Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Letters from Home

The site has been quiet for several days. My oldest daughter and her friend took a long weekend escape to San Diego; i helped my youngest daughter to move back home from an apartment near San Diego State; and there was this matter of a two-day golf tournament. i plan to pick up the frequency again. This is a column i wrote for "Notes from the Southwest Corner" for The Lebanon Democrat last week.

SAN DIEGO – In this age of instantaneous communication, letters from home are not quite as important as they used to be.

Ten years ago, my daughter Sarah and I toured my former ship, the “USS Anchorage (LSD 36)” for her fourth grade essay assignment. The Command Duty Officer graciously took us throughout the ship. Toward the end, he took us through officer’s quarters.
I asked to see my stateroom where I spent two of my best years at sea.

It looked unchanged except for the prominent computer and monitor, direct access to email from home.

Regardless of method or delivery time, letters from home remain critical for morale a long way from home for long periods of time. It has long been so.
Johnny Cash recognized this lonesome traveler need in “Letter from Home,” a 1966 recording. The lyrics tell of a cowboy shot in San Antonio who wants to get a letter from home before he dies. The singer gives the cowboy a Bible, which satisfies the dying man’s need for a letter from home.

Mail Call

On my deployments, mail from home usually arrived when we hit port. We impatiently waited for mail call. Reading our mail call came before liberty.

Often at sea, the mail was delivered by underway replenishment.
An oiler or a cargo ship steamed into the seas on a steady course around 12 knots. My ship approached from the stern until parallel about 80-120 feet apart. A hawser was passed and secured on both ships. Then cargo, mail, and sometimes people (yours truly about a half-dozen times) would be pulled across on a block (pulley) connected to the hawser with the sea roiling below.

An aside: it was the mark of a proven mariner to be able to hold the maneuvering ship in the same relative position to the cargo ship.

As a midshipman, I went on an eight-week cruise out of Newport, Rhode Island in 1963Although enjoying great liberty ports and new experiences, I suffered my first aches for a letter from home.

Somewhere between Sydney, Nova Scotia and Bermuda we came alongside an oiler for an underway replenishment. After we secured our oil transfer rig aft, I watched as the hi-line worked amidships. The final load was a large sack of mail. We watched anxiously.

Suddenly an errant wave created fear followed by despair. The ships rolled toward each other and then snapped quickly away. The hawser snapped, and the mail bag did several loops in the air before splashing into the ocean. We watched it as it passed down between the two ships before sinking, sinking sailors’ and midshipmen’s hopes for a letter from home.

It was a devastating moment.

Mid-Cruise Blues

After commissioning, I discovered the real meaning of “mid-cruise blues” and how much a letter from home could bring me out of a funk.
My first real deployment was a year’s tour taking Korean troops to and from Vietnam. After six months, I was deep in the mid-cruise blues, realizing I had as many days left as I had spent.

Letters from home provided much needed escape. We received our mail every three weeks when we moored in Sasebo for ship maintenance and replenishment.
Several girl friends sent me missives. Though short of commitment, they kept my spirits up.

Henry Harding sent me tapes of Tennessee football games.

My mother was prolific in keeping me up to speed on Lebanon happenings.

My father and sister recorded an entire cassette of my Uncle “Snooks” Hall snoring on a family Christmas trip.

Granny & Mrs. Thompson

Perhaps my favorite letters from home were from “Granny,” Katherine Webster Prichard. Having heard me comment about “The Democrat’s” weekly “Route 9 News”, Granny would send me the clippings every week.

Mrs. Thompson wrote wonderful, down-home narratives of the going-on’s around Route 9, many keeping me up with what “Wilson” was doing. I never knew if Wilson was her husband or her son, but he was a marvelous, caring man, at least once even taking care of someone else’s cow problems.

When I received a letter from home with Granny’s return address, my spirits were lifted just knowing I was getting a little slice of back home in Tennessee.

Recently, I realized my access to letters from home was marvelous compared to those who needed them, including my father, in World War II.

As the Saturday matinee serials used to proclaim, to be continued…

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Lonely Thing

This was written on my bus ride from Nashville, Tennessee's Union Station to the square (actually a triangle) of Newport, Rhode Island, as i embarked on my third class midshipman NROTC cruise after my freshman year at Vanderbilt in June 1963. My parents saw me off at Nashville, and the Navy greeted me in Newport. So the bus depot was neither of these two. i do not recall the city where this bus depot was located, but i suspect it was in Providence, Rhode Island, the only transfer in the many, many stops, the two Trailways buses made on my journey.

A Lonely Thing

the huge room with the high ceiling was virtually empty;
the loud speaker's bark echoed with a hollow ring;
the black night air was forlorn, almost chilly,
the bus's muffled roar was a lonely thing.

the old man with ragged shoes sat down in the wooden seat,
his odor was of the musty, smoke-filled air;
he picked up the butt of the nickel cigar and caressed it,
lit up and stroked his long, near-mangy hair.

the huge archaic clock showed it to be early morning
as the speaker throated huskily once more,
the old man arose, straggled out of the entrance;
alone, he gazed back through the glass-paned door.

Friday, June 19, 2009

An old sea dog muses on fashion trends

SAN DIEGO – One of my closest friends in Lebanon sent me a joke last week which I thought was funny but not politically correct.

The joke noted everyone in California spoke Spanish 150 years ago and not much had changed except for women enhancing their breasts and men holding hands.
I have some serious thoughts about the sentiments in the joke but will save them for later. Responding to my friend, this old sea dog mused about the different differences between now and my younger years.

I believe there was a conspiracy to get males to wear baseball caps in funny ways. I think a really goofy looking young man who had no success in getting women to pay attention to him came up with the idea of convincing his peers to wear ball cap backwards or crooked.

Goofy-Looking Guys

Having been a baseball catcher who had to wear his cap backwards, I know there is nothing goofier looking than a guy wearing his ball cap backward. The guy would look even goofier with the hat bill off center, serving no functional purpose.
So now, really unattractive guys have a chance. They are no longer competing against cool looking handsome guys. The playing field has been leveled. All the guys, good looking or not, look goofy.

I cannot figure out, however, why anyone would wear their pants lower than their hips. The discomfort factor, which has to be significant, should pale to the fear of dropping their drawers in public.

I am equally befuddled as to why any male would want to wear what I can only describe as really baggy women’s capri pants. Perhaps they, like the owners of those vehicles somewhere between a truck and a SUV, couldn’t make up their mind between normal trousers or shorts, or didn’t have enough money to buy both.
While on pants, I also wonder why any male would wear pants so low he showed the world he wore really ugly underwear. I don’t understand why women wear their pants so low they resemble plumbers at work. Finally, why would anyone pay upwards of hundreds of dollars for worn and torn jeans?

You Aren’t Peyton Manning

Then there is this huge industry of athletic jerseys. I can understand why folks like to wear team colors and look-a-like uniforms. There is a great amount of security in dressing like everyone else. After my military experience, I shy away from conformity yet I cannot understand why anyone, especially adults would wear clothing with someone else’s name on the back. I mean, most of them don’t even remotely resemble Brett Favre, Michael Jordan, or Manny Ramirez. Who do they think they are fooling?

Then there’s this tattoo mania. My daughter has discussed getting a “discreet” tattoo to make a personal statement. Knowing our priorities change, I asked her what she would do in the future if her commitment changed. I learned such a concept as changing commitments is not something a 20-year old can accept as possible.
I am amazed someone would pierce their skin to resemble folks I met in New Guinea who were one generation and several miles away from their cannibalistic roots. I can’t even comment as I just am not “with it.”

Generation Gap

But I also remember chomping at the bit to wear my shirt with the collar up and unbuttoned to the sternum, my hair long enough to sweep back into a ducktail, white socks, pointed toe shoes, and Levi jeans with no belt. But Castle Heights had me in gray and gray, and when not in uniform, my parents kept my extreme leanings in check.
When I went to Vanderbilt, I learned white socks were de rigueur; my pants must be gray flannel; my shirts had to be Gant with buttoned-down collars; and I had to wear Bass “Weejun” penny loafers.

The Navy pretty much took me out of fashion trends. When I re-entered the business world, I was told to wear conservative suits and ties, closely cropped hair and no after shave.

My generation ridicules the fashion of the younger generations. I am often taken aback, but I recall my parents’ generation being appalled at our fashions.
Now, I pretty much wear what I want when I want except to make my wife happy by not looking like a slob when we go out together.

So I won’t beat the younger generations up. They will eventually go practical too.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

These are two unrelated poems written a couple of years ago. They are very different in many ways.

Cordell Blue
had another hue
yet no one knew
Cordell Blue’s
other hue.
How could you
suspect the hue
of Cordell Blue
could not be true,
or the being
of the other hue
if no one knew,
not even you,
about Cordell Blue’s
other hue?

-- Bonita, California
-- August 21, 2007

Thoughts about the discovery of the well-preserved and very old remains of an Incan boy and young woman high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, circa 1995.

the magazine photos riveted attention, fascination:
children, forced to grow up and die
before their time in our time
yet probably not a great deal more
than their time in their time.
did they volunteer to the sacrifice?
now they are a source of interest in ages past,
and macabre beliefs:
i only feel sadness.

dead, empty hulks.
eyeless sockets staring out
into a world gone techno,
not a great deal more advanced from
what they saw when they could see:
world still full of ignorance, hatred and religious zealots
out to rid the world of all other gods.
the hulks,
not just dead, but dead and gone, yet not gone,
still here, rediscovered,
creating fascination, ghoulish interest in such relics.

hulk: dead warship lady
i wandered through during my navy days
lady warship "mothballed" with foam
until cleaned up for her sacrifice,
i, sailor man, entered the hulk,
semi-official equipment scavenger
for my man-of-war, pronounced female,
herself already obsolescent:
aboard: quiet and eerie,
a presence here beyond me felt:
an old unfinished letter,
desk drawer of a small stateroom forward,
"Dear Clara," was the only identification;
nothing much more than the opening hello;
no great heroics here,
just a khaki clad lieutenant
meeting obligations to clara.

down below in the steel machine guts of the lady,
the clang against the emptiness of fireroom ladders,
once filled with hiss and heat and screams over the blowers
stirring the moist heat to just above tolerable.
it was more incan.
i could see the sailors shirtless sweating,
changing spray nozzles as the orders from above
required they rev up the steaming to where
the sides of the boilers heaved.

just as gone as the incans.
eye sockets empty,
bodily fluids extracted or dried up long ago.
but no petrification here.
no, she will be hauled to sea
to feel the heat of missiles,
practicing the art of war,
slamming into her innards
as her body is twisted, rent asunder,
gaping holes filling with the briny sea
as she slides, stem down
into deep bliss.
sacrificed like the incans,
dead and gone,
but no longer seen
like the incans.
at least the old war lady
will have some peace and quiet.

-- Bonita, California
-- Autumn 1996

Thursday, June 11, 2009

To My Two Daughters, After a Rejection Notice

This was written when i received a rejection of a poem i was submitted in the early 1990's. i read it occasionally to remind me the process for mainstream publishing is screwy if one uses good logic. Someday when i pursue publication of a book or my writing in a magazine, i will keep this in mind to help me maintain my perspective.

To My Two Daughters, After a Rejection Notice

i am not a handsome man:
pleasant looking, some say,
certainly not looks
to cause ladies to swoon;
approaching fifty, swoonability
is no longer required;
i am old enough to recognize
for what it isn't.
my journey is more than halfway there;
i must look to impart what i've learned to those that follow:
tough to do when those who follow
are distaff offspring, under different rules, different times,
foreign to me.

i feel somewhat discarded by the world today.
a woman playing god
dressed in black L. A. fashion,
not hiding hair dye and wrinkles,
chose to write me
a rejection
rather than telling me
what i wrote was not what she wished to sell.

it is the times in which we must live:
form over substance,
sales over quality.
"you are too personal," she said.
my emotions do ride upon my cuff.

i do not fault her for being a product of our time;
i find i am in some time warp,
unable to achieve her objectivity
while blaspheming those who unconditionally
wrap themselves around any cause.
"Is that form over substance too?" i query.

Daughters, spread across the breadth of my life,
what can i pass on to you
not only worthwhile,
but something you can comprehend?

Compulsion is a lovely yet dangerous thing:
little girl posing as an adult;
ride moderation into satisfaction;
don't underrate compassion.

Child, who cannot yet speak these words i write,
learn to love learning
yet keep your spirit of adventure.

That's it.
Not terribly erudite, i'm afraid,
rather shallow,
for i know
you must learn by yourselves with only my support,
as i have done
with my parents
in spite of their effort to do more.

Yet you nor they have had
some well-intentioned woman write to say
you (or they) were too personal to be acceptable
for publication.

take these chains from my heart and set me free
joshua won the battle of jericho and the walls came tumbling down
rock of ages
clef for me
let me hide myself in thee
let the water and the blood
from thy wounded side which flowed
wash away my sins
and set me free -
doo wah doo wah doo wah ditty,
talk about the girls in new york city.

Bonita, California
March 17, 1991

Saturday, June 6, 2009

“He’s like a worm in hot ashes”

This is appropriate. i am trying to post two to four pieces here each week. But this week has been crazy. I intended to post this Wednesday but many activities kept me from getting it right until this evening. So it goes for a worm in hot ashes.

SAN DIEGO – I am wrapped around the axle in projects in the Southwest corner in spite of thinking things would get simpler when I became officially old.

I thought I would be retired or close to it at this time in my life. This was a far too un-ambitious idea of life with social security. I am as busy as I’ve ever been.

It has been this way for as long as I can remember.
An old photograph shows me around four with my little red wagon filled with a football, baseball, and bat while I toted six-shooter cap guns over my shorts. My youth was spent dabbling in all things which came my way.

Recently, my father observed, “You always were involved in everything.”

It was not necessarily a compliment.

Through high school, there was hardly any activity missed: church, dramas and musicals, sports, Cub Scouts, mowing yards, piano, newspaper boy, Key Club, school newspaper, a grave digger in the summer, and getting in trouble with my friends.

Fully engaged in academics (hah!) in college, I also was a disk jockey, a newspaper correspondent, and sold clothes for Jimmy Hankins.

The Navy further conditioned me for doing a bunch of things at one time. Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport Island attempted to train “multi-tasking” under pressure for long periods of time. This was needed training.

On my first Navy ship, my primary job was Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Officer. But I also had watch standing duties in Combat Information Center, engineering, and on the bridge. Then there were collateral duties. I was Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Officer, Nuclear Weapons Safety Officer, Classified Material Control Officer, and Assistant Security Officer.

So it was for more than twenty years. I thought life would be simpler after I completed my active duty service, but counting my stint as mister mom, I have pursued over a dozen different business ventures, many at the same time. And this is not counting golf.

The horizon does not hold much promise for slowing down any time soon.
Now in addition to this column and my Thursday column here in The Democrat, I have established a web site to showcase my writing. This has led to a blog, or something like a blog, and my daughter just recently got me involved with “Facebook.”

So far, I’ve resisted the temptation to “twitter.” Still, multi-tasking is alive and well.

I worry about this penchant of mine. “Jack of all trades, master of none” I rail at myself. “Spreading myself too thin,” I intone as I launch yet another pursuit.
I have modified my father’s description of me to “…involved in way too much.”

Where did this come from?

Several years ago when I was back home, I observed my father in operation. At 92, he cleaned the house; he went fishing; he worked on the boat; he worked on the car; he made home improvements; he tended to the trees (before moving to Deer Park; he also mowed the lawn); he planted and maintained the flowers; he was always going somewhere to talk to someone.

One mid-morning, my parents and I were sitting around when an idea hit him, and he bolted out of the house on his mission.

My mother observed, “He is like a worm in hot ashes.”

I instantaneously realized where my chase-everything-on-the-horizon came from. It certainly has taken many different turns from my father’s. The time frame, opportunities (they gave me the opportunities which they never had), and shrinking of the world put on a different twist. But I too was like “a worm in hot ashes.”

Considering all of that, I recalled an anecdote my sister told me. The fourth grade teachers at McClain Elementary School in my formative years were Mrs. Helen Major and Mrs. Vasti Prichard. I was in Mrs. Major’s classroom, and I consider it one of the best school years of my life.

My sister Martha was in Mrs. Vasti’s class two years later. During some demonstration, science I suspect, Mrs. Vasti was stirring some concoction when she enjoined, “Round and round and round she goes; it don’t smell bad if you hold your nose.”

For a worm in hot ashes, that’s a pretty good way of looking at things.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mother's Day, 2008

This piece was written last year for Mother's day. i think it adequately states how i feel about those who brought us into this world:

For tomorrow, I considered writing in The Democrat about Mothers and Mother’s Day for my column tomorrow.
But as my daughter, a mother for one year and fifteen days, said to me while we celebrated her motherhood (and grandson’s first birthday), I am a contrarian. I don’t have a great deal of passion about celebrating any legislated events.
My thoughts are also a bit too personal to broadcast through a daily newspaper. Yet I wanted to share my thoughts with a few special people.
I have been lucky in many things, jumping into some pretty big messes, or creating them, yet coming out on the back end in very good shape. I credit a large portion of that “luck” to mothers in my life.
Of course, my own mother is largely responsible for all of this. After all, if it weren’t for her and my father, I wouldn’t have amounted to very much. She fostered many good habits with stern discipline mixed warmly with love. I have profited most of my life from those lessons. Her and my father’s example on how to live life well continues through today.
My wife is an incredible mother. Her love, motherhood and grandmotherhood extend beyond our youngest daughter to her stepdaughter. There are no seams or lines between the latter two. They are mother and daughter. She also has given our youngest the example and the guidance reminiscent of my mother’s guidance to me.
I could not write about mothers and exclude the mother of our oldest daughter. Regardless of our differences, she and I have always tried to put the well-being of our daughter above our own needs and desires. I think I have done pretty well, but she has been remarkable in that sense, a wonderful mother for our daughter.
My current and former wives deserve special mention here as their understanding of motherhood requirements and their innate love of their daughters has given me much joy as we can all enjoy our nuclear family without animosity or recrimination. In fact, both mothers and both daughters are friends as well.
There are other mothers special to me. My aunts on both sides of our family always were as close to mothers to us as our own. My mother’s two sisters and my father’s sister gave me great joy while ensuring I observed my parents’ standards throughout their lives. My Aunt Bettye Kate, who had no children of her own, was my second mother period.
My sister and my sister-in-law continue to demonstrate those wonderful virtues of motherhood on par with my daughters’ mothers.
And then there is this very special mother, my daughter. She has blossomed into this incredible person, a mother dedicated to her son. She was always special in my mind, but becoming a mother has defined her and given her the freedom to be a special loving person.
The procession of mothers through which I am the link gives me faith the world is going to be all right. Mothers are the engine of living and loving well.
I wish to thank all of you even though I shun such orchestrated holidays.

May 11, 2008, Mother’s Day
Bonita, California