Monthly Archives: June 2013

Heroes Day

It was heroes day in heaven, and the main street through the middle of town was crowded with all the folks newly arrived from Earth.
This one guy was fairly hopping from one foot to the other. He nudged a little girl standing next to him.
“You’re gonna see the big dudes now,” he said. His eyes were peering over everyone’s heads and down the street. “Gee, I hope George Washington is leading the parade.”
“So this George Washington is a hero?” the child asked.
“Where have you been, kid? Of course, George Washington is a hero!”
“Oh, I’ve been here in heaven quite a while. Why is he a hero?”
“He won the war against the British and made America free!”
“Oh, a war.” She paused. “What’s this America?”
“You have been here a long time, haven’t you? Well, I don’t have the time to tell you all about America and its heroes. The parade is about to begin. Watch and learn.”
A blast of trumpet ripped through the air, and the drummers started beating their snares. All heads were turned to see the procession coming around the corner. In single file marched gray-haired, stoop-shouldered women, frail balding men, wispy limbed children and care-worn teen-agers. As they passed the heavenly horde and felt the embrace of hurrahs and cheers, their faces brightened, and they seemed to walk with a little bit more pep in their step. The man, newly arrived from the twenty-first century, wrinkled his brow and pouted.
“Who are these people? Where’s George Washington? Where’s General Patton? Where’s Robert E. Lee?”
“The first person in line is Bessie McGrew,” the girl said. “She took care of her mother and father after they had yellow fever. Most people die of yellow fever, and those who do survive need a lot of care. And that teen-aged boy over there, Benny Turnhow, jumped into the river to save his little sister from drowning. Except both of them died anyway. And the little girl behind him, Miriam, she hugged a man with leprosy who was being driven out of the village. Her family wouldn’t let her come home so she lived with the leper colony. Poor thing. She died the next year. Then there’s Joe Marino who got himself blown up to save his friends.”
“That’s all very well and good, but where are the real heroes?” the man asked impatiently.
“They are the real heroes.” The little girl’s voice hardened.
The man spit in disgust. “That’s what I get for talking to a kid.”
“Just who the hell do you think you are, Henry Peckworth?” A bellowing basso profundo erupted from the child’s lips.
His eyes widened, surprised to hear such a big voice from such a small girl. “Who—who are you? And how did you know my name?” he asked in a whisper.
“I am God,” the little girl replied in her deep voice. “I run this place, and I know everybody’s name.”
“Of course, you do.” The man backed up and lowered his head.
“You never did tell me why you think you’re so special, Henry Peckworth.”
“George Washington was my great-great-great-great uncle on my mother’s side.”
“Henry Peckworth, you’re not supposed to be here. You were never kind to anyone a day in your life. I’m going to kick St. Peter’s ass. He’s been slipping up and letting way too many of you people in here.”
The little girl stamped her foot, and Henry Peckworth disappeared. She smiled and looked back at the parade of heroes.
“Now I can have a good time.”

Dancing Robot

Siegfried and Otto were extremely put out that the Fuehrer had gone down into his bunker and put a bullet through his brain.
There they had just created the perfect prototype of a robot soldier, ready to goosestep across Europe, and the war was over. What on earth were they ever to do?
Within a year they had migrated to the United States with a brilliant new idea for their robot. Siegfried and Otto reworked the circuit to transform the goose-stepping marvel into a tap-dancing fool. They envisioned creating entire theater companies to tour with No No Nanette in every major city in America, three shows daily. Ordinary human dancers had to eat, sleep and insist on being paid, while inconveniently coming up lame with pulled muscles and sprained ankles.
“He is a masterpiece!” Siegfried exclaimed.
“Perhaps we should lose the mustache and the hair down the forehead,” Otto offered.
“But why? He is the exact image of the Fuehrer!”
“He looks like one of the Americans’ Three Stooges, Moe,” Otto replied. “He would not be taken seriously.”
“You think?”
“I know.”
“Very well. Perhaps different color of hair?” Siegfried asked
“Ah! Make him a blond!” Otto jumped with glee.
“Ja!”
“He will be the perfect auto robot!”
“Und why should he be named for you?” Siegfried demanded. “I am just as responsible for his creation as you are!”
“What do you mean, named for me?”
“You said to name him Otto robot,” Siegfried responded.
“I said auto robot as in automated robot,” the short bald-headed scientist said, stomping his foot. “Not Otto robot!”
“You should not speak with such a thick German accent when we are discussing business.”
“Dumpkoff!”
“Let’s get back to the topic at hand,” Siegfried said, opening the back of the dancing robot with a screwdriver to make final adjustments. “Ah, that is it.” He closed the panel and pushed the bright red button between the robot’s shoulder blades.
The robot began a perfect tap routine with shuffle ball change and butterfly jumps. Otto’s eyes widened.
“Und what, may I ask, is that?”
“Tap dancing! American tap dancing!”
Otto stomped again. “Nein! That is sissy tap dancing!” He grabbed the screwdriver from Siegfried’s hand and went to the robot to punch the red button. “I thought we had settled this question weeks ago.”
“Nein. We just stopped talking about it,” Siegfried replied. “I made the final decision to make the robot dance like Fred Astaire. Und Fred Astaire is not a sissy! He is a happily married man. Millions of Americans love his suave dancing style.”
“Scheitze! Millions more Americans love the style of Gene Kelly!” Otto threw open the panel, stuck in the screwdriver and adjusted the panel. “Bended knees! Wider steps! Dance like a man, for God’s sake!”
When Otto punched the button the robot bent its knees and flew across the floor, tapping its little feet off. Siegfried ran to his partner and wrested the screwdriver from his hand and turned to the dancing robot as it began bouncing off the walls.
“Nein! Nein! No No Nanette cannot be danced like that!” Seigfried screamed.
Before Siegfried could reach the robot to punch its red button Otto jumped on his back. “No sissies in No No Nanette!”
The two scientists rolled around on the floor as the dancing robot entered its final sixteen bars which included a pirouette and clicking of heels. Unfortunately on the second heel click the robot tripped over Siegfried and Otto, collapsed and its legs fell off. The scientists stopped fighting, stood and surveyed the damage.
“I never liked No No Nanette in the first place,” Otto said.
“Ja. Too American,” Siegfried agreed. “Besides, we would have had to pay royalties.”
Otto, who now possessed the screwdriver, tapped Siegfried’s arm with it. “Ballet. We pick a composer from the eighteenth century, and the music is ours for the taking.”
“Just like Poland!”
“Exactly!”
Each picked up a leg and went to the work table. They went back for the torso.
“Of course, it will have to be programmed to dance in the style of the Bolshoi Ballet,” Otto said matter of factly.
“Bolshoi?” Siegfried replied. “But I prefer Kirov!”

Jesus Christ Superstar, Our Siren Song

Every time I hear an ambulance go by I think, “There goes another person who saw “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
This odd mental phenomenon goes back to 1971 when I was the area editor for the Kingsport, Tn., Times-News. A bunch of stringers and I were responsible for filling up a page about news from the surrounding counties everyday. Some days that could be quite a chore.
Back then the politicians had a habit of deciding to hold a meeting an hour earlier than announced so that when the reporter showed up they said, “Sorry, you missed it.”
One time I had a school superintendent on the phone asking him why a certain mountain school was being closed. He stammered a moment and then the phone went dead. The guy just didn’t want to talk to me about why the school was being closed. It was tough reporting the news back then.
However, I did get a call from a proud parent in a nearby town that her son had the lead in a touring company of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” which was going to perform at the Kingsport high school gymnasium. This was right after the record album had come out but before the Broadway production. Basically it was a concert version with performers on risers and stools. I told the editor and he immediately assigned the story to the entertainment editor. I never got to write about anything interesting.
Somehow, however, I became the person in charge of getting free tickets for everyone in the newsroom. Since the story ran front page, that was easy enough to do.
Even though it was bare bones, the production was great. A good time was had by all. The gymnasium was packed. When the movie came out, I felt it was a pale comparison to what I saw in Kingsport.
A few weeks later the religion editor—for a small town newspaper, this operation had a lot of editors—wrote a story about one of the local ministers who took the town to task for taking “Jesus Christ Superstar” to heart. For one thing, one of the young male leads had his picture taken in a close hug with June Lockhart and it was in the National Inquirer. Older woman takes young lover. That sort of thing.
Of course, that was nothing compared to the vitriol against the musical itself. Rock music and the gospel? Never! The idea that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend. Outrageous! Who knows what he would have thought about the “DaVinci Code” and its assertion that Jesus and Mary were married. Herod portrayed as a homosexual? The list of infamies went on and on.
He concluded with the statement, “Every time I hear an ambulance, I think there goes another person who saw ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar.’”
Over the years my wife and I have had a good laugh over it, repeating that assertion whenever we heard an ambulance siren. In the last couple of years, we have seen the road show production starring Ted Neely, who had the title role in the movie back in 1976. For an old man he looked pretty good in a loin cloth, except it went all the way up to his rib cage. If he keeps doing this show much longer, his loin cloth will be up to his arm pits.
Nevertheless, we might even go back to see him in it again. The music is the music of our youth and brings back fun memories. And when we’re walking into the theater, we know we will see other old, paunchy gray haired people, some of them pushing walkers, with big smiles on their faces.
Maybe that guy was right. Considering the popularity of the musical and the age of the generation that made it popular, the person in the ambulance passing by probably has seen “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Originally published in the Tampa

Autumn

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. Winter was too cold, spring had tornadoes and summer was too hot. Autumn was just right.
It was also the season of my birthday, Halloween and Thanksgiving. What could be better than that?
I never had an actual birthday party because the word “party” sounded too expensive to my mother. Having a couple of kids over for cake and soda pop, that sounded reasonable. Party meant inviting kids who would expect more than just cake. I don’t know what she was thinking about, maybe pony rides and clowns. One year I invited the banker’s son over for cake and my mother said in no uncertain terms he wasn’t invited because we couldn’t afford it.
“That’s okay,” the banker’s son replied when I told him. “I just won’t invite you to my birthday party.” I don’t he was going to have pony rides or clowns either.
But still birthdays were happy. Mother baked my favorite cake, German sweet chocolate. I always went to the movies on my birthday. Back then the ticket was ten cents for children. Sometimes my parents allowed me to pick a day trip as long as it didn’t include an admission ticket and wasn’t more than hour’s drive away. And I got a present. Getting anything was a big deal.
Halloween was fun because of trick or treating. Mother drove my friends and me to nice neighborhoods where the treats were better. Then there was the school Halloween carnival. I liked to see everyone dressed up in costumes. I usually got a mask to wear with my regular blue jeans and shirts. Proceeds went to the PTA so Mother gave me a dollar in change to go from classroom to classroom playing games.
Thanksgiving was eating a lot of food that we didn’t ordinarily have the rest of the year. The Macy’s parade was exciting to watch on television. I’d call out to Mother to come see a pretty float. By the time she ran in from the kitchen they had gone on to the next marching band.
When I was very small we took turns eating at my aunts’ houses. We saw cousins from exotic places like Fort Worth. I think I liked the cooking of one of my aunts better than my mother’s food. But I’d never tell her that. One year the two aunts decided to have Thanksgiving dinner without us for some reason that was never explained to me. All I know my mother was really ticked off, and Thanksgiving was never quite the same after that.
As I think back on it, autumn wasn’t much better than the other seasons, except I did like the weather. Tornadoes, heat and snow can ruin a good time.
Now I’m in the autumn of my life, and it’s the best age so far. By the time you get to the autumn of life you don’t have to be uptight because you didn’t meet your goals. You reached the ones you could which means you did the best you could. If you fulfilled all your dreams maybe you didn’t dream big enough. About all anyone can expect out of life is to do the best you can, even though it’s not what you originally wanted.
Also, you get surprised by things that you weren’t expecting, sort of like trick or treating. Instead of the hard candy you usually find in your bag you’d pull out a Snickers. It’s been that way with me. I’ve started telling stories to folks of all ages. Most people don’t even know what storytelling is anymore. When television came along we told grandpa to shut up because Marshal Dillon was about to shoot the bad guy.
My mission is to bring storytelling back with funny voices, hand gestures, facial expressions and original tales. At first adults and children crinkle their foreheads and say they don’t know what storytelling is. Children especially start out really shy or cynical. When I get going good and my arms are flying and my voice is high, low, loud and soft, they lean forward, their mouths open and then they smile and applaud.
It’s like getting a Snickers.

My Dear Friend

You may remember the news reports surrounding the death of best-selling novelist Irving Stone in 1989. He was found slumped over his desk, dead from an apparent heart attack, with his hand still holding a pen as though he were in the middle of a letter. On the paper he had scrawled, “My Dear Friend”.
Literary authorities debated for months who this dear friend was and why had Stone had only one other word written on the page before he died and what was the meaning behind it. Irving has been gone several years now and I myself am an old man, so I think it is safe to reveal that I was his dear friend.
It was late 1978, and I was flying to Virginia to join my wife and son at my in-laws’ house for Christmas. I looked forward neither to the flight nor the visit. I didn’t know to be afraid I might die in a plane crash, or to fear surviving the flight and have to endure my wife’s parents for two long, cold weeks. The last thing I needed was a grumpy old man plopping in the seat next to me and start mumbling to himself. His comments became louder and unfortunately more distinct. When he got to the part about how it was intolerable that first class was filled to capacity, I could no longer contain myself.
“Well, I’ll try not to breathe on you.”
One of my worst character flaws was opening my mouth and letting fly words that I wish I could immediately grab and cram back in. Not only was I subjected to a disgruntled aristocrat generally angry at the airline for not accommodating him but also was going to be the personal object of his disdain for the next three hours. Glancing over at him, I watched his face change from shock, anger and incredulity to surprise, humor and relaxation. He laughed out loud for about half a minute, which in a crowded tourist class airplane section was exceptionally long. Several fellow travelers turned to see what was going on.
“This is the first time I’ve laughed in at least three days,” he said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.”
Smiling, he stared at me, which made me uncomfortable. I decided I would have preferred to have him angry and ignoring me in excess than have all this attention.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
My first impulse was to ask, “And why should I care?” Instead I restrained myself. “I take it you are a person who prefers to fly first class.”
He chuckled again. “And why should you care in the first place?” Settling into his cramped seat, the man looked straight ahead. “I apologize for being an insufferable bore. I assume everyone knows who I am and will try to convince me he has written the next best-selling novel in the world if only he could get a foot in the door.”
I had written a novel and sent the first three chapters to Doubleday. An editor replied he liked them and wanted to see the rest of it. By the time I mailed it, he retired and the next editor didn’t like it at all. Since I didn’t want to add another rejection to my list of achievements, I refrained from telling the author my story.
“You don’t have a novel, do you?”
“Oh, no,” I lied. “Used to work for newspapers though. But that’s not real writing, is it?”
“All writing is real writing. I admire how you people can write a full story, zip like that and have it published the next day. I could never do that.”
“It’s called a deadline. And the necessity of being paid.”
He laughed again. “None of the reporters I’ve talked to have ever made me laugh. Why is that?”
“The deadline.” I paused. “I interviewed a famous author once. One of the Haileys. Not the one who wrote Roots but the other one. You know. Hotel. Airport.”
“Yes, I do know him.”
“He acted like he was a character in one of his own novels.”
The man giggled.
“And he looks like he has a personal tanning bed in his house and uses it daily.”
“He does, he does.”
Three hours passed quickly as I tossed out random comments about writing and writers while the man laughed all through it. I never felt so clever in my life. By the time we were circling the airport, he pulled out a note pad and pen.
“Please put your initials and address on this,” he said. “I would like to hear from you. But I think it would be better if we kept our identities to initials. It would ruin it, don’t you think, if you knew exactly who I was.”
It was just as well. I didn’t think I wanted to be on first name basis when anyone that eccentric anyway. By the first week of the new year I received a handsome letter on personalized stationary. At the top of the paper were the initials “IRS”. He apologized again for his rudeness on the plane and reiterated how much he had enjoyed our conversation.
“By the way, I was at Hailey’s house for New Year’s Eve and giggled at him the entire evening. He was quite put out by it and asked what the matter was. I couldn’t tell him that he was acting like a character in one of his novels, so I just said I had had too much wine. Please keep me informed about what you are reading. I don’t get honest opinions often.”
This put me in a rather odd situation because I was going through a period when I wasn’t reading much of anything. The last novel I had picked up I hadn’t even finished.
“I tried to read Irving Stone’s book about Sigmund Freund, Passions of the Mind, but couldn’t finish it. I supposed it was over my head. I can’t read William Faulkner either.”
In the return mail I received this note from IRS:
“I agree about William Faulkner. He tried to be the American William Shakespeare. Stone was just lucky. He needs to remember to be appreciative of what he has been given.”
At the time I thought he was bit rough on Stone, but since he knew all these people personally I didn’t want to dispute his opinion. Through the years we corresponded, and I resisted the temptation to talk about my own writing. I wrote a few more novels, some plays and screenplays, none of them getting past the standard rejection slip. Every now and then I did pump him for gossip. For example, I asked if he thought Ernest Hemingway actually committed suicide or was it murder.
“Hemingway was crazy,” IRS wrote. “He could have been a great writer if he wasn’t always trying to prove he was a real man, whatever a real man is.”
By the middle of 1989 I had a huge stack of handwritten letters from the anonymous novelist. In September not one single letter came in the mail. Perhaps he had grown tired of connecting with a common man. On October first, however, I received this:
“My dear friend, I am sorry I have not written lately. My health is beginning to fail. Not to bore you with details but I’ve been hospitalized for the last month. I fear I have written my last novel, which is a shame since it’s all I’ve done for the last fifty years. Once again I feel remorse over our relationship. I regret having taken advantage of your good nature and humor. In the ten years we have corresponded I should have dropped my self-defense mechanism to reach out to help you with whatever dreams you have. To make up for it, I want you to feel free to ask me for one favor. No matter what it is, I will do everything within my power to grant it.”
This put me in a particular bind. While my heart raced a bit with the prospect of finally being published by a real publisher, I didn’t want to ruin the good feelings of our ten-year relationship by having him try to sell my books and fail. However, I’ve always felt it was bad manners to reject someone’s offer to do me a favor, so I wrote back this:
“My dear friend, Corresponding with you for ten years has been an honor and a pleasure, I think, made even more special by the anonymity. Therefore, my only request is that you share with me what your middle name is. That way you can keep your privacy and I can have the joy of knowing a private fact about a public person.”
Another month passed without a letter. Again I assumed I had presumed too much and lost this special relationship. The next morning I read the local newspaper. Irving Stone, author of bestsellers Lust for Life, Agony and the Ecstasy and Passions of the Mind, died at his home, leaving an enigma—an unfinished letter to “my dear friend.” I smiled when I read the only word on the letter.
“Rebecca.”

Me Irish Secret

If truth be told, I’ve lived in Ireland all me life and have kept a most peculiar secret. Since I’m away from home among strange and foreign peoples, I’ll share it with ye.
Me best friend in all the world is a leprechaun.
Now laugh if ye must, but it’s the God’s honest truth. It began when I was a wee lad in—oh, I can’t tell ye the name of me village, because ye be likely to go there and look for me best friend’s gold, and I can’t have that. Let me just say I live in a tiny town in a lovely meadow surrounded by tall trees and awesome hills. Ha! The whole of Ireland looks like that, so what good does that do ye! As I was sayin’, I was a wee lad without any friends and no prospects for any kind of prosperous life. Me da had long since died, and me ma had to take in laundry to feed and clothe us children.
Me ma had sent me out into the woods searchin’ for berries when I first came upon the little man. No more than three feet he was, and not much shorter than meself. Bein’ a lad who had no such knowledge of leprechauns, I mistook him for another child.
“Hello there,” says I. “Do you want to play?”
“Off with ye, ye little devil!” the leprechaun says in a mean and nasty voice.
I’ll be not ashamed to tell ye, I sat right down on the ground and began to cry like a baby.
“Why don’t nobody want to play with me?” I says in a bawl. “Am I such a terrible mortal being that I must be shunned me entire life?”
Now the little man took a step back and then twisted up his face. “Bah! It’s all just a trick to get me pot of gold.”
“I don’t want a pot of gold. I just want a friend.”
I must have sounded like the most pitiful creature he had ever heard in his life because he took a few steps towards me.
“Don’t ye know who I am, child?”
When I lifted me little tear-stained face, I saw that what was standin’ in front of me wasn’t no child at all, but a shriveled up old man. If I had had any sense about me at all, I’d jumped to me feet and run home.
He put his hands out between us. “Don’t look into me eyes!”
“No, sir, I won’t,” I says in reply. “To tell ye the truth, I’m a mighty shy lad and don’t like lookin’ into no body’s face at all.”
The little man slowly lowered his hands. “That’s good, because if ye did stare into me eyes I’d beholden to take you to me gold.”
I wiped the tears from me eyes and rubbed me nose on me sleeve. “Why do ye keep talkin’ about a pot of gold? I don’t think nobody in Ireland has a pot of gold, and that’s the God’s honest truth!”
His wee mouth fell open. “The saints preserve us, I do believe ye don’t know who I am.”
“Ye are a mean wrinkled up old man, and I want nothin’ to do with ye!”
“Ain’t ye never heard of leprechauns, lad?”
“No.” I was about to get to me feet and run away.
“What kind of a da would ye have that would not tell ye of leprechauns?”
“Me da is dead! And me ma must wash clothes all day and all night to put food on the table! Now, go leave me alone!”
“Oh, child, I didn’t know.” He pulled a leather pouch from his pocket and took out a gold coin. “Now why don’t ye take me gold coin? It should make it all better.”
Now I was really mad. I stood and kicked dirt at the little man. “And how do I know it’s a real gold coin? And if it is real, then one of the O’Leary boys will steal it from me before I get home.”
He put the coin piece away and put his arm around me waist and said, “What brings ye to the woods, lad?”
“Me ma craves some berries for supper. She sent me to look for some.”
“Well, ain’t ye the luckiest boy in all of Ireland. I happen to know where the best berries grow.”
And he showed me where they were. And the next evenin’ he showed me where the prettiest heather grew so I could take a bundle to me ma. Then he said he liked to use heather to make some poteen. I bet ye don’t know what poteen is. It’s what you call in this country moonshine. I told him quite honestly that I didn’t think me ma would care much for poteen.
He laughed and I laughed and we had a grand old time. Over the next few years he told me exactly what a leprechaun was and why he was so jealous of his pot of gold. I kept tellin’ him that I didn’t care a thing for gold, but he just puffed on his pipe and said, “One day, lad, one day ye shall grow up and ye will care about gold then, and then we must part our ways.”
I swore to him that it wasn’t true, but he just smiled and puffed his pipe. Oh, what things he taught. I learned how to make a fine pair of shoes. I could make money for me family now. He taught me how to sing and dance. And what young lady could resist an Irish lad who could sing and dance? When I turned the ripe old age of twenty-one, the leprechaun said, “Ye are a fine strappin’ man now. Ye have a fine business and a beautiful wife. We can never see each other again.”
“Ye are just as mean and nasty as ye have ever been,” I says to him with a snort. “But ye won’t run me off as easy as that.”
The next thing I knew I felt a crackin’ pain on me head and I was out like a light. When I came to, there was one of those O’Leary boys—Fergus, the meanest one of them all—staring into the eyes of the leprechaun, and sure as could be he was forcing me wee little friend to take him to his pot of gold. Like a sure footed deer I followed them to a cave. And when that devil Fergus O’Leary came out holdin’ me friend’s pot of gold, I jumped on his back and rassled him to the ground. We was tradin’ blow for blow until I found meself on my back with Fergus O’Leary standin’ over me with a giant log, about to bash me to death. Then, poof, a cloud of smoke and all that was left of Fergus O’Leary was a teeny green frog.
I saw the leprechaun standin’ there, with his arms still outstretched, pointing at the frog that once was Fergus. I stood, picked up the pot of gold and handed it back to me friend. He took it and stared a long time at me.
“But ye could have kept the gold, and there was not thing I could have done to stop ye.”
Smiling, I says, “Are ye daft, man? What good is a pot of gold if you don’t have a friend?”

Me and the Secret Service

I had a run-in with the U.S. Secret Service once
Jimmy Carter was visiting Fort Hood in Central Texas. I was the news editor of the newspaper in nearby Temple. Everyone on the staff was assigned to go to the landing strip to see the president greet the crowd before he was taken off to watch some field exercises. We had to write a story even if it was an interview with someone who got to shake hands with Carter. The editor didn’t go. Someone had to stay in the office to answer the phone.
When we got to the fort the runway was lined with military personnel and families. A platform was built for the local press to stand and take pictures. I preferred to walk around and mingle with the crowd and ask silly questions about why are you here, are you excited, etc.
Before I knew it, a guy in a T-shirt and shorts introduced himself as a sergeant and started telling me things I knew my newspaper would never print. For instance, Fort Hood staff had to take parts from three vehicles to put together one that would run. He thought they were giving President Carter the wrong image of the Army’s capabilities. Also, he said he was concerned about the level of competency of recruits. He said he had some men in his command who were so dumb they would poop in their pants instead of going to the latrine.
Even at that age, I had my smile and nod routine down pat. I could never put any of that in a newspaper article because I was a coward with a family to support. Watergate would have never been disclosed if I had been there instead of Woodward and Bernstein.
In the middle of his discourse, a Secret Service agent and an Army officer—both of them huge men—interrupted saying this was an illegal meeting. The young sergeant evaporated into the crowd. They told me the press was only supposed to be on the reserved platform. Like I said, I was a coward so I obediently went to the platform.
Incidentally, when I got to the platform, the military families were screaming at us to get out of the way.
“Stupid media! You think you’re better than everybody else!”
Jimmy Carter’s plane finally landed, and he went down the line shaking as many hands as he could. He was shorter than I thought and didn’t smile much. One child froze as he had the president in front of him and kept pressing the shoot button on his instamatic but nothing happened. Carter took the camera advanced the film and handed it back to the boy who froze again. The boy’s father grabbed him and pushed through the crowd to catch up with Carter where the picture was finally taken.
My story was very insipid, and I was embarrassed to have it on the front page, but after all I was the news editor. The main story, written by the full-time Fort Hood reporter, said the President was impressed by the military power exhibited during the field exercise.
Within six months the rescue mission for the Iran hostages failed when the equipment broke down. Carter took full responsibility as commander in chief. I remembered what the sergeant had told me and wondered if the Secret Service agent would have better served the President that day by introducing him to the sergeant and not squashing our illegal meeting.
I can’t blame him much though. Maybe his judgment was impaired because he had been out partying too hard the night before.

Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times

Barter

Clem lived all his life in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, and he didn’t know what to make of all this talk about a Depression. He, his wife and kids got along very well, thank you, in their two-room cabin up in the holler. He planted a patch of tobacco that paid off the damn banker every year, raised a passel of pigs that made good eating every fall, and cooked up the best moonshine for miles around. His wife tended garden so they always had taters, maters and squash, not to mention corn needed for the moonshine. The kids helped their ma with the garden and took care of the chickens. A good person right with the Lord shouldn’t want more than that.
One day he was down at the country store talking around the cracker barrel when the preacher’s wife piped up that she didn’t know if she liked the idea of this brand new theater in downtown Abingdon.
“Dadburned movie pictures ain’t worth talking about.” Clem spat some tobacco juice in a corner, which was shiny and black from years of being spit in.
“Well, Clem, I ain’t talking about no movie picture show,” the preacher’s wife replied in a huff. “It’s like real-life people standing on a stage and spouting lines prancing about, like they thought they was something fancy.”
“Oh, they’ve been doing that for years and years.” Clem spat again. “They’ve been doing that before there warn’t no motion picture shows. Don’t you know no better than that?”
“Of course, I do, Clem. But I don’t think it’s fitting for a man to stand in front of a bunch of women and children with sweat rolling off him, so close you can see it dripping off his nose. With all that pomade in his hair, glistening black.” The preacher’s wife fluttered her eyes and fanned herself. “Now what was it I was saying?”
“You was all upset by those men sweating on the stage.” Clem chuckled. “I don’t know why you’re getting so hot and bothered about it all. Nobody around here is fool enough to waste their money to go see it.”
“That’s just it, Clem,” the preacher’s wife said. “They ain’t charging no money at all. You bring in a chicken or a ham shank and you get in to see the show.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Clem spat a really big wad this time; in fact, he didn’t have any tobacco left in his mouth. He might as well go on home.
“But that’s the truth Clem,” the old storekeep Zeke interjected as he lumbered around the counter with his broom. “It’s these damnyankees from New York. They can’t get no work up there so they opened up this theater down here, and they do their playacting for food and might near everything else.”
“Is that so?” Clem took a snot rag out of his pocket and wiped his mouth. “They’re going to starve to death. Ain’t nobody with no common sense that’ll waste a perfectly good chicken on such foolishness.”
“They got a full house every night and two shows on Saturday and Sunday,” Zeke explained.
“Defaming the Lord’s day like that. Me and the ladies Bible league are planning to march with signs and scream Scripture at the sinners as they go in next Sunday,” the preacher’s wife announced.
“Maybe some menfolk should go on Friday night first so you ladies don’t make yourselves look silly,” Clem said, halfway to himself. “I got a leftover cured ham hanging in the barn.”
On Friday night, Clem showed up at the Barter Theater in downtown Abingdon with the cured ham tucked up under his arm. He didn’t think it would be right for the wife and kids be exposed to all this foohfrah until he saw it first. The theater people seemed right glad to see him and his ham and took him to a seat down front. They told him the name of the play was Hamlet. Now that might be right funny—a play about baby pigs.
When the curtain came up, Clem was disappointed. It wasn’t about no baby pigs at all. He could hardly make out what they were saying. It was English all right, but not decent English like they talked in the mountains, but that there fancy English spoke in England. The best he could make out it was about this here college boy who came home to find his daddy dead and his mama married his uncle, and he’s mad because they ate up all the food from the funeral at the wedding, and he didn’t get nothing to eat. Then this college boy sees his daddy’s ghost who tells him his uncle killed him so he could marry the mama.
By this time Clem was fidgeting in his chair something bad. He never had no use for college boys in the first place. If he wanted something to eat he should have gone out and shot a couple of squirrels and made himself a stew. Another thing this college boy did wrong was that he had this real pretty girl who wanted to marry him, but he went off and told her to become a nun. And that poor girl got so upset about being told to become a nun that she jumped in the creek and drowned herself.
Clem would have just gotten up and stormed out of that there theater, but they had set him down in the front row, and he didn’t think it was proper for him to stand up and keep everybody else from seeing the show. It didn’t make no sense at all. At the girl’s funeral, the college boy’s mama says “Sweets to the sweet.” That college boy jumped down in the grave thinking he was gonna get to eat the candy he thought his mama had thrown on the casket, but it turned out she threw in flowers instead. Clem decided the boy wouldn’t have been so moody if his mama just fed him proper.
The end of the show didn’t make any better sense. The college boy and the girl’s brother started a fight right there in front of everybody, and his mama got so upset they’re going to get blood on the good rug that she poisoned herself. When she dropped dead, the college boy decided to take it out on his uncle and ran him through with his sword. Then he dropped dead, probably because he never did get a decent meal through the whole play.
As he was walking out, Clem decided he was going to make a stink over this theater thing.
“Where’s my ham?” he bellowed out.
An older fellow came out of a little office and grabbed Clem by the elbow and took him through another door. Clem decided he got seen to real fast because this man didn’t want the other people to get the idea of asking for their stuff back too. Pretty soon Clem found himself behind the stage where they kept all the people who had put on the play.
“That was the worst dang thing I ever done see,” Clem announced. “I want my ham back.”
Those people looked awful worried, and they stepped away from this table with all the vittles that had been brought in that night. There Clem saw the college boy with a big chunk of his ham hanging out of his mouth.
“Oh forget it,” Clem said as he turned for the door. “He needs it more than I do.”