother had wanted her freedom and moved out prior to the divorce being final into a one-bedroom apartment. Not exactly room there for anyone but herself and her new guy. But I was more than happy to have the kids live with me. That said, I would be a liar if I didn’t say that when they were off doing their own things, I alternated between being lonely and enjoying the solitude.

            One Saturday afternoon my daughter came home from her part-time job and said that she was going to spend the night at a friend’s house. Not long after that my son came home and told me that he and his two best friends were going to a concert that night and then crash at one of his friend’s houses. About 4 p.m. I was sitting in the recliner in the living room and I decided that I needed a change of scenery, however brief it might be. So, I packed an overnight bag, got in the car, and drove down to Galveston. I didn’t have a plan other than to just get away for a day and night. By the time I got to the island it was already dark. I drove down to the seawall and trolled westward looking for an inexpensive motel to spend the night in that would have a view of the Gulf of Mexico. I found a room in a chain motel and the room had a balcony that would allow me to sit outside and listen to the surf, smell the salt air, and look at the waves as they came ashore. That was the plan.

            Just as I was parking the car at the motel and making my way to the side entrance that would lead to the elevator to take me to my room on the third floor, a fog about as thick as I have ever seen rolled in off the sea and it brought with it a muggy sticky soup that seemed to envelope me in a cloak that was apropos regarding my frame of mind. I entered my room, threw the overnight bag on the bed, and went to the sliding glass door that lead to the balcony. I opened the drapes and was thrilled to see that the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see the parked cars below. NOT! I wasn’t hungry yet, so I laid on the bed and watched some cable TV while I thought about what I wanted to do. An hour later I had decided to go to an Italian restaurant down on Seawall Blvd that I had been to before. I liked their pizza.      

            As I made my way down to the car in the parking lot the fog was just as thick as it had been an hour earlier. I would not be deterred though. I drove down to the restaurant, went inside, and was seated at a table for two by a window that looked out on a side street. I ordered my pizza and as I waited, I did some thinking. I saw a few couples sitting together and laughing and obviously enjoying themselves. I couldn’t help but envy them. It would have been nice to be sharing my meal with someone. I wasn’t yet accustomed to eating alone in restaurants. I got over that before long. I watched as several classic cars drove into a parking lot on the side street and the drivers all got out to check out each other’s rides. There was a 1971 Chevy Nova SS, a 1967 Chevy Impala SS, a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, and several other very nicely restored classic cars. The waitress delivered my pizza and smiled at me in a way that made me feel like perhaps I wasn’t Quasimodo after all. After the divorce I felt that I must be unlovable. Break out your violins!

            The fog was unrelenting. I ate my pizza and watched as the yellow orbs of light coming from passing cars appeared and then faded away as they passed the restaurant. I took notice of the red tail lights as well and decided that there must be a fad at the time with vehicle designers to make the tail lights look like angry cat eyes. After I finished my dinner, I wanted to take a walk down the seawall, but it was just too foggy to do so. I got back in my car and I sat there for a few minutes trying to decide what to do next. I finally settled on the only reasonable thing to do. Go back to my motel room and crash. How exciting.

            Now here’s the part where things took a turn. When I drove into the parking lot of the motel the fog was thick as ever. But in the short amount of time between getting out of my car and making it back into my room something happened. I looked out the sliding glass door of the balcony and it was crisp and clear outside. I couldn’t believe the difference. There were a couple of chairs on the balcony and I sat down, and it was like someone had removed severe cataracts from my eyes and now I could see everything. Way out in the distance sea I saw the lights from some oil rigs and a large ship passing somewhere between them and where I sat. I could see down Seawall Blvd in both directions and the night had suddenly come alive. Neon signs and colorful billboards advertising the many things to do in Galveston filled my eyes. It wasn’t just the sights that were now crisp and clear. The night had come alive with the sounds of the city by the sea. The susurrant waves that were a lullaby of calm, the cacophony of voices of people in conversations along the Seawall and in the parking lot, the swishing sounds of automobile tires as they drove on the damp payment, and the distant sounds of more than one car stereo were like a perfectly orchestrated piece of music. My mood was instantly transformed. I sat there and started to think about where I was in life at the time and I realized that the whole evening had been an allegory of what was unfolding in my life. The fog would lift. It would happen suddenly and wonderfully. There would be wonderous life after the divorce.

            And so there has been. That evening was about 16 years ago. There has been and is a wonderful life for me. I have 5 beautiful granddaughters now. I have my two kids. I am older, but I’m also retired and now free to do many things that I once could only dream of doing. Life can get us down. Nobody survives without a few scars and memories of scars, but there were things to learn from those experiences. If you find yourself in a fog, a dark place, a sad place in your life, don’t give up. At any moment while you aren’t looking the fog could lift. Nothing is permanent. We can’t go back, and perhaps that is a true blessing, so we must go forward even when it feels like we’re just standing still. Start wearing a watch. Nothing fancy. A cheap digital $10 model will do. Take note that time keeps on ticking by. It doesn’t stand still. Make the best of that time and look for the fog to clear. It will clear and most likely when you least expect it. Live a life worth living. The choice is yours.

Mama's Jonquils

 

            When my mother was about 8-years-old, sometime in either 1937 or 1938, she asked her grandmother, my great-grandmother, if there was some way that she could plant some jonquils like my great-grandmother had at her home. Great-grandma then helped my mother take some cuttings from Great-grandma’s jonquils and plant them on my grandparent’s yard. Mom tended the flowers every year until she left home. They didn’t die after that though. My grandparents made sure that the jonquils continued to survive and bloom every year. I remember being cautioned to not step on them when I was a child and would visit my grandparents. They were planted on side of the garage and they always bloomed sometime in January and February.

            Fast-forward about 45 years. My parents moved to the old farmhouse in 1983 and my grandmother lived with them there for a year. Unfortunately, the old house was just too drafty and cold that winter and my grandmother could barely stand the cold. She was in her 80’s by then. I must admit that they picked one of the coldest years on record to live in the farmhouse. Despite some extensive remodeling, the old house had little in the way of insulation like the insulated homes that they had become accustomed to. It was certainly not up to the 10 degrees weather that happened several times that year. But those jonquils survived anyway. They had continued to thrive through all those years. Mom and Dad bought a piece of property near Trinity, Texas and built a home there. The three of them moved into that home in August of the next year.

            Grandma passed away in June of 1989 at the age of 86. Mom and Dad made frequent trips out to the farmhouse to take care of things including making sure the jonquils were doing fine. Every year after that they would make sure to go out to the farm when the jonquils were blooming so that Mom could enjoy them. I have attached a picture of the jonquils in bloom from about 2001. Somewhere in all of my “stuff” I believe there is a later picture that I took of Mom and my daughter standing beside the jonquils in bloom. I couldn’t find that picture for this blog entry, but now it’s a mission for me!

            Through the next several years I would take Mom out to see the jonquils. She loved them so much and they brought back warm memories of her childhood and her grandmother. Dad passed away at the age of 93 in 2016. In January of 2017 I took Mom out for a drive to the farm and we noticed that the jonquils were not blooming. The green leaves were sprouting and looking good, but no blooms on them. We figured that they just hadn’t quite got to that point yet. But given I had to pass by the farmhouse every day I took note of the fact that they never did bloom in 2017. I didn’t tell Mom though. She had enough on her plate. Her health took a turn for the worse in October of 2017 and we almost lost her then. Unfortunately, she spent the next three months in rehab and then we faced the fact that she would need to live in an assisted living facility. She seemed to rally in January of 2018, but that ended when my sister, Mom’s oldest child, passed away on January 21, 2018 at the age of 68. It just took the wind out of Mom’s sails. One of the last visits that I had with her before she passed away, she asked me if the jonquils were blooming. It hurt me to have to tell her that they had not bloomed that year. She seemed to get a faraway look in her eyes, and I knew that it saddened her. She would pass about two weeks later in late March of 2018.

            I drove by the farmhouse yesterday and made a point of looking to see if the jonquils might be blooming. The green leaves are there, but no blooms. I’m not an expert on flowers or botany, but it appears to me that they have run their course. I sat there in my truck looking at the green shoots next to the old garage and a thought came to me. Perhaps those jonquils and Mom were somehow or other connected in more ways than her simply planting them as a child. The cuttings that she got from Great-grandma were probably first planted about the time that Mom was born. She transplanted them as a young child, and they thrived and bloomed every year until about the same time that Mom passed away. I believe that I will find some jonquils near or on the farm and at the proper time transplant them to my place. They won’t be Mama’s Jonquils, but every year when they bloom, I can remember Mama and how much she loved her jonquils. They can be a tribute to a great lady who was simply the best mom that a person could hope for.

Better, Not Bitter

            Chances are you are wearing something made out of cotton. I know that I am. In fact, just about everything that I am wearing as I write this is made out of cotton or some kind of cotton blend. Most of us don’t think about what it took to get from a field of planted cotton seeds to the clothes that we wear. While it’s likely that most of the cotton used to make our clothes today was planted, tended, harvested, and processed by machines operated by people, the fact is that it hasn’t been that way but for perhaps 60 or 70 years. Even now some cotton is still grown and picked by hand although it has become more and more rare over the past several decades.

            Most people from my generation never picked cotton. By the time I was 10-years-old most cotton farmers were using machines that tilled the soil, planted the seeds, watered the plants, picked the cotton once it was ready, and bailed the cotton for transport to a cotton gin. I mainly grew up in the city, but I spent a great deal of time on my grandparent’s farm. At one time cotton was the cash crop for my grandfather. But by about 1950 he switched from growing cotton, corn, and peanuts to raising cattle. He still grew most of their food and corn and hay for the cattle, but he no longer depended on cotton production for his main source of income. To be honest, he was more than happy to switch over to raising cattle. Weather wasn’t nearly as much of a concern for him in raising cattle as it had been for growing cotton. A lot of rain at the wrong time could ruin a season’s worth of cotton. It could be devastating on their finances.

            Now that I’ve given you a little background, I’d like to tell you about my parents and their experiences with cotton. Their generation was primarily rural and the family farm was as common as tattoos are on young people today. I’ll start with my mother. She was born in 1929. Cotton was the main source of their “cash”. Grandpa grew vegetables and some fruits, had milk cows, raised chickens for eggs and meat, raised a few hogs for pork, and even shot the occasional duck, dove, rabbit, or squirrel for dinner. Nothing went to waste either. Milk cows produced milk, but from the milk they churned butter and skimmed the cream. I am old enough to remember the chickens and milk cows. Fresh eggs and freshly churned butter were part of every breakfast. All that said, the other things that were needed had to be paid for. Oh, there was some bartering still, but mostly it required cash to buy many things. Even though Grandma made most of their clothes she still had to buy the material, thread, buttons, and patterns. After Grandpa got his first tractor in 1939, he had to buy diesel, oil, and items to maintain the tractor and implements. So, as you can see their cotton money was very important to them.

            Until Grandpa got that first tractor, he had to plow the fields with a plow and a mule. It was hard work, but he was fortunate to own land that was not rocky. Although, he did spend a great deal of time clearing the land in the early years. That meant cutting down trees, pulling stumps, and then learning proper crop rotation to ensure the soil was not overworked. He also had to build fences and dig and build burms in the field to channel water away from the crops during heavy rains. Those burms are still present on most of the pastures of the farm land today.

            By the time my mother was 7 or 8-years-old she helped in the planting of seeds and then in late August or early September it was all hands-on deck for picking the ripe cotton balls. She couldn’t fill the 100-pound bags like my grandfather did or her older brother, but she could do her best for her age. Here’s the deal though. Grandpa felt it was only fair to pay her per pound for what she picked just the same as he paid hired hands. It wasn’t much, perhaps a few cents per pound, but it was real spending money for a little girl and Mom spent a lot of that money on books. I came by my love for reading naturally!

            Another crop that they grew a few years was potatoes. My mother used to talk about the year that cured my grandfather from wanting to grow potatoes. Just about the time to dig up the potatoes rolled around they had two weeks of downpours. The fields were nearly flooded and all those potatoes were going to just rot if they didn’t get out there and dig them up by hand. Mom said that it devolved into a mud bath for everyone for several days. She said that she had fun “playing” in the mud. My grandfather, not so much. But they got the potatoes dug up and saved the crop. That was the last year Grandpa grew potatoes as a cash crop. Mom said that in his usual stoic way he simply said, “I think I’ll let the Irish grow the potatoes.”

            By the time my mother left home in 1946 after graduating from high school and going to business school to sharpen her typing skills, learn shorthand, and basically how to be a secretary, Grandpa was already switching over to cattle. She said picking the cotton was hard work, but it was also rewarding. She felt like she had done something worthwhile. She made a little spending money and all the exercise kept her in fine shape for the time to come when she would catch my father’s eye in 1947.

            My father’s experience with cotton was not nearly as pleasant as my mother’s. In fact, it wasn’t decidedly unpleasant. He spent his years between 3 and 12 in an orphanage in Shreveport, Louisiana. That experience was a mixed bag for him. I’ll be writing all about it in a forthcoming book. When he was 12-years-old he was told by the Matron of the Orphanage that he was going to be sent to live at a Baptist home for boys. Frankly, Dad figured it would be a whole lot better than the orphanage. It helped that he had recently become a born-again-Christian and had been attending a nearby Baptist church. He thought that going to a Baptist home for boys was going to be great. But the Matron lied through her teeth. In reality, she paid a man to come and take Dad and get rid of him. Not get rid like kill him, but to take him somewhere else. The Matron apparently did this with all boys about the time that they turned 12. She figured they were going to start being a problem once entering puberty and she didn’t want to deal with it.

            So, on the big day my dad stood outside of the orphanage with his box of worldly possessions and waited for the man to come take him to the Baptist home for boys. The man showed up in a nice new car. Dad thought it was a fancy car. It had big running boards and was painted green. He got into the car and they drove away from the orphanage. Dad thought it was a dream come true. He asked the man how long it would take to get to the home and the man said that they needed to make a stop first. The stop was at the county courthouse. Dad followed the man inside and was told to sit down on a bench for a few minutes. The man went into an office that had a doctor’s name on it. A few minutes later the man came out and got Dad and took him into the doctor’s office. While the man waited out on the bench the doctor examined Dad and then asked him about 100 questions. All kinds of questions. Dad started to wonder why all of this was being done. After a while he was told to go back out and sit on the bench. The man went back into the doctor’s office and before long Dad could hear them arguing. The man that had brought Dad was yelling at the doctor and finally Dad heard the doctor say, “I am NOT going to certify that boy as mentally ill or challenged! He’s a perfectly good boy and I will NOT do it and I will NOT give the OK to have him dumped into a sanitarium.”

            The man stormed out of the doctor’s office and roughly pulled Dad to his feet and they left the courthouse. When they got back in the car the man told Dad that he needed to make a phone call and to stay in the car. The man went to a pay phone nearby and a few minutes later came back with a big smile on his face. Dad figured that the man had arranged to drop Dad off at the Baptist home. They started driving and before long they were out of the city. They drove for an hour or so and then the man turned off on a road outside of Monroe, Louisiana. A few minutes later they pulled through some gates that said, “Louisiana Technical Institute”. LTI for short. The man pulled to a stop and told Dad to sit still and that he would be right back. A few minutes later a rather severe looking man came out and told Dad to get his box of stuff and come with him. Dad did as he was told. He was taken to a barracks and shown a bed where he could put his box of stuff. He was then taken to a communal shower, told to strip out of his clothes, scrubbed raw with a stiff horsehair brush and lye soap, and given a set of clothes to wear. By the time he came outside he noticed the car that he had come in was gone. At dinner that night he received his first whipping for talking at the table. After dinner he asked another boy if this was the Baptist home for boys and the other boy started to laugh and in turn all of the other boys started to laugh.

            “Are you stupid?” the other boy said.

            “No.” Dad said while barely containing tears.

            “This is a reform school. What did you do to get sent here?” The boy asked Dad.

            “I didn’t do anything. I was told I was being taken to a Baptist home for boys.” Dad replied.

            “Well, if you’re Baptist, then I guess since this is your new home it’s a Baptist home for boys”. The boy said and started to laugh again.

            The next morning was a hot summer morning in the year 1935. Dad was taken into a room where a man shaved Dad’s head. He was told they didn’t want any boys with lice. Dad was marched out to a field with the other boys and was shown how to pick cotton. It was his first time to pick cotton. He made some kind of mistake and damaged a ball of cotton and a man on a horse galloped over and knocked Dad to the ground. He had a whip and told Dad that if he ruined any more cotton, he’d be taken to the whipping room. Dad did his best not to damage anymore cotton, but he was so inexperienced that finally he made another mistake. He was hauled upstairs into a room that they called the whipping room. He was told to drop his pants, get on his knees and bend over and grab hold of a long pipe that was mounted to the floor. As soon as he grabbed the pipe, he felt an electric current and try as he might he couldn’t let go of that pipe. That’s when the man whipped him with the whip. Dad said he never damaged another cotton ball for the next 5 and a half years that he spent at LTI. That was Dad’s experience with cotton. No spending money. Worked in the hot son with a shaved head with fingers that bled.

            Two very different perspectives regarding cotton. Fortunately, the corruption of the State of Louisiana no longer exists and children are not treated as slaves. Cotton is grown now by corporations and done so with very expensive machines. Even so, sitting here wearing mostly cotton I can’t help but think about all the hard work that once went into the growing of cotton. I’m thankful for my blessings. And one of the biggest blessings that I have had in life was my Dad. Many people would have turned bitter and mean after the abuse that he experienced. But Dad wasn’t made that way. He told me many times that he believed that his accepting Christ only a few months before his ordeal at LTI began got him through those years. Dad was a kind and gentle man. He was tough when he had to be (including being a United States Marine in WWII), but he was a loving father who I and my sisters were blessed to have. The next time you think you have it bad think about how you might have reacted to spending your teenage years the way my father did. I know that I never came close to anything like that. But if you do go through something bad it doesn’t mean you have to let it turn you bitter or mean. You can learn from it. You can let it make you a better person. Better, not bitter.

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