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What's Left Of What's Right....
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I had pause this afternoon to reflect upon the afternoon itself. I was enjoying the ethereal soundness of air covering earth, amplified as it was by living things such as trees on mountainsides. The Autumn light here today was pristine, having preened itself with pine needles. Crispness and Autumn leaves gave character to the air, and a body just naturally felt good for breathing it.
In the front yard of the little place on a little hill where I live are three radical trees. A huge Elm, a terrorist Magnolia, (I say "terrorist" because that
Magnolia tree is forever shooting roots through my plumbing lines....), and a Bastard Pine. Of the three, the Pine stands tall between that house and the little shop down the hill from the house. This afternoon I was just between the shop where I work and the house where I live, pausing casually in my uphill walk toward home, and sunlight was pooled around me as I stood staring upward into the coney heights of that old Pine.
A squirrel was fussing at me for not moving on so he could resume his acorn errands on the ground. I gestured at him a few times with an open
hand, trying to reassure him that I was a friend, that I wouldn't interfere with his busy-ness, that he should overlook me and be about his day. That, I
realize now, was my way of letting him know that irregardless of what he thought about my intrusion there, I intended to stand and observe this Pine
for as long as I wished. Such is the attitude of Power, is it not? I felt bigger than the squirrel, more powerful than the squirrel, so I felt I could intrude into his day as I pleased, and did so. The squirrel wasn't impressed. Now, years afterward, I am sure I should have asked the squirrel's permission.
I wanted to stand and feel the natural light upon my skin, feel the aliveness in the air, just feel myself being there as a grotesquely modified distant
relative of that Pine tree. For a little while, I just wanted to let something inside me drift above the limitations of what I think I think, and go beyond
me. I felt that it would go back to that Nature which produced both the Pine and myself. Back to the endless coil of energetic transmutation, and the
awesome magical forces which form the stuffs of life. Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Eternal quaternity, wanting a human to see it and taste the breath of
life. That is a good place to go at times, and I do better when I remember to go there often.
Some crows came cawing by, and up high beyond the tree a hawk was gliding wind currents. Around me were all the sensible sounds and sights of
a southern small town.... a bit of traffic with it's incessant orchestration of braking and acceleration......people going places in their automobiles, on
errands or just enjoying the movement of "ridin' around". It was a Saturday afternoon and peacefully so. I tuned the town's noises out and squinted into the light's brightness and gazed intently up the remarkable height of this old Pine. He reached outward his rugged, angled limbs and tufted them with pine-cone clusters and bunches of long green needles, which turned to teal in the golden afternoon's light against an infinitely blue sky. A late-departing woodpecker circled the higher parts of the trunk with staccato darts and parries. I felt my memory welling up within a feeling of lazy calmness inside me, brought on by nothing more than some feathers and pine needles in my field of vision. I know it was more than that, but that will suffice as a reason for the unreasonable.
Standing there looking up, memories welled up within me of my pre-teen years in which I grew up in Southwest Tennessee. There were school days
and week-end days and summer-vacation days. I spent a part of all of them in the river bottoms east of Memphis. That was over four hundred miles from where I was now standing on this day. My boyhood in Memphis was during a time before I-240 carved it's epitaph on the Wolf River; back when that river's bottom-lands were crooked and bent, just the way the Ages had designed them. I used to grab for catfish in bank-roots under brown-swirling river currents, or seine the sloughs barefooted, or catch snakes and turtles for my backyard "zoo" behind the first brick home my dad had bought for his growing family. He had bought it on the GI Bill, which was a plan thought up by the government as a way to help veterans buy homes. Our home was just across a little street from the Wolf River bottoms, the last street in the city limits on the northeast side of town. There were virgin forests there, and sloughs edging fields. There were backwaters and creeks and ponds.
There as a boy I fished away my endless days, oblivious to the ominous encroachments of the city of Memphis, which one day would claim my
primitive paradise, paving it from Nonconnah Creek northward and then westward, following the Wolf River's natural path in a huge circle around
Memphis. They dug and concreted a new channel for the river, cutting off all it's original bends and moves. The surrounding bottoms were either
developed or stagnated, either a new field of joy for flies or a breeding ground for mosquitoes. But I had all those bottoms to range as a boy, and I came to know them intimately.
Back then a boy could carry his .22 rifle and take his dog down to the bottoms and spend some quality time getting familiar with all the things which cities deny to the lives of we who fill them. I used to keep fishing poles hidden down there. I think it was back then that I picked up my habit of rambling and ambling. I really liked the suspension of time and expectations. As a boy it seemed good to me. There was plenty of time in the fifties and sixties to act on the expectations of the family, school, church, and state. Besides, everybody could see that there were plenty of people handling those institutions already, so it seemed to me that I might not be missed while fishin'.
Some of us boys in the neighborhood enjoyed playing "War" down there with our BB guns. There were thickets, woods, fields of tall grasses. Though
we also played our share of "Cowboys and Indians", which I liked even better than "War", the "western" games gave way to the more demanding
game of "War". We'd sometimes dig gumbo forts, and wall them with cane. We even took to wearing army surplus helmets and carrying canteens. And we used real BBs, so there was never any doubt about whether one had been "shot" or not. Being shot got one kicked out of the war for that
afternoon, a fate worse than the sting.
We all knew to aim anywhere but at the head of an "enemy". We understood that the river bottoms wars would forever be doomed if the first kid came up with a shot-out eye. But anywhere below the shoulders was okay. We learned to handle our BB guns, to use them and to understand their powers. I was pretty good with mine. I often played the "scout", a sort of adolescent LRRP. I operated best as a stealthy solo sniper, and being as
oriented with those bottoms as I was, I kept myself out of the sights of a many an enemy kid. Such skills and traits would help greatly years later in the jungles and forested hills of Viet Nam.
I recall topping an elevated railroad track once and seeing Gene before he knew I was there. I pitched a rock down-track and when he turned to check the noise I shot once, missing him between his legs. My BB gun's report spun him around to spot me as I lay across the tracks, prone and bracing for another shot. He leaped behind a telephone pole and stood straight as he could behind it. I figured on waiting for him to tire of that and make a run for it, as I'd have him in the open then and I'd pop him for sure. But as the moment of hunter and hunted loomed large upon us, stopping time in a way, I noticed that he couldn't keep his blue-jeaned butt all the way behind that pole. That butt gave me about a four inch field of target, all compacted into his too-tight jeans, and I knew that if I could hit that blue-jean stretch he'd bust from behind that pole like a curse. And so I took aim and I shot his butt, and sure enough he bolted with a whelp of pain and surprise. I peppered him all the way across a field and into the woods.
Gene paid me back that winter as we retired swamp warriors had miraculously transmuted our maleness into sandlot football players. Noticeably bigger than I, Gene enjoyed his revenge with tackles and blocks designed to remind me of old grudges.
And we young dudes would form neighborhood bicycle clubs, and sometimes ride in packs of roving mischief. We didn't destroy things, but we
might "disappear" a couple of quart bottles of chocolate milk from early-morning neighborhood doorsteps. (Remember when the Milkman used
to deliver glass bottles of fresh milk to doorsteps of homes?) There was the usual unspoken challenge for each of us to outdo the other, or to pull pranks on one another. And before we knew it we were in high school and we were competing on a bigger scale with other schools, some of whose students we knew from the Shoney's drive-through or the Dairy Queen. And then we came into cars.
I mean the "muscle
cars" of the early sixties, hot items like GTOs and GTXs, Stingrays, and that
black convertible Plymouth Fury with the posi-traction rears and the hurst
four-speed and the cut-off pipes on the 383 scalding mill with dual
four-barrels. I remember hitting a long stretch of straight road with five
people in the car with me and cruising a cool hundred miles an hour when it
dawned on me to downshift to third and mash my motor. I did and that black bolt
from hell actually gripped the road with a squeal of spin and she laid an
impossible pair of positraction rubber marks on the highway as the car lurched like a rocket
to a hundred and twenty. My
passengers all thought that was great. I took her back into fourth and drove out
of this memory. I'll always remember that car and the five-dollar bills I
won and lost while drag racing other hot cars around Memphis. That was along
about the time I graduated high school, another almost-educated
youngster who knew more about countering a four-wheel slide or baiting a hook
than he did about what he'd do with his future.
We had good schools back then. We also had respect for those schools, for we'd all been raised on whippin's. We were taught to say "yes sir" and "yes ma'am", to show respect for our elders and their institutions. Yeah, we'd cut up and vent our awkward energies, but we took our teachers seriously when they had us trapped in a classroom. We never got the idea into our heads that we could have any power over a teacher, since they were in cahoots with our families. We were the same way about our families' churches, which most of us were forced to attend against our better judgment. And the law......now that's one we really took seriously. Nobody wanted to end up in the back seat of a squad car. Most of us never did.
We all had a stack of 45 RPMs with musical treasures, the likes of
which are not made today. Remember Unchained Melody? The Lion Sleeps Tonight? We all had television sets
at home so we could learn of newer ways of seeing life. The television programs
seemed to add a sense of commonality to our personalities, and we would mimic
our heroes from the silver screen. Personally, I was addicted to Maynard G.
Cribbs, beatnik bud of Dobie Gillis. That show in and of itself probably
affected the predisposition of my present psyche more than any other show,
including the Mickey Mouse club, which competed with Howdy Doodie. I've fancied
myself a beatnik ever since Maynard characterized with great alarm the
And our families all seemed to have decent homes, and families could afford to take each other for granted, because there was a permanence woven into the fabric of our simple lives, a fabric of reassurance that the world would never change, that America would always be the land of opportunity and the home of a free proud people. Our neighborhoods revealed differences in financial capability and tastes, but each neighborhood had a sense of
community, and people knew their neighbors and trusted them. It was very comfortable. As I remember, most all of us boys growing up in the fifties and sixties never doubted that our Government could be anything but a just dispersion of the will of a unified American society which espoused a
singular view on life. The government acted with responsibility to the honest condition of American society, not as a solver of their personal problems
and challenges. It was a responsibility. Our government acted responsibly on behalf of the citizens who's tax dollars supported it. And under that
simple, direct relationship between citizen and Federal Government, America prospered and lives could be lived in ways which today are mostly
As the government was responsible in it's dealings with the citizens, even so the reality of personal responsibility was stressed to me and all my
friends by parents, teachers, preachers, and the local cop on his beat. We knew that whatever we did, we'd have to pay the price for so doing. We
knew that if we made a lousy decision, we'd pay for it with lousy consequences. We also believed that our government operated the same
way as did the particulars of our lives, even as it always had. Not a one of us would have believed then what that government would change into during the years of our lives. There was no reason to make people into numbers, to take their blood and urine and fingerprints and DNA samples. If the government had made mention of such evils during the fifties and sixties, it would have been treated as a violation of the terms of it's existence, which, as we were all raised and taught to see, depended upon the citizens of America for that very existence. We understood that the government was there for us, not we for it. We saw the human individual person as an act of Nature or God or both, and as such we could easily see that a State had no claim on the personal being of a human. That's been reversed today, but I'm not talking about today here. This is about an America which I can still remember, not today's Amerika - which I'd love to forget.
But this is really about an old beatnik with a colorful past pausing to remember while walking from his work to his home, pausing to let a memory
pass by in a wash of Autumn light which quietly screamed golden across mountainsides, electrifying silent trees. The memories danced for a time today, then bowed to encroaching needs to carry on, and I broke the spell, grateful I'd stolen the moment, though it doubtless made me late for something really important, like doing the laundry and figuring last year's taxes. I bade farewell to the squirrel and walked on up the hill.
I'm figuring we all have memories. I'm figuring that is something we all have in common as souls. That says to me that we're all here from the same
source, made through a single plan, members of a single Nature, and that is a fine reason to honor and cherish each other. I'm figuring that what is
different in the memories of each of us is what makes each of us valuable to the rest. I'm figuring that anyone who reads this will also have his or her
views on what's left of what's right.
As I made my way up the hill to the house, I also recalled these old lines from a boy who wrote them years earlier......
When the pleasures of summer like driven autumn leaves
are current-swirled along the trafficked curb
and sent to rest collectively on rusted bars of iron,
the leaf-wreathed gutter whispers in the mute language
of the street the benediction of a fallen season.
Herein, the thought-wreathed bars of experience entrap
the fallen products and days of our youth,
and here, gathered to die and crust as offerings
to decomposition, the fruits of our past are
transfigured and returned to the roots of
tomorrow as attitudes of vision.
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11/7/99 11:19:29 PM Gainesville, Georgia
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