It Is What It Is

Here I’ve reached the age of 70, and I don’t know what existentialism is.
Teachers talked about it. Those French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about it. Even movies are made about existentialism. “Taxi Driver” and “Annie Hall” were about it but you couldn’t prove it by me. One was very violent, and the other was very funny.
I like to write stuff. Some of it is violent and some funny. What if I were an existentialist and didn’t even know it?
I have looked the word up in the dictionary, and what was there didn’t explain it to me. I even went to other dictionaries and they didn’t help either. You’d think that someplace on the internet someone could come up with clear definition, but no.
For a long time, like forty years, I have faked being smart. I call it the old smile and nod. No matter what the conversation is about. This is particularly helpful when the topic is religion or politics. No one can get mad at you if you give them the old smile and nod. I’m also a little deaf in both ears. In the case of not understanding what was being said, I add in the knowing chuckle with the smile and nod. I don’t know if I actually fooled anyone. Most of them had the decency not to expose my ignorance.
Once I got up the courage to ask my wife what existentialism meant. She had a master’s degree in criminal justice and spent a career observing people and writing reports to judges about whether to send someone to prison or not. That’s a very serious job so I figured she must understand existentialism.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she replied and went back to one of her books about biblical archeology or the theory of the black Athena.
When you reach the age of 70 you realize that you don’t have to fake anything anymore because most of the people you were afraid of disappointing with your ignorance have probably already passed on. And who cares what the people younger than you think. They don’t write my paycheck. That’s mostly because I don’t get a paycheck anymore.
One time I asked three people who went to great effort to appear intelligent about existentialism. All of them had highly cogent observations on the condition of mankind, but none of them knew what existentialism was. It was such a relief.
Perhaps it is enough that I have made it through most of my life without inflicting major discomfort on anyone within reasonable distance of my space. If I have not made a fortune, at least I have never taken food or shelter away from anyone else. If I have not done anything to save the world, at least I have given people a smile along the way.
I don’t know what existentialism is.
It is what it is.
I am what I am.
That is enough.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Sixty


Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns captive under guard in the White House basement. Stanton selects Duff, an AWOL convict,to impersonate Lincoln. Duff learns how to conduct cabinet meetings. Stanton brings news of Gettysburg to the basement.

After announcing Gabby’s uncle General Samuel Zook was killed at Gettysburg, Stanton quickly left, locking the door behind him.
A groan escaped Gabby’s lips, and he sank to the floor. Mrs. Lincoln swept around the corner, dropped beside Gabby, and held his head in her arms.
“That wicked, wicked man,” she said. “He did that on purpose to hurt you.”
“Not Uncle Sammy. He was the successful one in the family. He was going to take care of us all. Who’s going to take care of us now?”
“Evil, evil. Why would he treat you like that? You dear, sweet, gentle man. What did you do to him to be treated so shamefully?”
“First, Papa died, then Joe, and now Uncle Sammy. What’s going to happen to me and Cordie? We can hardly take care of ourselves.”
“When this awful war’s over,” Mrs. Lincoln continued, patting his head, “and Mr. Lincoln is in office again, things will change. That Mr. Stanton will pay for his evil ways. He cannot crush people and go unpunished.”
“I wish Cordie was here.” His soulful eyes, glistening with tears, looked up at Mrs. Lincoln. “Her bosom is nice and big and soft. I could sink my head into her bosom and be comforted. The Bible says a rod and staff is supposed to comfort you, but I don’t think anything can comfort you better than a big, soft bosom.”
Her eyes widening and her jaw falling, Mrs. Lincoln stuttered, “I—I think Mr. Lincoln could comfort you better than I. He always knows the right thing to say.”
Standing, she bustled away. Gabby heard them fussing at each other for a few moments. Lincoln ambled around the crates and barrels, taking his time to sink to the floor and managing to cross his ungainly legs. He reached into his pocket and drew out a packet.
“Licorice?”
“Cordie says it makes my teeth look dirty.”
“Mother says the same thing.” Lincoln took a big chaw of it. “That’s why I like to eat it. It gives us something to talk about. If you want to talk about something, we can.” More silence ensued, punctuated by loud smacks and chews. “I don’t have any appointments in my book for tonight.”
“I thought the whole idea of sticking you in this room was to keep you from having appointments.”
“It was a joke.”
“Oh.”
“I’m sorry you got involved in all this.” Lincoln finished his licorice, took out his handkerchief, and wiped his mouth. “If you had laid your rat traps earlier, you’d have missed getting caught.”
“Do you think the rebels killed Uncle Sammy?” Gabby asked as he looked into Lincoln’s deep-set eyes. “Or did Mr. Stanton kill him because he thought me or Cordie might write him? If he did, then Cordie and me killed Uncle Sammy.” Gabby’s eyes filled to overflowing. “Honest, Mr. Lincoln, I never tried to write Uncle Sammy. I couldn’t kill Uncle Sammy. I needed him to take care of me.”
“Mr. Zook, you could hardly kill rats. You couldn’t kill anybody. No. You didn’t kill your uncle. War killed Samuel Zook. It’s war, not you, nor I, nor Mr. Stanton. It’s war’s fault.”
Gabby could not hold his tears back any longer. He flung his head into Lincoln’s chest. He did not mind that it was bony. It was comforting, and that was all he needed.

Burly Chapter Twenty-Three


(Previously in the book: For his birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life. As Herman grew up, life was happy–but mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. Brother Tad tore up the burlap bear Mama had made for him. Tad died during World War II. The family came together for the memorial service. The years have passed, and Herman is now seventeen years old.)
A few days later Herman brought a couple of his friends home after school. Burly watched them carefully. They didn’t seem as bad as Tad’s friends. Actually, Burly decided, they were quite nice. Gerald was a chubby boy a little shorter than Herman. Marvin was about Herman’s height and weight but was red-haired and covered with freckles.
“Does your father hate us or something?” Gerald asked, his brow knitted. “When I said hello all he did was grunt.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Herman replied. “That’s just the way he is.”
“We’re not keeping you from any chores, are we?” Marvin asked. “We can study algebra anytime.”
Herman waved his hand as he plopped on the floor by Tad’s bed. “I’ll do them later. He knows I’ll do them.”
“My father isn’t like that,” Gerald said, joining Herman on the floor. “If I have a chore he expects it done right after school.”
“Mine too,” Marvin added.
Herman turned a little red and opened his book. “Um, let’s get started on this.”
For the next half hour the three tried to figure out the mysteries of algebra, with Herman deciphering the numbers best.
Marvin finally closed his book. “That’s enough for me. I’m just getting confused.”
“I’m with you,” Gerald said with a laugh.
“Okay,” Herman replied.
The two friends looked at each other and then Marvin gently poked Herman in the arm. “Hey, buddy, what’s the matter? You’ve been quiet all day.”
“Aww nothing.” Herman shrugged.
“If this is nothing, I’d hate to see something,” Gerald said.
Herman looked at each of them and sighed. “It’s really nothing. It’s just that this morning I heard Leonard Smith died in a car wreck last night.”
“Oh, that old drunk,” Marvin said. “He was a bum. I couldn’t stand him.”
“Hey, it means something to Herman,” Gerald protested. “I didn’t know you knew him.”
“Who would want to know him,” Marvin asked, but it was more of a statement and didn’t need a reply.”
“Marvin,” Gerald protested.
“No, that’s okay,” Herman said. “He was a bum. I couldn’t stand him.”
“Then why the long face?” Marvin asked.
“Well, it’s a long story,” Herman began. “He was one of my brother’s friends. He faked his army physical to get out of going to war.”
“Sounds like him,” Marvin interjected.
Gerald punched him in the arm. “Shut up.”
“Anyway, he showed up at the memorial service for Tad. He was drunk. My sister Callie—she lives in Houston with my aunt and uncle—told him off good.”
“And he’s been drinking ever since,” Marvin completed the story. “But why should his finally killing himself in a car accident upset you so much?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because it brings back so many bad memories,” Herman answered.
“Well, let’s talk about something that will make those memories go away,” Marvin said. “Guess who I heard talking about you at lunch today?”
“I don’t know.” Herman wasn’t ready to start playing guessing games.
“May Beth Webster.”
Herman couldn’t help but smile. “Really?”
“Yeah, she thinks you’re the best thing in school,” Marvin replied.
Gerald poked Herman again. “What do you think about that?”
“Yeah, I think she’d say yes if you asked her to the school Thanksgiving party,” Marvin continued.
Herman shook his head but still smiled. “Aww, I can’t date. What would I do? Drive up in papa’s banged-up old pickup?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of a double date, dummy?” Marvin asked happily. “You could come with Betsy and me.”
Herman looked up and grinned at the idea. Burly was happy for Herman even though he didn’t know what a date was. But then Herman’s expression changed. Burly was puzzled because he had never seen it before. It was a combination of shame, fear and anxiety. Suddenly Burly knew what was bothering Herman and what he was looking at. Herman was looking at Burly.
Jumping up, Herman tried to look carefree as he plopped on his bed and slid Burly under the pillow. “Gosh, do you really think we could do it?” Herman asked, with a forced happiness in his voice.
Gerald squinted. “Of course, you goof. Boy you must really be crazy about this girl to start hopping around like that.”
“Have you had a date yet, Gerald?” Marvin asked.
Ducking his head, Gerald admitted, “Well no.”
“Then you don’t know how girls can affect guys, right Herman?”
Herman smiled nervously. “Yeah, right.”
Burly didn’t like what was happening at all. The boys talked quite a few more minutes before Herman suggested that they go outside.
While they were gone Burly was trying to decide what to say to Herman when he came to bed that night. Should he be angry? No. A stuffed bear can’t very well be angry. He has no way to fight back at young humans, as his father found out many years ago with Tad. His father, Burly moaned. Oh, what if he ended his existence the same way his father did? That would be terrible, he thought. Shaking his little burlap head, Burly tried to tell himself that Herman was not like Tad. He was much nicer. But he was a teen-ager now. He was growing up, and maybe there was something inside teen-agers that forced them to break all ties to their childhoods, like cuddling favorite blankets, depending on mothers and fathers and loving little stuffed bears.
Eventually, Herman climbed the ladder to the loft and took his clothes off to get ready to sleep.
“Did you have fun with your friends?” Burly asked, trying to be friendly and forget that Herman hid him.
“Yeah.”
“So you’re going to have a date,” Burly continued. “What’s a date?”
Herman sat on the edge of the bed and picked up Burly. “Burly, you know what happened this afternoon?”
At first Burly thought to lie, but he knew it was no use to lie around Herman. “Yes. You were ashamed I was on your bed.”
“Now I know how Tad felt that day.”
Burly didn’t want to ask this question. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m not going to let my friends tear you up,” Herman said with a strong nod of his head.
“They seem like nice boys,” Burly offered. “I don’t think they would be as mean as Tad’s friends.”
“Could be,” Herman conceded, “but that’s not the point. The point is,” and Herman took a deep breath, “I am too old to have a teddy bear.”
“Oh no. A person is never too old to have a friend. And that’s what I am. Your friend. Not just a teddy bear,” Burly said with desperation.
Herman shook his head and carried Burly to the old trunk at the end of the room. “No, Burly. It’s time I began to grow up. And part of growing up is giving up you.”
“No, Herman, please,” Burly pleaded.
“I guess I’ve known this moment would come ever since Tad tore up Burly Senior,” Herman continued, his voice strangely calm. “I didn’t want it to come, but I knew it had to come.”
“No, please,” Burly said, near to tears, if he had any tears. “I’ll never embarrass you again. I love you too much to hurt you.”
“I can’t take that chance.” Herman lifted the lid to the trunk.
“Please, don’t hurt me. I can still give you advice. I’ve always told you the right thing to do, haven’t I?”
“Good bye, Burly.”
And the trunk lid closed, leaving Burly in the dark and Herman alone for the first time in many, many years.

The Thrill of Art

My father’s idea of being cultured was to lift his leg downwind of company when he needed to pass gas.
My mother thought anyone who liked opera, ballet or Shakespeare was a pretentious snob.
So why I consider myself an esthete is really a mystery. An esthete, by the way, is a person who derives great pleasure from exposure to beautiful things, like art, music, theater, dance, literature and the list goes on. It doesn’t mean I’m a snob. It just mean that I get the same stress relief from artistic stuff that many people get from watching sports or participating in sports.
I once heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say he got more pleasure out of lifting weight than from making love. And he was elected governor of California. Go figure.
All I got out of exercise was a lot of sweat, panting and an excruciating pain in my side. And I never did see any amazing results in my body either.
Now I always did get excited when Shakespeare was going to be performed on television. I remember a production of MacBeth with Maurice Evans (he was the condescending ape in Planet of the Apes) and Judith Anderson (she played the queen of the Vulcans in a Star Trek movie). It was filmed in Scotland. I didn’t understand half of what being said but I still liked it. Then there was Hamlet with Lawrence Harvey (he was the brainwashed guy in Manchurian Candidate). I understood a little more of the dialogue and liked it even better.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember why I even was allowed to watch those plays. If there had been a western on at the same time my father would have insisted on watching that instead. Maybe he had to work late or went to bed early. Anyway, I did get to see them and felt like windows had been opened to my soul. Come to think of it, my mother did refer to me as a little snob from time to time.
Opera eluded me for years, but I always liked ballet. A touring group came to our high school for an assembly program. Afterwards a football player said, “Hey, look at me, I’m a ballerina!” He took a few goofy-looking leaps but stopped and panted. “Hey,” he said in a moment of self-revelation. “That’s kinda hard.”
My mother-in-law didn’t approve of ballet because certain features of the male anatomy were too obviously on display. I always wondered how come she could ignore the beautiful music, the costumes, the sets and the graceful movements and just concentrate on that one thing. Dirty old broad.
As I said, opera took the longest for me to appreciate. I think part of it was that the singers belt out the songs like they have to be heard in the next county. When arias are lightly tossed out to waft on the breeze they become inspiring and lift the burdens of everyday life.
The same is true for symphonic music or chorale. I’m not that great of a singer but I have been lucky enough to sing a few times in large groups performing Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. To be completely surrounded by such music takes me to another, better place.
I appreciate all forms of art, from the Old Masters to Jackson Pollack. Once I picked up my daughter from a birthday party at the home of a very successful lawyer. He was so successful he had a helicopter pad in the front yard in case he was needed in Miami or Nashville real fast. We were talking in the living room with my daughter’s friend, the birthday girl, when my eyes strayed to a wall where was hanging a small dark oil painting of something Polynesian. I squinted and thought I saw a very famous signature. I walked over and, sure enough, it was signed “Gaugin.” I turned to the girl, 13 or 14, and said respectfully, “May I touch it?”
She shrugged and replied, “Sure, why not?”
My daughter was, as usual, was mortified. My fingertips lightly ran across the surface, feeling the brushstrokes.
“Do you know what this is?” I said, continuing to act like a groupie backstage at a rock concert.
“I don’t know. Just something daddy picked up somewhere.”
“This is a Gaugin,” I said and proceeded to give a brief history of the French artist who palled around with Van Gogh and painted naked women in Tahiti. If anyone asked to touch a Gaugin in an art museum he would be escorted from the building and kicked down the stairs.
By this time my daughter realized her daddy wasn’t just being his usual goofy self and asked if she could touch it too. The girl thought we were nuts but let us stroke the little painting all we wanted.
So that’s why I’m an esthete. You don’t have to own the art. You don’t have to be able to create art. All you have to do is appreciate it and let it wash over you like the invigorating cold tide on a Florida beach.

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Thirty-Five


Previously in the novel: Mercenary Leon fails in a kidnapping because of David, better known as Edward the Prince of Wales. Also in the spy world is socialite Wallis Spencer, who dumps first husband Winfield, kills Uncle Sol, has an affair with German Joachin Von Ribbentrop and marries Ernest. David and his brother George go to Buenos Aires where George is seduced by sex, drugs and booze.
David and the mercenary, carrying naked Prince George, hurried down the steps of Jorge Ferrara’s mansion. The taxi driver jumped out and opened the back door. The man dropped George on the seat, pushed his body across then sat next to him. David slid in, the driver went back to the wheel and they sped off.
“I need you to perform another task for me,” David said to the man in the tan uniform.
“That was not part of our original negotiations.”
“What do you want now?” David became easily impatient with the lower classes who only thought in terms of how much money was in it for them.
“What were you planning on giving me for rescuing your brother?” His piercing black eyes bore into David.
“My diamond stick pin and 24-karat gold cuff-links.” He regarded the urban scenery passing by the window and raised his chin.
The mercenary observed at the clothes crumpled on the floorboard. “I want his stick pin and cuff-links too.”
“Deal.” God, I hate dealing with rabble like this.
The man extended his palm turned up. “Give them to me now.”
David extracted his accoutrements and handed them over. He nodded to George’s clothes. “You can get his.”
“You get them. He’s your brother.”
Sighing in exasperation, David bent over, unfastened the stick pin and cufflinks from George’s attire and plopped them in the mercenary’s hand. He felt like bathing in disinfectant.
The man carefully folded everything into a handkerchief and tucked it into a pouch down inside his pants between his legs. “What do you want me to do?”
“Tell the driver to take us to the nearest Catholic Church,” David began. “You go in and tell the priest two men are seeking sanctuary. Two brothers. One is trying to wean the other off of drugs. They need an isolated room, food and complete privacy. Tell him we will reward the church generously for this charity. Tell him I am a man of integrity. You will vouch for me. Of course, who will vouch for you, God only knows.”
The mercenary turned to the driver and spoke in Spanish with a Bahamian accent. In a few blocks the taxi pulled in front of a large cathedral. The man pushed at David so he could get out.
Who the hell does he think he is? Pushing me around like that? I’m a damned prince, for God’s sake!
He trotted up the steps with the confidence of a world-weary mercenary at the top of his game. Without hesitation he threw the door open and barged in.
David leaned over and looked at George. “Wake up. Put on your clothes. “
George moaned.
“I mean it.” He kicked his brother. “At least put on pants and a shirt.” He nudged George again. “Are you dying on me?” David leaned back and looked out the window.
That would be just like you, George. Leave me in the taxi with a dead naked prince. Most inconsiderate bloke I’ve ever known.
David saw the church door open and the mercenary marched down the steps followed by an old priest and two young ones. David picked up George’s clothes and got out of the car just as the men arrived. The two young ministers crawled into the back seat to drag out George. The man in the tan uniform jumped into the taxi, tapped the driver’s shoulder, and the car sped off into the night.
David followed the priests as they carried George around the corner to steps leading down to the basement. They entered a long dark corridor which seemed to lead to an older, less civilized century. The old priest unlocked a door and stepped aside so the younger clergy could carry George to a cot and dump him. They left the room and locked the door, leaving David to consider his new surroundings.
Another cot sat against the opposite wall. The only other object was a galvanized bucket. No pillows, blankets or towels. David could only hope they would bring food in the morning. It was a church after all. He collapsed on the cot and fell into a deep sleep.
A light tap at the door roused David. He stumbled to the door and mumbled, “Que?”
It opened, and a nun handed him a tray, shut the door and locked it back. On the tray were a pewter pitcher of water and a casket with a loaf of bread, a small wheel of cheese, several hard-boiled eggs and oranges.
“George?”” David sat on the edge of the cot. “We’ve got food.”
He just moaned and rolled over to face the crumbling stone wall.
“I’ll kill Kiki if I ever see her again.” David crunched into the crusty bread.
The next morning George opened his eyes long enough to vomit, urinate and defecate before passing out again. He didn’t speak until the third day.
“Where am I?”
“The pit of hell,” David whispered. “And the fool that I am, I followed you here.”
“Huh?”
“You’re in withdrawal.”
“Again?”
“It’s your own fault.”
George twitched. “Are there bugs in here?”
“Bugs have more sense than to come here.”
Writhing, he cried, “The worms. The worms are back. I hate the worms. Why do I do this to myself?”
“Drink some water.” David lifted the pitcher to George’s lips. “You vomited so much you’re dehydrated.”
“I want to die. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Of course you can. You’re a Windsor. If you can sit through an eight-course dinner with our blithering idiot father, you can take anything. Now drink.”
George knocked the pitcher away. “No! I want to die!”
David grabbed each side of his brother’s face with his hands and pulled him so close their noses touched.
“I won’t let you die! They won’t let you die! Do you know what Papa and Mama will do to you if I bring you home like this? The same thing they did with little Johnny. Do you remember him? Our youngest brother? The sweetest soul that ever lived on this earth? He was different so they locked him in a room at Windsor Castle and pulled curtains so he could see out and nobody could see in. Then he dropped dead when he was only fourteen years old. Do you think you could have taken being treated like that? Johnny took it! He was a better man than you’ll ever be!”
By the time George fell asleep he had eaten some bread, a couple of bites of cheese and a hard-boiled egg, which his brother had to peel for him. David stared at him while he slept. Then he looked around the room. He felt anger welling up inside him like he had not felt since the bullies tortured him at school. David set his jaw firm. He could take that and he would take this.
Eventually, George’s body began to shiver like he was in a vat of ice. He slit his eyes open and glanced about. “Why is it so cold in here?” he asked.
“You’re naked,” David replied in a flat tone.
George pulled on his slacks and shirt and slept better than he had in days. On the fifth day when the nun knocked on the door, George stood on wobbly legs and walked over, moaning the entire time. The nun unlocked the door.
“I want to go home now.”
The nun guided them to the basement door and pointed down the street.
“Don’t worry. You will be properly rewarded,” David assured her as they stepped out.
She smiled and closed the door. They walked a few blocks and saw the British embassy.
“How did she know to direct us here?” George asked.
“You spoke in a British accent, stupid.”
“How are we ever going to explain this?” George sniffed. “We smell like hell.”
David put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “We don’t have to explain anything. We are the Brothers Royale.”

Father’s Day

I think I’ve got this Father’s Day deal figured out.
This last weekend I got a dinner and a movie from my son who has to work next weekend, the actual Father’s Day. He’s a corrections officer at a state facility with a schedule so wacky only a politician could have come up with it. Twelve hour days. Two days on, three days off, three days on, two days off. Basically, if I see him he has the day off. If I don’t he’s working.
He took me to see the movie about how Han Solo met Chewbaca and won the Millennium Falcon in a card game. I know it’s supposed to be a stand-alone, but I think it needs at least one sequel to tie up all the loose ends. Basically I liked it. At least it didn’t end with half the people in the universe disintegrating with a snap of the fingers.
That was on Saturday night. On Sunday night he took me out to dinner at nice family-type restaurant that served roast beef, corn and potatoes wrapped up in tin foil. A little messy but it tasted good. Sometimes my son zones out or says something inappropriate; but hey, like father like son.
Now this is where it gets interesting. My daughter, who lives a thousand miles away with her family, called to say her present might be a little late coming in the mail. Better late than never. She always picks out something delicious to send me. On top of that I might even get a phone from my lovely little granddaughter.
Someone might point out I’m not getting anything more than any other father with two grown children might get, but I see it as making the fun stretch out as long as possible. Being greedy is not a good thing. Being grateful feels much better. Feeling grateful for an extended period of time is wonderful.
I don’t know if there’s a moral in any of this. I’m too busy looking for the mail to arrive. Ever since I was a little boy I’ve always loved looking for the mail to arrive.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Fifty-Nine


Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns captive under guard in the White House basement. Stanton selects Duff, an AWOL convict,to impersonate Lincoln. Duff learns how to conduct cabinet meetings. Alethia, the woman playing Mrs. Lincoln, has had a carriage accident. He goes to see her at the hospital in Maryland.

Gabby finished his supper with one ear tuned to hear a knock at the door waiting for news–something mighty wonderful must have happened at Gettysburg. The first day’s news brought by Stanton was not good. The rebels had gained ground outside of town. The second day went well, thanks to the boys from Maine. Gabby tried to remember if any of his West Point friends were from Maine, but his mind was clouded, and the only friend he could remember was Joe, and he was from New York, and he was dead. Gabby could not do anything about it, just as he could not do anything about the soldiers dying at Gettysburg. His eyes strayed to his shirt front, and now he cared more about the stray drops of gravy there; that way, his heart did not hurt so much.
The door opened, and Gabby hoped it was Adam. Maybe today would be the day he would think of the right things to say to make Adam stop being so gloomy all the time. Instead it was Stanton.
“I’ve the latest news from Gettysburg,” the war secretary announced.
Gabby sagged and stared at his plate; he did not want to see Stanton. He did not like the man; more than that, he was scared of him.
“What is it?” Lincoln asked, scooting a chair from the billiards table and plopping down.
“Please say it’s a victory,” Mrs. Lincoln said.
“Total victory,” Stanton replied. “The rebels attempted a foolhardy charge up a hill strongly manned by our forces, and they were decimated.”
“Yes! Yes!” Lincoln said.
“Oh,” Mrs. Lincoln murmured.
Gabby detected compassion in her voice. Perhaps some of her Kentucky relatives were in the charge, but you cannot worry about relatives at war, he told himself. Uncle Sammy was fighting, but Gabby could not think about losing someone else close to him—first had been his kind father and second his friend Joe. Losing Uncle Sammy was too painful to comprehend.
“Bobby Lee’s slipping,” Lincoln said. “In his prime he would’ve never made such a strategic blunder.”
“I know the Lees very well,” Mrs. Lincoln added. “They’re fine and genteel folk.”
“Now, Mother, we’re not talking about hosting a party, at which I’m sure they excel. We’re talking about military tactics.”
“Still, I can’t glory in the death of any young man, be he from north or south.”
“Yes, yes, of course, Mother,” Lincoln replied. “War’s terrible, but terrible battles end a war fast so no more men die.”
Adam unlocked the door and entered.
“What are you doing here?” Stanton said in a huff.
“I—I came to get the dishes.”
“Oh,” Stanton said. “Get on with it.”
Gabby heard the clattering of china against the wooden tray. Adam turned the corner into his little safe haven.
“I’m sorry I didn’t bring my plate out to you, but that man scares me,” Gabby whispered.
“He scares me too.”
“Don’t be scared,” Gabby said. “Don’t be sad. Keep yourself cleaned up. You don’t want to end up like me.”
Adam patted Gabby’s shoulder and then turned to leave. He shut the door quietly and locked it.
“So,” Lincoln said. “Do we have General Lee in custody?”
“Um, no. They retreated across the border. General Meade said his men were tired, and so he felt it was enough to force the enemy from our soil.”
A giant slap against the felt covering of the billiards table made Gabby jump.
“Father,” Mrs. Lincoln said with a gentle gasp.
“Excuse me, Mother, but my patience is at an end. He has the audacity to hold us in the White House basement because I’m incompetent, but he lets Bobby Lee escape!”
“Sir, I share your anger that General Meade didn’t pursue Lee, but it was his mistake and not mine.”
“If I were still in control, this would have never happened!”
Lincoln’s outburst was not very presidential, Gabby told himself. Squinting, once again he wrestled with the question of whether he was the president or not.
“On another front,” Stanton continued, “General Grant will successfully conclude his siege of Vicksburg tomorrow.”
“And who will Grant let slip through his fingers?” Lincoln sighed.
“No one, sir,” Stanton replied.
“So. We do have a general who knows how to win battles the right way.”
Stanton grunted.
“I want…” Lincoln paused. “I recommend you send for General Grant as soon as possible. He should take on Bobby Lee.”
“He drinks too much,” Stanton said.
“And you think too much of yourself, but that hasn’t stopped you from attempting to lead this country.”
“Father.”
Gabby heard the fear in Mrs. Lincoln’s voice. She was right. Lincoln was out of control, but Gabby could not be harsh with him. Melancholia made people act queerly. Gabby should know. He had been acting queerly for years.
“You must forgive me.” Lincoln sighed again. “Cabin fever, that’s what it is. Did you ever have cabin fever, Mr. Stanton?”
“No, sir, I don’t think I have.”
“How about you, Mother, have you ever had cabin fever?”
“I’m having it right now.”
After a pause, Lincoln spoke, now more composed.
“Do as you like, but I believe General Grant would head the Army of the Potomac effectively.”
“Gideon Welles agrees with you.”
“He told you that?”
“Not me. The man upstairs.”
“God? When did you find time to speak to God?”
“The man upstairs, meaning your replacement.” Stanton paused a moment. “You know what I meant.”
“Of course, but I need a good laugh to get through the day, and if it can be at your expense, so much the better.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Stanton replied, hardly containing his temper. “I’ll take under consideration your opinion.”
He walked to the door, stopped, taking a few steps to the side so he could see inside Gabby’s little nook behind the crates and barrels. Gabby shuddered when he saw Stanton’s beady eyes trained on him.
“By the way,” he said to the Lincolns, “I regret to report we lost several generals at Gettysburg. Among them was General Samuel Zook.”

Stories From a Friend–Shoeshine

Note: The author of this story is my new friend, Clyde J. Hady of Brooksville, Florida. His business Facebook is Hometown Electric. Check out his latest invention on You Tube.

In 1937 I was 12 years old, and my Father was the most important man in town. It was a small town, we knew everybody, well my Mom and Dad did. We owned the forge in town, (the forge was where we melted metal and made parts that went all over the United States), and we hired most of the people in town. When we walked down the street everybody would greet us. I thought we had it made. Life was great, and we were important.

Every morning my Dad left for the factory, and he would stop in two places on the way in. First he would stop at the paper corner and get his paper (newspaper). Then he would go down the block and into the barbershop. He didn’t always get his hair cut, but he did get his shoes shined every day.

I remember going with him, when I was 12. Everybody respected my Dad! As we walked I said, “Dad, you have the most important job in the whole town, don’t you?” I remember he smiled, but he didn’t say anything. That meant he didn’t agree with what you said! So I asked him, “Isn’t your job the most important in town?” So he asked me, “What makes a job important?” Well I figured I didn’t know the answer. That’s the way my Dad was. He was always asking you questions that he knew you didn’t have the answer for right away.

So we walked past the paperboy, and headed toward the barbershop. I didn’t say anything, because it never helped to rush my Dad. He’d let you know in his own good time what the answer was.

When my Dad sat down to have his shoes shined, the shoeshine boy started talking and shining at the same time. It was mostly small talk, but then he said, “I’m sorry it’s taking so long, but you scuffed this one good. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to accomplish the same task.” Now a shine only cost a nickel so I was really shocked when my Dad gave him a dime and said, “Keep it, you deserve it today.” Why a whole nickel, that was a weeks allowance for me.

My Dad could see I was wondering why, so he said, “I’ll tell you why!” He said, “Today at work I am going to make decisions about things I don’t even know yet! Some of those decisions are going to be easy, some are going to take more thought. And when I am thinking about the tough decisions I’m going to look at these shoes. I’m going to notice that these shoes look brand new, and because I look my best, I’m going to feel more confident about myself and my decisions. I’m also going to remember that it took longer today, to make them look this good. But Bill didn’t ask for more money, he just did the job that was necessary. His job was a little more difficult, but he simply put more effort into it. Today, Bill had the most important job in town, because he allowed me to do my best. The importance of a job is much less what the job is, and much more how the job is done.”

That night I did my chores extra good, and to this day when I look at my shoes, I remember to do the very best job that I can, because my job is one of the most important jobs.

Burly Chapter Twenty-Two


(Previously in the book: For his birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life. As Herman grew up, life was happy–but mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. Brother Tad tore up the burlap bear Mama had made for him. Tad died during World War II. The family came together for the memorial service.)
Burly was frightened; Herman was seventeen, the same age Tad was when he destroyed Burly Senior. He knew he really had nothing to worry about. Herman was much kinder than Tad ever was and would never tear him to pieces. Still, Herman was no longer the sad-eyed little boy who cried on him and gave him life many years ago. Herman was tall, straight and strong. He worked harder and longer than Tad had when he was on the farm. Now in the middle of the afternoon Burly would notice papa coming in the door and going to his room to nap while Herman stayed out in the field or in the barn. Of an evening after supper dishes were washed, Herman pored over his school books, completing his homework and studying the next lesson beyond that. Burly was very proud when Herman showed him his report cards and there were all As.
“Very good, Herman,” Burly told him.
Herman shrugged his now broad shoulders. “I’m not that good. The teachers in Cumby are impressed, though.”
“But your father isn’t impressed,” Burly offered.
“I don’t know if he is or not.”
Burly shook his head. “Then who are you trying to impress?”
Herman smiled. “Me, I guess. The more I read the more I see how little I know.”
“Now you are getting smart,” Burly said, impressed with his young friend.
Herman put Burly aside. “I’ve got to study now.” Then he opened his book and didn’t speak to Burly the rest of the night.
That was what scared Burly. For years they had talked into the night until Herman slumbered away in mid-sentence. Now he fell asleep with his face in a book. In fact, there were days when Herman wouldn’t speak to Burly at all.
“Are you mad at me?” Burly asked one night after almost a week of being ignored.
“Hmm?” Herman muttered, his eyes still on his book.
“I said, are you mad at me?”
Herman put down the book and gave Burly a quizzical smile. “Why would you say that?”
Burly turned his little button eyes down. “Well, you haven’t talked to me in several days.”
Picking the bear up and hugging him, Herman said, “I’m sorry. You know I still love you.”
Feeling a bit more secure, Burly asked, “What are you reading?”
“Government.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes.”
“What is government?”
Herman put the book down again. “I guess a burlap bear wouldn’t know anything about government, would he?”
“No, I don’t,” Burly replied, embarrassed.
“It’s the system by which all the people in the country operate,” Herman tried to explain. “It’s laws, rules we live by, so we don’t hurt each other and help us help each other better.”
“Can’t people just decide to love each other without making laws?” Burly asked.
Herman laughed. “But that doesn’t get any roads built. Or schools run. And it doesn’t defend our country either.”
“Oh.”
“It’s really interesting. I think I like this subject more than anything else in school.”
“That’s nice.”
“In fact,” Herman said, turning more to Burly, “I’ve decided to become a lawyer when I get out of school.”
“A lawyer?” Burly asked. “What’s that?”
“That’s a person who makes it his business to make sure the laws are carried out properly.”
“You mean like a sheriff?” Burly remembered the night the sheriff came to the house to help when Herman’s mother died.
“No, a lawyer’s paid by individual people to represent them in court and to make sure their businesses follow all the laws.”
“Court?”
Herman smiled and shook his head. “Let’s just say that’s what I want to do. It’s too complicated to explain.”
Burly felt sad. “I’m sorry I don’t understand. I’ve spent all my life in this loft so I really don’t know much.”
Hugging Burly again, Herman assured him, “You know the most about what counts, love.”
Feeling encouraged, Burly asked another question. “What kind of law would you do, the kind for businesses or—what did you called them?”
“Courts,” Herman supplied the missing word. “Courts.” He gathered Burly close as though he were sharing a secret. “Remember the Johnsons? The black people who helped us one year? And remember that show we went to, how all the black people had to sit in one place? Well, I want to help them, all the black people, so they won’t be treated differently anymore.”
“That’s very nice, Herman.”
He blushed. “Well, it’s something I think should be done.”
Burly thought a moment and then asked, “You won’t be able to do all that and stay here on the farm, will you?”
“No.” Herman looked nervous and picked up his book.
Burly didn’t ask any more questions that night. He was afraid of the answers he might receive.

Of Mice, Men and Giggling at Dirty Words


My introduction to John Steinbeck came in 1961 when I was 13 and my brother was doing a one-act play based on part of Of Mice and Men at the local community college. We sat on the bed reading roles. He was George. I was Lenny. Ours was a strict Southern Baptist home, and such words were never to be spoken in front of Mom, but Mom wasn’t there.
It was the thrill of my life to say those dirty words, one right after another, sentence after sentence of words that Mom would have whacked my bottom for saying. Before long we both were giggling and rolling over speaking words of literature from a Nobel laureate in literature. This was classy stuff. This was dirty, and we loved it.
Our older brother stood in the doorway, his arms crossed, and puffing on a cigarette with fire and brimstone in his eyes. We didn’t care. I was helping my other brother with his homework. What could be wrong with that? And, besides, it was so funny.
At least the words were funny. After we were finished and the play was done and my brother had taken his bows, the story stuck with me. It wasn’t so funny anymore. Our folks, of course, lived through the Great Depression but never talked about it much.
“How can you lose everything if you didn’t have anything to begin with?” Mom said, and that was that.
Of Mice and Men was not only my introduction to dirty words but also my introduction into that dirty, miserable and unfair world of the 1930s. There were the men who owned the farms and there were the men who worked the farms and therein lay a huge gap. No matter what Lenny and George’s dreams were, not matter how much they wanted them to come true, they never would.
All Lenny ever wanted was something soft to pet and take care of. But as Robert Burns said, such are the schemes of mice and men.
As I got older I wanted to read more of John Steinbeck. The local librarian asked my age and said I’d have to wait a while to read East of Eden. It was worth the wait. Then came Grapes of Wrath and all the others, except Travels With Charlie. I don’t know. His road trip with his dog didn’t interest me.
What started with adolescent humor built into a life-time of reading about what the world is really like and what we can do to change it. I know literature did this for more than me, not only novels and plays, but now movies and television programs that dare me to think. Luckily I married a woman who loved to read too. That way we learned twice as much. She told me about her books, and I told her about mine.
I am 70 years old and, yes, when I go to see an R-rated movie, I still giggle at the dirty words. And they still make me think.