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Thursday, May 19, 2016

HOME


            Home, according to the old saying, is where the heart is.  But in my case, for most of my life, I had multiple homes—so many, in fact, that I’m unable to remember most of them clearly.  So where is my heart?  Oddly the answer, despite the seeming complexity of the question, is not at all in doubt.  My heart is here, where I live now, and where I have lived for the past twenty-one years, the happiest and most fulfilling of my life. 

            That answer has become vividly clear in recent weeks.  Ruth and I have begun to make plans to relocate from our secluded retreat in the foothills of the Black Mountains of Western North Carolina to the bustling city of Asheville, forty-five miles away, where she works as a regional long-term care ombudsman representing the rights and interests of the residents of nursing homes and other elder-care facilities.  Right now her travel-time amounts to a grueling, and expensive, one hour each way over dangerous highways and back roads.  Moving would reduce that commute to a matter of minutes.  And the work itself, while challenging, has proved the most meaningful and fulfilling of her distinguished career and she needs to continue it, both for her sake and for the sakes of those vulnerable folks whom she serves.

            I recognize this necessity and yet I find myself perversely inclined to resist it too, because it threatens the comfort and security of the first and only permanent, wholly satisfactory home I have ever had.  Allow me to explain:  My early life was nomadic; my father was a Methodist minister, and though the practice may seem strange in this more enlightened day and time, ministers of that denomination, in that far-off age, were expected to remain serving a given church only for limited terms, usually four years or so.  I suppose the arrangement was intended to forestall what was thought to be the pernicious system pursued by other denominations, which often resulted in pastorates of long and eventually unhealthy durations.  So my memories of childhood are of painful and all-too-frequent disruptions of neighborhoods, friendships, schools and congregations and of endlessly repeated moves from one parsonage to another and from one town or city to another.  It should also be said that congregations in those days could, and did, range from the warm and welcoming to the indifferent and even the overtly hostile. 

            But the worst of the system, in my youthful eyes, were the parsonages.  My mother was a painstaking housekeeper, and she believed it was her duty as a good minister’s wife, when moving to a new mission, to transmit to the incoming pastor and his family a perfectly scrubbed and gleaming parsonage.  Of course one could only do so much to dress up a house which had been purchased as cheaply as possible to begin with and then allowed to deteriorate over subsequent years due to parsimonious funding by the congregation’s board of trustees.  But in the days prior to our every move to a new appointment Mother would clean the house furiously and fiendishly lest the next occupants think poorly of her stewardship, only to find, when we entered the next parsonage, that the previous occupants had had no such compunctions.  Some of my most painful memories are of watching her step across the threshold of a new home, if I may call it that, only to find it a perfect shambles.  She would give way to wracking sobs of heartbreak.   I did not weep, though once, upon stepping into a new parsonage, I was assaulted by hordes of fleas famished by their separation from the previous occupants’ dogs.  In one parsonage, I won’t say where, once we settled in, we found that in winter large black rats would gather at the top of the basement stairs where some heat was available, and whenever any of us opened that door the rats would go bounding down the stairs going thumpety-thumpety-thump, a sound I can still hear in my aural memory.  In yet another parsonage there was no bedroom to accommodate me at all, so I slept on a cot located in what had been a screened-in side porch now equipped with uninsulated plywood walls.  Needless to say, my heart was not in those homes.  Nor were they, any of them, in any sense, homes at all.

Experiences such as this conditioned me to regard our successive abodes as contingent, as temporary tortures to be tolerated in the hope (never to be realized) that we might one day be assigned to something finer.  So, once liberated from the peonage that was my condition as a “preacher’s kid,” I foolishly hoped to set out on my own, find a vocation, and earn a living sufficient to provide me with the sort of warm and welcoming home that popular opinion and my own hopes suggested ought to be my due.  Of course after graduating college my starting salary as a newspaper reporter would not permit this.  So I rented the inevitable apartment—the first of many—and learned the sad lesson that a cubicle in a complex where one could hear the neighboring renter watching TV, playing LPs, pissing, farting, coughing or making love could scarcely be regarded as Home Sweet Home.

Then I got married, an experience better passed over here in silence, save to note that when we were at last able to purchase a house, my new wife dictated the choice and, once we took up residence, dictated every last decision concerning it as well as every last decision concerning me and my career.  Very soon a home it was not; I shall refrain from characterizing it otherwise.  Presently that marriage ended.  This was in Arlington in Northern Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where I had worked first as an urban planner and then as a lobbyist.  Twenty years in the National Capital Area burned my technocratic ambitions to a crisp and I began to entertain thoughts of moving to a quieter and less intense domain to take up the work I had long thought myself best suited for—that of a writer.

That decision brought me at last to my first and real home, here on my mountainside at the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, surrounded by streams and by woods and hills that offer lovely views of the Southern Appalachian highlands, where I have lived since 1995, where I found and married my beloved Ruth, where I have published five novels and one work of history, and where I have been not just happy and but thoroughly content.

But life demands change.  It regards not the wishes of one’s secret heart, nor should it.  One is not one; one is but half of the two of a marriage, and of a love affair that burns as brightly now as it did at the beginning.  Our hearts, like our fates, are linked.  We face the necessity of moving from our cherished home to a more suitable setting in or near the city.  Practicality must trump emotion.  It hurts us both, but I hope I do not sound too selfish when I suggest that the pain may be different—I do not say worse—for me than for Ruth because this place has been my first and only experience of a true home.  I can’t speak for her in that regard; she did live for most of her prior life in one place if not in one house, and that place, the charming city of Salida in Central Colorado, was, and remains, one of the most beautiful in America.  Her previous family life, if somewhat turbulent, was, and is, close and loving.  Perhaps I’m wrong but I think she has a stronger sense of home than I do, and I think it is one of the foundations of her life.   I hope we can both soon reclaim the sense of home that is so profound a need in us.



            

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

THOUGHTS ON A TUESDAY IN DECEMBER

Now there is only the past.  What was once a seemingly immeasurable future has shrunk overnight to a span of months.  At least that is the way it seems.  I try to assure myself that I am only indulging in my lifelong habit of melodrama and self-pity, that the prospect is not as grim as that.  And perhaps that is so.  But still, the diagnosis is what it is.  My doctor has not ventured an estimate of life expectancy but Ruth looked it up on a medical website and it said three to five years.  Not long for one who has lived to seventy-seven and except for a vexing shortness of breath, adult onset diabetes, two eroding disks in my lower back, a faulty memory and assorted other ailments associated with the accumulation of years, still feels young, with much left to do.

I have always felt young; I suppose some would say the feeling has hardened into a habit that willfully, stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the passing of actual time and the evidence of my failing body.  On some days I would even say that myself.  But by young I don’t mean that I fantasize I am still an active, ambitious fellow on the threshold of adulthood hoping to understand life and the world life is lived in.  What I do mean is that I have continued to believe, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that whatever my age, life will still offer new challenges, new opportunities, new accomplishments; and that there will always be new things to experience and to learn, new topics to think about and, yes, new things to write about.  Though in preparing this piece I am attempting to come to terms with the hard fact that none of these things may be true, still, to set a limit on those expectations seems inconceivable to me, even now.

Yet the fact is that often in recent years I have thought of myself in the past tense, an idea that sits oddly and uncomfortably next to the opposed conviction that I remain young.   More than once in this blog I have cast myself in retrospective mode.  Consider what I posted on January 6, 2013.  I began by describing the view that lay outside my window, then wrote:

“The scene before me seems immemorial; two hundred years ago a Cherokee brave might have stood on this same January mountainside in the Southern Appalachians and seen much the same sight, only the forests would have been denser and would have been evergreens instead of hardwoods.  It is an intensely personal moment of immediacy: Of a life being wholly lived but surrounded by a landscape that has seen countless human and animal lives come and go; has seen this and not even noticed.”

Next came the retrospective bit:  “These thoughts come to me because in the last weeks I’ve started to sense my own impermanence; an apprehension that my time may be short and a concomitant awareness of how much will be lost when I am gone.  I do not mean me, myself.  I’m not that vain.  Or not even the inevitable fading away of my written works.  But a loss of what has been in me, in my heart and mind and hopes and fears, things that no one but I can know about.  I look at my bookshelves, lined with volumes each of which has its double story to tell, its own and mine too, mine in the sense of the private message each one delivered to me and informed how I thought and felt and, yes, lived.  Every book-spine tells a certain tale about a certain time of my living or a certain person who touched my life.  Each has also informed in some way what I wrote.  But of course what I wrote is as impermanent as I myself.  It will not be as if I have left behind an imperishable body of work that will touch others ages hence.  I will have been an obscure regional author, altogether unremembered.

“Yet is this not true of the…human condition?  But a handful of lives have been lived whose accomplishments deserve to be…remembered.  I do not deceive myself that I would leave such a bequest.  I have garnered some acclaim in my time; not as much as I craved but probably far more than I rightly deserved.  Do not mistake me: I don’t mourn losing my physical self; I as a person am of little account.  But I do mourn the loss of this world as I have seen it—these forests, these highlands, these clear skies skiffed with cloud, which never noticed me.

“Of course that makes no sense.  ….No matter how fervently I feel myself to be an organic part of the mountain world I live in; no matter how much its beauty has transported me; no matter how harsh its weathers and splendid autumns have struck me with awe; the mountains mark me not.  For them, I have not even been here.  This has been true of mankind from the beginning…. Is it death itself that we all fear; or is it the loss of a wondrous yet cruelly [oblivious and] unremembering world?

“But have we truly examined the world whose attention we have so craved?  For most of us, including me, the answer has been no.  The material world is, for most of us, a mere backdrop against which we play out our preoccupations.  I have written about the mountains…because they speak to me, not because I am in some fashion a part of them that they, in turn, recognize and accept.  The truth is that we humans regard most highly ourselves and those whom we love or pretend to love; all else has been but window-dressing and passing fancy.”

If I were to have written the above today I would, of course, have had to mention the deleterious impact humans have had on the natural world through global warming and climate change.  In that one way we have impacted nature and perhaps have even commenced its destruction.  But in 2013 I went on by mentioning my vanity in wishing I might have achieved more recognition as a writer:  “It is, I confess, a ridiculous desire…; [yet] I have persisted.  It is what we humans do.  We persist not only in the face of indifference but in the face of derision, contempt, even hatred.  Whole races have done this.  It is not simply that our first laws are vanity and self-preservation—or self-delusion—or even commitment to a cause or a faith.  It is that we wish to believe there is a uniqueness in us that justifies our having lived…and a desire for that uniqueness to have been noticed….”  As Dylan Thomas wrote, we rage, rage against the dying of the light.  And we rage rightly.” 



Sunday, December 20, 2015

REMEMBERING A FORGOTTEN REVOLUTION

Nearly sixty years have passed since an event occurred which is now largely forgotten by Americans of a certain age but at the time seemed to threaten war between the Western powers and what was then the Soviet Union.  And since that event roughly coincided with my 18th birthday and my registering for the draft (it was compulsory then), the incident made a special impact on me: If war came, I was likely to have been caught up in it.

But allow me to amend my initial statement--the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 may be largely forgotten by many in this country, but it is definitely not forgotten by the Hungarian people who lived through it, were exiled because of it, or lost friends or family members to the merciless Soviet invasion that extinguished it.  Yet many younger people in this country have never even heard of it. Such is the whimsy of history and collective memory:  Had it indeed ignited a war--and in a nuclear age that war might well have been the last war--history and memory, if they had survived, would have enshrined it and the holocaust it occasioned.  But instead, its sixtieth anniversary seems certain to pass widely unacknowledged.

My 18th birthday fell on Friday, October 21, 1956. I wish I could recall some sense of what that date felt like, smelled like, looked like, but I cannot.  October has always been my favorite month with its balmy Indian summer days contrasting with the chill of its autumn nights and the leaves of the hardwoods glowing yellow and crimson, its air sharp and crisp and clean.  I must have been savoring that.  But despite its significance at the time, my mind seems to have discarded any true sense-memory of that date.  I have lost my draft card which, dogeared and fading, reposed in my wallet for years until I knew I had safely aged out of that particular obligation.  I wish now that I had preserved it, in case a glimpse of it might recall some detail of that then-significant phase of my life.

But I did not.  All I know is that on Sunday, October 23, two days after my birthday, students in Budapest began demonstrating against the repressions of the ruling Hungarian Communist government and the strictures of its masters in Soviet Moscow.  The government, headed by homegrown Communist premier Imre Nagy, reacted feebly to the demonstrations at first, as if uncertain whether the movement was a serious threat to its rule or might somehow be harnessed and controlled.  But it was not long before the student movement began to attract the sympathies of other elements of the wider population and the Hungarian government made the fateful decision to stifle it but could not.  Prime minister Imre Nagy seemed for a while to sympathize with the revolution but his government was of course subject to the will of the Soviet leaders in the Kremlin.  As the Hungarian movement grew, it became a fight between growing numbers of students and civilians against the dreaded AVH, the Hungarian secret police, and some elements of the Hungarian army. Vicious battles broke out in Budapest as angry citizens broke into AVH headquarters and hunted down its hated agents and gunmen.

Then on Sunday, November 4, when it was clear the Hungarian government could not effectively resist the revolt, the Soviet Union determined to crush the outbreak and invaded with Red Army troops and tanks. They burst into Budapest and engaged the revolutionists. Young and old, men and women, Hungarians resisted, engaging Red Army troops in violent street battles.  Children fought tanks with Molotov cocktails and nitroglycerine.  Soviet aircraft bombed and strafed rebel positions. Soviet heavy artillery shattered buildings.  It was a scene almost unimaginable to those of us who had come to believe the Iron Curtain had so thoroughly descended as to render armed resistance by the people of the Russian client states impossible.  The spectacle of workers, supposedly the darlings of Marxism, attempting to overthrow a Marxist power, was electrifying to the rest of the world.  The United States, through Radio Free Europe broadcasts and statements by political figures, had long advocated rollback and freedom for the occupied Iron Curtain nations.  As a result, many of the freedom fighters, in staging their rebellion, had hoped their actions would cause the U.S. or the United Nations to intervene on their behalf.  Indeed, when the Soviets invaded, the U.S. and other Western powers demanded their withdrawal, and for a time it appeared that a conflict between East and West might come.  But no action was taken although the Hungarian patriots pleaded by radio for assistance.  But the West did not intervene; fears of a Third World War were too persuasive and the nerves of Western nations seemed to fail.  And so, in flames and carnage, by early November 1956 the Hungarian Revolution had been crushed.  Imre Nagy, captured by the Soviets, was imprisoned and executed.

The Cold War, so-called, and the international tensions it fostered, are now parts of an ever-dimming past.  Today we worry not about the actions of hostile nation states and their clients but the crimes of terrorists both foreign and domestic and the perils of climate change.  One may reasonably ask, after the two World Wars of the twentieth century--the worst in all of history--, the expansion and dissolution of the the Soviet system, the Hungarian revolution, the outbreaks of gun violence in our own country and the increasing incidence of violent weather events, whether man can ever live in peace, freedom and safety.






Tuesday, September 8, 2015

TIME, AGING AND REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

                                                                 PART THREE


If by mentioning my mother at such length in my two prior posts I have left the impression that she was the dominant parent during my childhood, such was not my intention.  My father, the Methodist minister, was at least an equally powerful influence, if not the most powerful.  While Mother was indeed a strong force for discipline, correct demeanor and the strict observance of social norms, my father was a beacon of moral and ethical behavior.  But where Mother was forceful and didactic, Daddy---my revealing name for him even in my adulthood---led by soft-spoken example.  He forever showed an almost tender tolerance; and he seemed to have an aversion to judging others, a rare trait in a preacher, though if presented with churlish or unkind behavior he had a remarkable capacity for rebuking it, not in confrontation but with gentle, sorrowing but unmistakably reproving words.  I have never since met a kinder man.

I have said that Mother was the disciplinarian.  That is true.  But when I had committed a really serious trespass, the rules of our home dictated that the correspondingly severe punishment must be administered by Daddy.  Mother would say something like, "You've done a really bad thing, Charles.  And when he gets home, your Father will have to deal with you."  This was a dire moment indeed, and not for me only, for Daddy made no secret of the fact that he hated to punish his children.  Of course these were the days of rampant corporal punishment, but even in that harsher time it was clear that to inflict pain on another, especially his own, was deeply repugnant to him.  I don't think he ever said, "This is going to hurt me more than it is you," but it was obvious that such was the case.  I don't think I have ever seen so much distress on a human face as when he bent to this distasteful duty.  And of course I in turn suffered immeasurable grief and guilt for having forced this ordeal on him by whatever thoughtless acts I had committed.  The emotional agony I felt, my pity for him, hurt worse than any spanking.

He was a mild-mannered man.  But when he rose to the pulpit to preach, he exuded an astonishing authority.  Mostly his sermons were delivered in a tone of sadness, understanding and consolation, not as if, as a minister, he condemned human frailty and back-sliding but as if he knew from his own experience the everyday temptations and sorrows that afflicted mankind and, far from condemning them or reprimanding his flock for indulging them, urged instead a resort to faith, forbearance and spiritual strength.  I still have some audio tapes of some of his sermons and when I hear them I am struck to my heart by the sorrow in his voice.  He sounds as if the troubles of humankind were so painfully acute to him that he could barely force himself to face them.

But on other occasions he could unleash thunders from the pulpit that were, I think, born of his
gentle soul's abhorrence of deliberate evil.  In this way I believe he showed how deeply the hatreds of his world---the hatreds every morning's newspaper announced, the evils that were tormenting Europe and the Pacific and the Far East---disturbed him.  I think he understood those evils in a way my optimistic mother could not allow herself to do.  He understood them and he was saddened almost to despair by their prevalence and force.  I wonder too if he didn't struggle within himself over the question why the benevolent God he served could permit such horrors.

Nor were his passions limited to events overseas.  He once served a church many of whose members were avowed members of the Ku Klux Kan.  This was at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.  He spoke forthrightly and passionately from the pulpit about the importance in Christian teaching of racial tolerance and redressing the grievances of black Americans, and none in the congregation dared resist his message.  Somewhat later in that same period, in a different church, a black man appeared on the steps of the sanctuary and an usher raced to Daddy's study where he was preparing his sermon.  "Preacher," he cried, "there's a nigger trying to come into the church."  And Daddy said, "Well, show him in and give him a seat."  If he could hurl thunders, he could also speak softly.  And in both voices there was moral authority.  There was power.

Both he and Mother have been gone now for many years.  I myself am closing in on my seventy-seventh birthday.  Already I have lived three years longer than my older sister and my maternal grandmother.  I can sense the nearness of my own passing.  More and more I find myself taking a retrospective view of my life.  And as I do so I feel gratitude for my parents, for my relentlessly, sometimes tiresomely optimistic and demanding Mother and for Daddy, with his warmth, gentleness and abundant love.

                                                        TO BE CONTINUED

Monday, September 7, 2015

TIME, AGING AND REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

                                                                PART TWO

In the preceding essay I referred to my mother as Mom, a term which I now realize may be somewhat misleading because it conjures up an image of warmth, affection, nurturing and compassion.  This is not to say that my mother was in any way lacking in these fine traits.  But in addition to an abiding maternal love she also had certain qualities that a hard upbringing had instilled.  Her father, a railroad worker, had died in the 1919 influenza epidemic when she was very young.  Her widowed mother had been forced to fend for herself and two children as best she could, a daunting prospect for a largely uneducated female single parent making her way in a rough railroad settlement in an isolated section of the Western North Carolina mountains.  My grandmother's troubles were worsened when, soon after the death of her husband, her house caught fire and burned to the ground, nearly causing the death of her son, my uncle, who, by necessity, she had left unattended while out shopping for groceries.  She made her way by working as a maid in a hotel, as a domestic and washerwoman, and as a cook in the kitchen of an Episcopal missionary school for the children of needy mountaineers.

Nor was this all.  That part of Southern Appalachia, because of its remoteness, had traditionally been populated by feudists, moonshiners and bushwhackers; and early in the twentieth century it not only still harbored dangerous men but, by virtue of its rugged terrain, was often subject to extremely violent weather and severe flooding.  This combination of threats had its impact on my grandmother; to the end of her life she feared thunderstorms and the prospect of lawlessness, indeed any sort of perceived danger, in a way that I, a child growing up in a tamer time and place, thought morbid and senseless.  But over the years I have come to understand that, to her, such dangers had once been very real and deserving of her fear; time had not erased them, and could not.

Oddly, though, my mother had emerged from this same fraught background with what seemed to me a relentlessly sunny disposition that posed a sharp contrast with my grandmother's dreads and fears.  Looking back on her optimism I have often called her a Pollyanna.  She seemed to have believed from her earliest years that the world was a bright and promising place and that its dangers were few and could be defeated simply by smiling and believing always in the best outcomes.  To this day I cannot understand how she developed and clung to this philosophy, so at variance with her own experience and that of my grandmother.  But she did.  And a concomitant of that belief was a sort of brusque confidence that if one made up one's mind to accomplish a thing, one was bound to succeed at it. That attitude, coupled with hard work and determination, would always result in good outcomes.

Though this philosophy was a confident and inspiring one, there was also a hard edge to it.  My sister, when she was a college student majoring in piano, was preparing for a graduation recital she mentioned that she intended to use sheet music to play the most difficult pieces she had chosen.  My mother responded, "No daughter of mine is going to perform a recital reading sheet music"--a  baleful declaration, it seems to me now.  Likewise, we children were always instructed to behave like small angels both in church and in the community, lest we reflect badly on our father, the minister.  Thus it seemed that the survival of his ministry, and of our well-being as a family, depended on the excellence of our behavior.  And on our talents.  My sister being a pianist in whom my mother could take pride, I was appointed to take voice lessons so that I might stand gloriously in the choir stall and sing solos.  I still cringe at the thought of those poor parishioners forced to listen, Sunday after Sunday, to my tremulous screeching.

Still today it is difficult for me to admit, even to myself, that my mother might have been so nakedly ambitious.  When I search for the reasons for her ambition, I can't help going back in thought to the poverty and humiliation that must have attended her childhood, and to the shame she may have felt growing up in so constricted and demeaning an environment, without a father, and with a mother who was, in effect, a servant.  How much more wonderful to have become the wife of a minister of the Gospel and the mother of two dutiful, talented, college-educated children?  People who came to know her always remarked what a great lady she was.  She knew everything about etiquette, art, interior decoration, decorum, fashion, all the finer things of life.  How had she learned all these things, coming up as she had, in such constricted circumstances?  I don't know.  I'll never know.  But I'm eternally grateful.  If not for her, I would never have become a writer.  She loved books and caused me to love them and want to write them.

Still, I did not, and do not today, call my mother Mom, though for some reason I used that term in the first installment of this post.  I called her Mother.  I still do.  And that is a term of respect.  But it also, I think, sets a certain distance between us.  There is a mystery here too, that I have never solved.  How could this determinedly positive, ambitious, accomplished and confident woman have emerged from such a deprived and difficult life experience?  How could she, during World War Two, have balanced her buoyant optimism against the horrors we contemplated every morning over the newspaper's headlines?  How could she insist that good would always triumph over evil?  And how then did I become the person I am, infatuated with military affairs and with wars, violence and perversity, writing not about the Prince of Peace but about the worst of human behavior so often overcoming the best?

                                                   TO BE CONTINUED




Sunday, September 6, 2015

TIME, AGING AND REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

Last Wednesday, September 2, was the seventieth anniversary of what used to be called V-J Day, the day World War Two came to an end with the official surrender of Imperial Japan.  I suppose only folks my age and older still take note of that distant event, and when I think about it I'm surprised that I recall it so well, since I was only a fortnight or so away from my sixth birthday.  But the memory is vivid nonetheless.  I am with my dad on Pack Square in Asheville, North Carolina.  A formation of B-25 Mitchell medium bombers is flying over us at low level, a treat for me, then a rabid worshipper of military aviation.  I admire the clean lines of the planes, which in my memory wear war paint of olive drab above and sky-blue beneath, though in actuality they must have been aluminum silver--my still-lingering knowledge of the arcana of the United States Army Air Force tells me the changeover from camouflage had occurred sometime early in the previous year.

Memory, of course, is notoriously unreliable where details are concerned and I'm vexed that I can't recall whether the B-25s were camouflaged or silver; but whatever their colors, I recall how the sight of them transfixed me with admiration and excitement. Nor can I say for sure whether I'm right in thinking that as they passed over the square they dumped loads of confetti on us.  I hope I'm right about that.  It would have been fitting after the long ordeal we had just passed through.  For I couldn't then remember a time when we hadn't been at war.

I had been born the year Hitler's German army marched into Austria and launched the struggle in Europe, and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I was two months past my third birthday.  So up to the age of six every day of my life began with the morning papers spread on the breakfast table and my mom and dad soberly discussing the latest war bulletins.  Two of my uncles were in the service--one in the 101st Airborne and the other in the Signal Corps, both assigned to Europe.  My dad, a Methodist minister, was exempt.  I was glad of that, because all of us knew someone who had lost a relative to the war.  I loved my uncles and could not bear the thought of either of them in mortal danger.

Today it is nearly unimaginable that whole nations--millions and millions of people--could declare war on one another and fight until one side or the other suffered total, calamitous defeat.  And it is wholly unimaginable that one such war could have been won by the use of atomic weapons killing tens of thousands at a stroke.  Of course in more recent years the United States has fought wars in Korea, Vietnam and in Iraq and Afghanistan but in various ways all these conflicts were limited by strategic and geographic considerations and were ended mainly by political and diplomatic means.  Today we are more familiar with small, vexing,  ambiguous wars with groups of jihadis and terrorists who seem to have sprung improbably from medieval times into our own.  For nation-states to array against each other with all the resources of the industrial age seems to us a concept lost to history.  But in the twentieth century it happened not once but twice; thus I grew up during the bloodiest time in human history.

Those breakfast-table conversations between mom and dad were about places and events that were meaningless to a small boy--The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kursk, Stalingrad, Okinawa.  They were about enemies whose ferocity was beyond calculation and against whose well-drilled, fanatical battalions our army of drafted soda jerks, farmers' boys, taxi drivers, salesmen, plumbers and carpenters seemed to have small hope of victory.  The impression I received was that we in America and our allies were engaged in a mortal struggle between civilization and barbarism, between absolute good and absolute evil.  And the evil we confronted was not the sin my dad preached against on Sunday mornings--ordinary, venal, comparatively inconsiderable transgressions born of greed, selfishness or lust--it was a grade of wholesale evil that threatened to consume the world, to obliterate entire populations, to wipe out all of human progress.  Every day at the breakfast table I learned how committed certain kinds of people were to destroying everything we held dear.  I still remember the battle maps displayed on the front pages of those papers, black-and-white patterns of lines and symbols that meant nothing to me but to mom and dad represented the advance or retreat, the success or failure of whole armies.  At night the civil defense authorities would test the air raid sirens and I would awaken in terror to the weird, wobbling howls, thinking the Japanese or the Nazis were invading.  Mom would hurry to my bedroom and hold me, comfort me, as I sobbed.  But she couldn't comfort me; I knew the evil ones were coming

Yet, as I have written in another place, in daylight, on those mornings at the breakfast table, mom always insisted to me--against this background of daily horror--that most people were good at heart, that if we all lived virtuous lives we would be rewarded after death with life everlasting, that all would eventually turn out well.  Her well-intended words, together with my dad's weekly sermons about the primacy of kindness, love and tolerance, urged me to believe that goodness would eventually prevail though every day's news pounded home the message that, instead, pure evil was transcendent in the world. So I became, and have remained, obsessed with evil and strangely attracted to the idea of warfare.

When I began to write fiction I delved into darksome regions.  I wrote a novel about the Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin, not irrelevantly another son of a Methodist minister, who in Reconstruction Texas and elsewhere shot down an estimated forty-six individuals before being assassinated himself.  Hardin in my novel was a figure of sheer evil but absolutely convinced his every act was right and just.  Was this a conflation of my mother's seeming distillation of positive good persisting in, or coexisting with, absolute evil?  I wrote a novel about a medieval knight who slew an archbishop and fornicated and murdered his way across Europe and the Middle East but was also both fascinated and repelled by the hypocrisy of the established church.  Was this some twisted version of my own conflation of faith and doubt, or my sick fantasy about what might have been the spiritual trials my father might have passed through?  I wrote a series of novels about my family's forebears during the American Civil War in Western North Carolina--stories rife with degeneracy, murder, pillage, torture; and another about a maternal ancestor engaged in the sordid conflict of the American Revolution in the South.  Turning then to nonfiction, I wrote an account of three Hispanic serial killers who murdered their way across Colorado Territory in 1863, killing an estimated 32 Anglos.  Even now I'm engaged in writing about a bloody range war in 19th-century Colorado, in which a judge was assassinated in his own courtroom and numbers of men were lynched.

What has this obsession with violence, warfare and death been but an effort, half conscious and half-unconscious, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to somehow come to grips with my mother's message of sweetness and light propounded against a backdrop of the world's bloodiest century?  I have written in an earlier blog how, in my first efforts at storytelling, I created a Western hero named Buck Duck, an improbable figure who resembled Disney's Donald Duck but wore a ten-gallon hat, two guns and spurs on his webbed feet.  Buck never shot the guns out of the bad-guys' hands the way Roy Rogers and Gene Autry did.  He shot them dead just like John Wesley Hardin, and he didn't shoot them just once, he shot them multiple times.  Mom was dismayed by Buck; she urged me to write about Jesus.
But much as I admired the loving image of Jesus, I had to admit He wouldn't have lasted long in Dodge City or Tombstone.

                                                        TO BE CONTINUED




Tuesday, August 11, 2015

BE SURE YOUR SINS WILL FIND YOU OUT


            Lately the old familiar Biblical quotation has become lodged in my brain, I know not why.  It has been nagging me for days, so this morning I decided  to look it up and determine whether the wording in my head matched the language in Holy Writ.  It does; it comes from the Old Testament, the book of Numbers, Chapter 32, Verse 23. 
            Like everybody else, I am not without sin, and yes, a few of my sins committed in former years have indeed popped up to embarrass me in later times.  But these were all trivial compared to the one that has just confronted me.
            From age eighteen till about my fifty-sixth year I smoked cigarettes with what I look back on now as heedless abandon.  It was not unusual for me to burn my way through two or three packs a day, sometimes four, and for much of that time I was smoking unfiltered Pall Malls.  Later I switched filtered Marlboros, for all the good that did me.  I had the usual reasons for smoking— I thought it looked cool, it helped relieve the stress of my high-stress jobs—but for a good part of that time the real reason was that I wanted to die and hoped my smoking would hasten that event.  I only quit smoking when I found a reason to live.  That reason was Ruth.  It still is.
            But the other day my doctor gave me a preliminary diagnosis—yet to be absolutely confirmed—of emphysema.  Ironic, huh?  I smoked in hopes of killing myself, then found a reason to live, and now face the possibility of dying just when I want most to keep going.  Of course at age 76 I would have been facing a curtailed future in any case, but to have inflicted such a future on myself by smoking strikes me now as well, funny in a grim sort of way.  Except when I think of Ruth, which is all the time.  She may well have to pay the price for my youthful folly, and that is poor return on her decision to marry me.  I am as deeply sorry for that as I am happy that she took me on.

            Of course all this maundering may be no more than melodrama.  The diagnosis remains tentative.  Maybe I’ll still be tottering along at age ninety.  Both my parents were long-lived, and so were most of the members of my dad’s family.  But on a recent trip to Colorado I did experience an alarming bout of shortness of breath—due in part, of course, to the altitude—and that lent some additional credibility to the diagnosis.  But hell, who knows?  The future remains a mystery, and the present still demands that we live in it day by day.  I’m going to write and work and love Ruth for as long as I’ve got.