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James R. Stout

The Best and Worst of Times

            The following is a quote from the beginning of the classic novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”.

            It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

            I first read those words when I was 15-years-old. We were studying the book in 9th grade English class. The book became one of my favorite books of all-time. That preamble has meant a lot to me over the years. It seems that life is replete with moments in which we are simultaneously on top of the mountain and yet deep in a valley of despair. I’d like to talk for a few moments about one such period of time in my life. As it turns out, it was from 5 years prior to me ever reading those famous words. So, it is a reflection borne from the wisdom of those words that I look back at such a period of time in my life.

            It all began on July 23, 1966. I was about 6 weeks away from turning 11-years-old. It was a golden summer. One of my very favorite summers. It was also a very disturbing time in America and therefore in my life as well. On that particular Saturday I began a three-week stay with my grandparents on their farm. For the first week my sister Debbie also stayed. We had some great times that week. I remember riding in the back of my grandfather’s 1961 Chevrolet Pick-Up every day around 4 o’clock as we went to his large garden. We helped picked the ripe vegetables, watermelon, and especially the corn. I loved and still love fresh corn on the cob. The Despite the heat of the day, it was cooling off by that hour. The roads were shaded by a canopy of trees and we also looked forward to “playing in the water” in the back yard of the farmhouse to wash off the dust and dirt accumulated during the day. Grandma always prepared a large cooked meal for lunch. No sandwiches in those days. She made enough so that all she had to do was warm up the leftovers for supper with perhaps freshly made-from-scratch biscuits or cornbread as well.

            As happy as those days were, and make no mistake, they were happy, the evening news brought us disturbing images. There was the ongoing fighting in Vietnam, but the most recent headlines revolved around a mass murderer named Richard Speck. On July 13th of that year he murdered 8 young nurses. While he was caught on the 15th, the news of his spree and the horrible details of it were splashed on the black and white television screen. Frankly, it was scary for me at the age of 10. I was awakened to the realities in life that there is evil and sometimes it knocks on your door with a pleasant smile bent on fooling you. On Friday, July 29th, the first of what would turn out to be two very disturbing issues of Life Magazine came out. On that Friday, I stood my post at the mailbox awaiting the mail carrier. He was almost always on time and I could pretty much count on him bringing the mail to my anxious hands. There would be a letter from my mother, various bills for my grandparents, perhaps a letter from my uncles to my grandparents, and at least two magazines. Reader’s Digest was generally delivered on Friday’s along with the TV guide and most importantly, that week’s issue of Life Magazine. I munched on a peppermint stick and played on the iron mailbox post until the mailman in his modified pick-up truck could be heard coming around the corner at the nearby intersection of two county roads. On that day, he handed me a big stack of mail. The magazines, a couple of letters, a couple of bills, and a new Sears catalog were among the treasures handed me that day. But the big grin on my face turned a little sour when I saw the cover of Life Magazine. It was a special issue dedicated to those mass murders. But like a fly drawn to flypaper, I was unable to not look at the cover as I walked back up to the house. The picture of Richard Speck seemed like a picture of Satan to me. As disturbing as the whole thing was, it just wasn’t talked about. It was on everyone’s mind, but it was a taboo subject. That was the way things were then.

            Mom and Dad came and picked up Debbie the next day and I had decided that I wanted to stay longer. So, they let me stay for another two weeks. It was an amazing time in my life. My grandfather taught me to shoot the bolt-action .22 Remington rifle which included a lot of safety information. Within a week he set me loose on 360 acres to roam with that .22 (I’m quite literally looking at that very gun leaning against the wall across the room from me. It is in perfect working order despite being 75 years-old.) looking for armadillos. Grandpa told me to shoot as many of them critters as possible because they dug holes in the pastures that cows could break a leg in as well as they were constantly raiding the garden. By the end of the week, I was shooting up to as many as 10 a day! I would carry a canteen of water with me and walk through all of the pastures, through the wooded areas, and down the country lanes every day.

            Then August 1, 1966 happened. We first heard reports on the Paul Harvey midday news report on the radio station out of Crockett, Texas. Something bad was happening at the University of Texas. Someone was shooting people from high up in the Tower on campus. I was suddenly conflicted. I’d been out that morning shooting armadillos with that .22 rifle and now I was hearing about someone with a more powerful rifle shooting people. I realized that while those armadillos were destructive and ultimately needed to be gotten rid of, death is death. I killed armadillos while someone else was killing people. I took a couple of days off from killing armadillos. Before it was over with there were 17 people dead and another 31 injured. Charles Whitman, the killer of those people, had finally been taken down and his life also taken.

            Of course, it was all over the news that night. Special reports were on CBS and it was very disturbing. What on Earth was going on in my America? It was the sound of a baby’s first cry after a slap on the bottom. 54 years later and the sounds are of people screaming and yelling amid violence in a country that is barely recognizable from those long-ago days. We’ve collectively experienced more mass murders, crimes too disgusting to talk about here, and a wholesale change in values.

            Back to August of 1966. The last Friday that I was at the farm was August 12th. The Life Magazine issue was all about the mass murders at the University of Texas. Pictures and commentary abounded while families grieved and everyone else scratched their heads wondering how such an atrocity could have happened. The next day my parents and sisters came, and we spent Saturday night at the farm. My folks and my grandparents talked about how crazy the world seemed to be getting. Meanwhile, the pablum that was suckled by Americans in an effort to change the focus of our minds was Luci got married. Luci Johnson that is. President Johnson’s daughter. We heard the baseball scores and all about Sandy Koufax’s amazing year, The Beatles were on what would be their last concert tour, and the latest movies “NOW SHOWING” at a drive-in near you!

            As disturbing as the events of the previous three weeks were for me, my sister Debbie couldn’t wait to tell me the big news in our house. We were going to move back to Houston as soon as our house in Bryan, Texas was sold! This was indeed huge news. I was excited about the move. It didn’t actually happen until November 9,1966, but it did happen, and life changed in a major way for our family. When I think back on that summer I immediately think of those famous words by Charles Dickens. The innocence of a 10-year-old boy was being peeled away one thin layer at a time. I have great fondness for that summer, yet I am so deeply sorry that countless families were forever changed in a worse way via two mass murderers and a war being fought in a small nation in Southeast Asia. The changes in my life would come in an avalanche of time lasting only a few months. We moved to a much different place in November, my great-grandmother died in December, and my grandfather died in April of 1967. And, it was really only the beginning. As I write this, I am also thinking of the changes that continue to happen in my life. I will shortly be 65-years-old and on Medicare. I’m dealing with all that comes with aging while I have the pure joy of watching my grandchildren grow. I’ve gone from being a grandchild to being the grandpa and it really didn’t seem like it took long at all. Yet, I wonder what America will be and life in America will be like when my grandchildren are the grandparents. I won’t live to see it. Maybe that’s a good thing. I think that if you live long enough, then you’ve seen about all that you want to see. In the meantime, let’s make it the best of times even if it seems like the worst of times.

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