Monday, April 25, 2011

On the Foxhunter's Dying

The great Foxhunter, at eighty-five, died the other day;
On a sullen afternoon, he was laid away.
His fox horn, moaning loudly, will call the hounds no more;
The hills are rather empty without his tune to score.

Come an autumn night on the top of Billy Goat Hill,
Men will gather to hear dogs run and close in for the kill.
But with horns raised to their lips, they'll know that he's not there.
For his sharp, clear saddening note will not pierce the cold night air.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Down on Third

“Down on Third,” they say;
not First, but Third,
not quite the burger, taco franchises,
fancy banks and strip malls
of First,
but Third, not quite in:

Antique shops grown dusty baubles
cluttering the shelves;
music shops with noiseless instruments
hanging from the walls, selling
guitar strings to acne-scarred, straggly-haired young men;
music lesson studios with tinny piano sounds,
off-key guitars and saxophones,
young voices, all muffled wafting into the street sounds;
trophy shops with dusty, six-foot high examples of the craft,
standing tower-like in the store windows;
bridal shops with white-turned-gray flowing dresses
hanging on the headless mannequins;
old small restaurants, family-owned and mostly empty;
doll collections without their former young girl owners;
bars advertising karaoke nights
with dingy smells emanating from the dark foreboding
behind open doors;
empty shops with papered windows
from owners long gone.

Down on the south end of Third
a garish sign suspends over the avenue
of dreams, only dreams
to make sure everyone knows
they are down on Third.

Wednesday summer nights down on Third:
parking stalls reserved for old cars refurbished;
old guys with old cars
fixed up like they were in
twenty-nine, thirty-eight, forty-seven, fifty-two,
especially fifty-seven Chevrolets,
mingling with
young Latinos with old cars
fixed up to be low-riders hopping on demand,
smoking, joking, looking under the hoods,
at suspensions
down on Third.

Thursday nights down on Third:
sidestreet farmers’ market tent stalls,
dirty white tent tops covering
fruits and vegetables in wooden and plastic bins,
tamales, gyros, kettle corn, brownies and candies,
flowers in plastic buckets,
assorted crafts with
folks roaming through the stalls
smelling, touching, picking,
handing over cash to hands
over worn wood tables
soon to be stuffed into the vans behind the tents
with the unsold goods and produce.

Folks down on Third:
not quite in and not quite out –
although a few down and out but
not quite mad, lolling on the street benches
smoking, drawing sips from paper-bagged bottles,
mostly cheap wine –
others just folks,
not good, not bad,
trying to make a living, a dollar or so,
just like most of us,
down on Third.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tsunami Brings Reality to the West Coast

SAN DIEGO – Friday, the tsunami generated by the Japanese earthquake smacked me and the Southwest corner with a dose of reality.

I had risen early to join my friends at the Sea ‘n Air Golf Course on the North Island Naval Air Station. Before leaving, I checked internet emails, news, and sports and learned of the 8.8 earthquake and the tsunami threat.

I could not fathom an earthquake of that size. I knew the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1904 Northridge earthquake were 8.25 and 6.7 on the Richter scale, respectively. I also knew the Richter scale was a logarithmic measure of the shaking amplitude and increases were exponential.

Wikipedia states, “…a difference in magnitude of 1.0 is equivalent to a factor of 31.6, or (101.0)(3 / 2). But that is a number to which I cannot relate. I do know the Northridge earthquake gave a significant jolt to our home, which is approximately 130 miles from Northridge. My mind just could not get a grasp on an 8.8 earthquake.

Even though I knew an earthquake’s destructive potential, I dismissed the tsunami. Such a possibility seemed to be an over reaction. I proceeded to my golfing rendezvous.

En route, I listened to KNX, the Los Angeles all-news radio station. The CBS affiliate reported the aftermath in Japan and the impact on local residents, as well as tracking the tsunami.

One reporter was in LA’s “Little Tokyo,” the Japanese section of the city. The background noise was chaotic as local residents attempted to find out the extent of damage and telling the reporter how they could not contact their relatives.

In a sidebar to the news reports, a reporter stationed in Newport Beach, a high-end coastal community between Los Angeles and San Diego, was at that beach. He reported a crowd of people had gathered to observe the tsunami when it hit the west coast.

I considered them crazy and turned off the radio as I reached the base security gate. After all, if the tsunami did reach the coast with energy enough to be observed, the last place I would want to be would be on the beach. It then occurred to me the golf course I was playing runs, yep, along the beach.

Again, I dismissed the possibility of the tsunami generated in Japan reaching the West coast with any degree of energy remaining. The epicenter of the earthquake is almost 6,000 miles from San Diego.

A fellow golfer reported the tsunami had produced a two-foot surge in Guam, 1500 miles from the source. We discussed the possible effect on our coastline in the Southwest corner. San Diego has a shallow sea floor slope, and shallow gradients expend the energy of a tsunami. We once again assured ourselves there was no worry.

The speed of the tsunami swell is around 500 miles per hour. The course marshal joined us on the tenth tee with the news the tsunami had arrived about 15 minutes earlier with no visible impact.

The marshal’s news was flawed.

San Diego experienced an approximate one-foot surge. A number of vessels were damaged, one overturned by the strong current. A barge in a marina near Sea World broke loose damaging several boats and yachts. It was reported a lifeguard brought a woman and two children to safety after they were swept into the water while exploring tide pools.

The original damage along the West Coast was initially estimated to be around $50 Million.

KNSD, the San Diego NBC television affiliate reported, “Many people ignored local authority warnings and came to San Diego’s shoreline with their cameras or surfboards expecting a show. Despite water receding by as much as 3 feet in some areas, the majority walked away disappointed.” They were as crazy as those in Newport Beach.

Another report indicated the carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, the destroyer Preble, and the cruiser Chancellorsville, all home ported in San Diego are off of Honshu, Japan, already providing disaster relief.

Although I should not have dismissed the warnings so blithely, I do have ample respect for tsunamis from my mariner knowledge. As it is with hurricanes, a ship is better off at sea.

But this is the first tsunami I’ve experienced first hand.

I hope it’s my last.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


the wings of the mallard beat furiously on takeoff;
shallow mud-gray lake water
rippled with the beat;
the hunter arose from his crouch in the blind
where he had scratched his genitals
waiting in his squatting position;
discharge of shot from the silver-gray barrel
smacked flatly against the cold, foggy morning silence;
the mallard escaped its awkward initial ascension,
veering unknowingly before the gun fired;
balls of shot dimpled the water, plip, plip;
the hunter spit in disgust;
the retriever, after tensing for the plunge,
settled back on his haunches,
resting his jowls on his front paws.
the mallard, out of range,
slowly glided up and into the low, dark clouds.
the hunter had expected the ducks from above;
the rise of the mallard
from its hiding place in the tall reeds
detracted from his normally sure aim;
still, as he watched the grace and freedom
of the mallard in flight,
he was relieved death had not succeeded
for a moment.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Harbingers of Spring and Memories

SAN DIEGO – Spring is weaving its fabric into the closing days of winter in the Southwest corner.

Monitoring Lebanon weather via the internet and phone calls, I surmise Lebanon too is experiencing spring’s emergence.

Although winter continues in the opposite corner of our country where my brother has returned, we are readying for one of the more glorious times of the year.

The harbingers of spring are subtle in San Diego not as glorious as back in Tennessee. Our weather warms to the mid 60s and low 70s, remaining there until real summer hits in July (we missed that last year with one of the coolest, dampest summer and autumn I can remember). The high and low temperatures vary only by ten to 15 degrees through the seasons.

Although I was in Riverside County about an hour northeast of my home, I played golf Saturday in shorts, an accurate prediction of impending Spring.

Earlier in the week while driving to an appointment, we passed a small home with a yard overflowing in irises. I reminded my wife the iris was the state flower of Tennessee. She thought our state flower was the “bluebell.” I mistakenly corrected her noting it was the Texas’ state flower.

In an ensuing phone conversation with my Austin daughter, I asked Blythe if the bluebells would be blooming in Texas when visited later this month. She laughed and corrected me, pointing out the Texas spring bloomers were bluebonnets, not bluebells. In Texas, “Blue Bell” is the famous ice cream.

Then when I commenced writing this column, I checked my reliable internet and discovered bluebells were indeed a similar flower and common in Western Europe. Internet gardening sites displayed horticulture rage and snobbism over people like me confusing the two.

The importance of these conversations is Maureen should get to see the glory of bluebonnets alongside the Texas roads while we are there.

But in my mind, spring in Texas and the Southwest corner does not match my memories of the glory of the season in Middle Tennessee.

I remember smelling the difference in Tennessee. Warmth had broken through the chill of winter, and suddenly, I could smell the blooms budding. The over-arching trees on the two lane (barely) drive from the concrete arch entrance to Castle Heights to Old Main (now the city offices) were turning green, shading the drive for the next six months.

We would not swim or water ski until May or as late as June, but Henry Harding and I would start wading Barton’s Creek where it crossed Franklin Road to fly fish for brim and sunfish.

All fisherman, including my father (I still have never caught enough fish to be called a fisherman), revved up for the bass and crappie fishing.

With the grass turning green, the brown dirt (or sand) green of Castle Heights’ nine-hole course became prominently visible in the campus southwest corner – now the site of Elmcroft and dental offices.

Down Hill Street, Frank North and Jimmy Allen would guide us through early baseball practice in anticipation of the season opener. Although in the initial practices, our hands would sting from the wood bats striking the ball, being outdoors felt good. Across town in Baird Park, the Blue Devils were likewise enjoying the spring rite of baseball. Members of both teams would meld together for the summer on the American Legion team.

From my recollection, it seems Lebanon simply threw off its winter overcoat and burst into spring. All senses told me everything was clearer, brighter, warmer.

Coming back from baseball practice, we could hear Jimmy Reed blaring over the speaker system for track team practice under the watch of Hugh Russell and Merlin Sanders. The field, now Stroud Gwynn Field in honor of Heights legendary football coach, was unnamed. The track was cinder.

Windows were opened. Screens were checked as they would become a requirement as spring raced toward summer.

Daytime was for being outdoors. That would remain so until the leaves begin to fall on the other side of summer.

Winter turning to Spring in Lebanon is more abrupt than here in the Southwest corner. After being here for almost 30 years, I can recognize the different seasons, but it is difficult for a visitor to do so.

Still, one thing I miss the most is four real seasons, like in Lebanon when Spring began to wake in March.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Woman Turns Sixty Today

My woman turns sixty today.

i have a bunch of special women in my life: wife, two daughters, mother, sister, sister-in-law, niece, and a number of friends. i have had many women in my life before now, likely more than most men.

But there is exactly one MY WOMAN, and she turns sixty today.

She doesn’t look like sixty. She is the most beautiful woman in the world for sixty, even though she has never resorted to surgery to keep her beautiful. She takes care of herself.

She is beautiful inside as well.

Although we have our differences and still disagree on numerous subjects, we fit like a glove. This fit is primarily because of her effort to put up with me.

Her ability to become friends with anyone regardless of how different they might be from her is incredible. Even more incredible is how much she cares for everyone. i particularly love her for her devotion and caring of her family and friends.

She has that feminine trait of nurturing her husband, treating him like he is a little boy. While it is irritating to be checked upon, monitored, and be worried about constantly, she does keep me on the right track in so many ways, i accept it, even though i occasionally bark about it.

I have many stories i could tell in addition to the ones i’ve already told about how lucky i am to have her, how she keeps my life funny and enjoyable, and how much i love her.

This is not to tell stories but a public declaration to simply to tell her i love her because she is and always will be my woman.

Happy birthday, Maureen. We met shortly after you turned thirty one. i hope i have another twenty-nine years to spend with you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sometimes, Everything Is Relative

SAN DIEGO – Sometimes I feel isolated in the Southwest corner, and last week was one of those times.

From here, it often appears Middle Tennessee has more calamitous weather than when I was growing up.

Perhaps Thursday’s high winds and reports of tornadoes in Lebanon impacted me.

Perhaps it is because I am growing older and memories of my home have shed bad recollections.

I do recall the large tree in our front yard being blown down in the middle of the night when my brother Joe was six months old (1949). That same storm played imp for our next door neighbors.

Back then, the empty lot north of our home on Castle Heights Avenue was the neighborhood playground. Across the lot, the Padgetts were our next door neighbors. Margaret Ann was older and sophisticated, but Martha, my sister, and I played with Beverly and Roberta almost daily. I think Margaret Ann got her sophistication from their mother, Margaret. Bob was a car dealer par excellence for whom my father had worked before setting up shop with Jim Horn Hankins.

In the mid-1950s, Rayburn and Cleo Bellar bought the lot and became our new next door neighbors, often having their grandchildren, Sandra, Dick, and Jack Lewis, stay over. They played with my sister and brother, but by then, I was too old but not sophisticated.

The 1949 storm grabbed the Padgett two-car garage (one of the few in the neighborhood), lifted it and sat it down in the next backyard. The two brand new cars in the garage were not even scratched.

I faintly remember several floods with water on the square and out of creek banks south of the square. But they seemed like part of the normal weather cycle, nothing compared to last spring’s flood.

During the past ten days, I learned to quit complaining about weather here. Lebanon weather is one reason. Visitors also influenced me.

My brother Joe, his wife Carla, and Carla’s mother and sister visited. On Wednesday when I apologized for the cold weather, they informed me I certifiably crazy. The temperature was in the high 50s as they sat poolside at the Hotel Del Coronado, a heat wave for those from the Northeast.

Last Thursday as the weather climbed back to San Diego normal for a day, Joe and I had a special time.

While the visiting women hit the hotel spa, I took Joe on a tugboat ride.

I wanted to show Joe some of the projects I was pursuing, and asked Pacific Tug Service if I could bring Joe down for a tour. My friend Steve Frailey, one of the owners, told me to bring Joe down to the pier and he would take us for ride on a tug.

Steve is one of the tug masters for the company and called in to action when necessary. So while the wind was wreaked havoc in Lebanon, we toured San Diego Bay aboard the “Harbor Commander.”

She and her smaller sister tug, the Harbor Cadet tied up to a Navy berthing barge outboard a minesweeper in the BAE shipyard. We moved the barge from the sweep to pier side next to the shipyard drydock. While we worked, Joe got to see Navy SEALS diving from helicopters and re-boarding the hovering helo above by line and hoist. Security boats shot back and forth around the bay in an area-wide training drill. Shipyard cranes loaded and unloaded. Yard workers and sailors scurried about on tasks like mice on a sinking ship.

Joe got a feel of what my previous life had been. We wished our father and Joe’s son, Zack, could have been there with us.

We often joke Joe has been a preacher and lived in the Northeast while I was in the Navy and lived in the Southwest to ensure we could be as far away from each other in all things. In fact, we have grown more alike as the years have passed. Our tugboat adventure verified our closeness.

I think that is a plus for me and so is the weather in the Southwest corner. I’ll quit complaining.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A few thoughts on "Passing"

This post interrupts my normal flow, which is, of course, continually abnormal and sporadic. It is precipitated as I sit in my daughter's living room in Austin next to the wide-open windows in March, the most wonderful time of the year in the hill country of Texas. My near four-year old grandson, Sam, holds sway over all of us, dashing around the house at un-throttled speed, making us all laugh. But this bucolic scene (which is not really bucolic at all, but expresses my feeling more than reality) gives favor to my considering my home in Lebanon, Tennessee and Sam's grandparents.

My mother and father are going through a tough time. One of their closest friends, and my eternal teacher, J.B. Leftwich, has suffered strokes, heart trouble, and now dementia in his waning days. In a moment of clarity while my father was visiting him in rehabilitation center, which it is not for J.B., only a temporary stop, J.B., or as i call him, Coach, told my father he was his best friend. My father at 96 does not have very many old friends left, and i know this is tough on him even though he will not speak of it to me.

So my joy of being with my grandson, daughter, and son-in-law, who for all practical purposes has lost the in-law on his status with me is countered by sadness.

Below are two poems i wrote several years, which reflect my reflections as i sit here in the glory of spring.

Waiting Grace

the old folks sit in the room too warm,
television images blink randomly,
the mute button silences the room
although they do not know as the hearing aids
lie on their respective tables with
paraphernalia required for the elderly;
they sit knowing the time will come soon:
waiting grace.
All is right with the world.
They and the remaining few of their generation
know how to demonstrate
waiting grace.
No threat, no fret, no fear
shows in their continence:
they do what they can and
what they can decreases perceptively almost daily,
faculties fade and with the fading,
the joys of their industry escaping slowly:
waiting grace.
They have endured the test of time when
times were harder and
simpler and
they hold to those codes of right and
simplicity and
goodness to the neighbor, friend and
to service:
waiting grace.

Lebanon, Tennessee
October 22, 2006

Going Quick

Two men, father and son,
hunched over a work bench
a number of years ago;
working on a project quietly
in the glare of the naked bulb
hanging above their heads;
they talked a bit,
focusing on the task at hand,
smiling quietly at the bond
they continued to build;
the old man with thick strong hands said,
“You know, son,
i’ve led a pretty good life,
got three good kids who have grown up well,
some good grandchildren, and
your mother;
‘bout the only thing I hope now
is when I go,
it’ll be quick.”

Bonita, California
June 7, 2008

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fiddlersburg and Billie Potts Resurrected: A Note to My Brother

the little star over the left tit.
they buried Little Billie and
no one knew in that patch of land
between the rivers,
which was
Fiddlersburg, revisited and drowned
under the auspices of TVA,

i would like to resurrect Little Billie and Fiddlersburg,
but there is no more South,
only a filmy, flimsy image of what used to be
or a caricature of used-to-be South.
and Robert Penn would insert some Italian here:

i would ponder the depth of what he wrote,
but what you see is what you get with this old sailor;
the point is (without Italian)
we strive for balance, and it never is balanced,
especially in Italy, especially in Southern Italy;
in our South, balance ain't
Southern lonesome;
it ain 't passion;
it ain't.

i may be there again,
i may be suffering enough,
touching depths of my Southern,
unbalanced male soul,
yearning for tragic,
yearning for lonesomeness.
we are the last of a breed i fear;
i wonder how many still exist,
i even wonder about you, my brother;
but we can't tell even the most intimate soul mate,
even brothers perhaps;
for to reveal the awful truth,
even to write it,
which is what it is all about, will alter it;
will take it inextricably, permanently away.
we can no longer be the tragic figure
we wish to be,
even though we've never
really figured out the tragedy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sometimes, Everything is Relative

SAN DIEGO – After sending in my column last week, I vowed to write more about Lebanon, memories and thoughts of folks back there.

It seemed to me I had been writing too much about me and the Southwest corner, and last Monday’s column read like a giant whine to me upon re-reading (except I do like the story of my wife’s black and white rainbow.

The rain, wind and cold of Vanderbilt baseball games in San Diego are now a memory to brag about, and once I thought about it, watching my team win four opening games in February made the weather a whole lot better.

Then my brother arrived with his family last weekend. I quickly learned I should not apologize for highs in the low 60s to visitors from Vermont and Massachusetts in February. My brother’s wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law have now labeled me as certifiable crazy. My brother has had this tag on me for a long time.

The most gratifying time of the past two weeks occurred Thursday. I asked Pacific Tug Service if I could bring Joe down for a tour. My friend and business colleague, Steve Frailey, one of the owners, not only told me to bring him down to the pier, but that he had would take us for ride on a tug.

Steve is one of the tug masters for the company and called in to action when there quite few jobs the tugs are working.

For almost a month, San Diego exhibited winter weather I brag about. While the rest of the country, including Lebanon, was being buffeted by snow, ice, and cringing cold, the Southwest corner was perking along in the mid-70’s with clear skies.

Beachgoers were out (but not to swim: the Japanese current would turn a swimmer into, as Bill Cosby once said, “a giant goose pimple”). Even better, the mild Santa Ana pushed the evening thermometer down, allowing me flames in the fireplace.

After last summer’s unusual cold and damp and this autumn’s drizzle, weather prognosticators have heralded a woefully dry 2011. La Niña, the weather guessers declared, would bring arid back to the high desert coastland. And after all, when have those grand interpreters of meteorological phenomena ever missed a guess?

So early last week, I was pumped for visitors.

First, the Hicks brothers, Alan and Jim, would roll in for Vanderbilt’s season opening baseball games with two San Diego teams over the weekend. Alan transited from San Francisco via Long Beach, and Jim wandered from New York City and Connecticut.
Quickly on their heels, my brother, his wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law are slated to arrive Wednesday for a short week, stopping in Phoenix on their way from Vermont and Massachusetts.

We woke up Thursday morning – the day before Vanderbilt baseball and the Hicks arrivals – to rain: steady, cold, unpleasant rain, which continued until Friday morning provided a sunshine break. But by rendezvous and game time, gloom reclaimed the landscape. For two days, Al, Jim, and I proved to be stalwart fans, braving driving rain and piercing winds. Vandy beat the Toreros of the University of San Diego, 4-3 in a rain-shortened game and topped the San Diego State Aztecs, 7-3 with four runs in the ninth and two rain delays.

As I write this column, we mull attending today’s doubleheader (Sunday). Forecasters say the rain will abate while it is pummeling my courtyard outside. This story will be continued.

The prognosticators are predicting no rain but highs in the 50s while Joe’s family is visiting. San Diego is not behaving like San Diego. I often forget the Southwest corner is next to the sea, and she is a temperamental force. She has chosen my showoff time to rebel, raining on my parade, literally and figuratively.

Either the weathermen have been yanking my chain about La Niña; Murphy and the Southwest Corner are in cahoots; or I just have, as Kevin Kline so aptly put it in the western, “Silverado,” “Bad luck.”

Saturday, when one of the few sunshine breaks occurred during the baseball game, we spied a rainbow forming on the western horizon. I hoped it was a good omen, which it wasn’t weather wise, but it did lead to one of my favorite stories.

In the summer of 1984, my bride joined me in Mayport, Fl, our first home. The nine-month delay after our wedding was precipitated by my deployment to the Indian Ocean aboard U.S.S. Yosemite.

In the late summer, a fiercely tremolo storm rolled through the Jacksonville area. When the storm broke, an incredible double rainbow formed across the entire sky.
Maureen was enthralled. Rainbows are not uncommon in the Southwest corner where she lived most her life, but this double arch was impressive.

“Let’s get a picture,” she asked.

I dutifully grabbed the camera and headed outside. She stopped me before I reached the door.

“When I was traveling through Europe during college summers, a French friend gave me some high quality film. I have been saving it for a glorious photo opportunity. Let’s use it for the rainbow.”

She ran to a drawer and pulled out this treasured film.

“Certainly,” I replied in my best good husband tone, installing this high grade film in the camera.

Since she was so excited, I let her take the photos. We waited anxiously for three days for the photos to be developed. When returned, we opened the box in great anticipation.

The film was high quality. But it was black and white. I like black and white photography, but it doesn’t work well with rainbows.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tennessee Steam Engine

Grandpa Culley and son Jesse
back in thirteen,
when my pap was a year away from born,
rode the train to Nashville
– a half day's journey then,
fetching a steam engine,
the first portable saw mill in those parts.

Jesse was a strapping big man then,
a youth, not yet rounded with gut and jowls,
like when i knew him as Uncle;
when he told this story to me in eighty-four:
he wasn't so strapping at 93,
shriveled into the baggy old man shapelessness,
pale cream complexion with wispy thin, pure white hair,
in the lazy boy rocker chair in his youngest daughter’s den
that November with the trees bare and grass
straw colored in the brisk sharp sunshine
of middle tennessee.

The trip was before Grandpa Culley
lost most of the fingers on his right hand
in that very same steam-driven saw mill on someone’s farm.
his hair had not turned white as it is
in the lone picture i have in the family book.
Uncle Jesse said Grandpa was wiry thin strong like my father
who sat at the other side of the den paying respect to the family,
while i listened to the tale.
Uncle Jesse said Grandpa Culley was more than
pulling his weight rousting the steam engine.

On the way back, driving that steam engine,
they couldn't make it in one day:
Stopped the night
on a farm in Donelson Uncle Jesse related.
Pretty nice folks to put 'em up
without any idea who they might be.
had a good supper and pleasant conversation.
by my calculation the farm was
pretty close to where they built Opryland,
but the land was still country with
folks a lot more trusting than they are nowadays.

“When there's static in the air and you can hardly hear,
better turn on the radio of the Lord,”
A.P. and Mama Maybelle would intone.
Lonzo and Oscar, Lester and Earl, Foggy Mountain Boys,
even Minnie from Grinders Switch were real;
even Roy Acuff with his cave in Kentucky
would have made the show and held on till
the deep dark of three in the Nashville night
eating long after the opry closed for the night:
with coffee in thick mugs at Linebaugh's
on Church Street downtown,
just down the hill from the Ryman.

Long after that shiny new steam engine belched toward
Lebanon from the Donelson farm front yard
by Grandpa Culley and Uncle Jesse
did the Opry begin at the Ryman
and much longer before Opryland
sprouted in its full festival of plastic country glory and
moved to the old farm land
where Grandpa Culley and Uncle Jesse
rested overnight just before the big war and
long before the pale, soft skinned old man
with sagging jowls and kind countenance
would tell me this tale
the last time i saw him.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Transporting on the time machine

This column appeared several weeks ago in The Lebanon Democrat. I love the story for several reasons. Reports from home indicate J.B. Leftwich, a major character in this story is not doing well after several strokes at 90. He has been an incredible influence on my life and he and his family are as close to family as we can get. I am thinking of him as i post this.

SAN DIEGO – Occasionally in the Southwest corner, Captain Kirk’s transporter and H.G. Wells’ time machine have been combined to take me back home and the past.

Unfortunately, my transporting time machine has some dead zones. The contraption can take me to places I remember as if I am living in the moment again. Yet there are also many events I have forgotten completely. Then, beaming cannot be accomplished.

Folks in Lebanon, both friends and family, seem to recall a great deal more than me.
Perhaps the Star Trek transporter part is not required for those in Lebanon, and that function has some kinks in distances over 2000 miles.

In a quiet moment, my combo time-space travel machine will magically snatch me up and send me back to memories.

Just the other day, I went back to Tower, the Castle Heights building with cadet barracks on the upper floors. On the first floor, Major Lindsey Donnell’s classroom was located in the north front corner. Back of that room was Colonel Harvey L. Brown’s small classroom where the mustachioed colonel brought calculus and analytical geometry into reality.

The south side of the building belonged to Major J.B. Leftwich. His mathematics classroom was in front and the yearbook and newspaper office was in the back. A door connected the two so the major could easily access the two without passing through the hall.

I was transported to Tower on Thursday, October 13, 1960. Mike Dixon was sports editor of the “Cavalier,” the award winning newspaper. He and I skipped lunch formation. We hid in that office, turned on the radio at low volume, and put our ears close.

It was my first and last time to skip any formations in my four years at Heights. I believe it was Mike’s first as well. But our mission was important. We were listening to the seventh game of the World Series.

Mike and I were anomalies for Lebanon at the time. The majority of sports-minded citizens were St. Louis fans. The Cardinals were the closest major league team to the Southeast. There were Yankee fans, including my father, David Hall, the Cavalier editor, and Eddie Callis. I don’t know if Eddie skipped anything over at Lebanon High School to listen to the game. I hope so.

Mike and I had been died-in-the-wool Pittsburgh fans since the early 1950s. We could recite batting averages and earned runs of every Pirate and even mimicked their batting stances when we played our backyard whiffle ball baseball.

Thinking back, our knowledge was amazing considering we saw the Pirates only on rare “Game of the Week” Saturday broadcasts sponsored by Falstaff Beer and announced by Dizzy Dean (Pee Wee Reese joined Dean at CBS that 1960 season), and nearly all of our statistical information came from the weekly “Sporting News.”

In the previous six games, the Yankees had outscored the “Buccos” 52-10, but somehow our beloved Pirates had won three close games, forcing the final game in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.

The Pirates’ early lead vanished in the middle innings. We were quiet in the bottom of the eighth inning with the Yanks leading, 7-4. But the Pirates scored five runs in the bottom half. Our excitement grew but was quickly deflated when New York added two runs and tied the game at nine in the top of the ninth. With Pittsburgh at the plate in the bottom of the inning, Mike and I stood as Bill Mazeroski came to bat against Ralph Terry. On the second pitch, the Pirate second-baseman drove the ball over the left-field wall.

Pandemonium struck the 36,683 attendees in Pittsburgh. It also struck in the Cavalier office. Mike and I whooped and jumped up and down on the desks.


Major Leftwich also had missed lunch but to grade papers. He came through that door and caught Mike and me in the middle of leaps for joy.

I can still feel the shock of getting caught, but it did not dim the glow of victory. I was chagrin to be facing Colonel Dan Ingram, the commandant, the next day. Major Leftwich had put us on report. Fortunately, the wiry Virginian only gave me five demerits, two short of requiring me to march the “bullring” in punishment.

I blamed it on Mike.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

No Jousting With Windmills; The Watch Is Over

My watch for the decision on my Vanderbilt MFA application is over. I have awakened from my dream. Don Quixote is no longer jousting with his windmills. It is time for me to move on.

Last night, i received a very polite notification i was not accepted for the Vanderbilt MFA program.

It was a long shot from the beginning, and i am okay with their decision. It was probably the right decision for Vanderbilt and the applicants who were accepted.

And after all, it was just a dream of an old man who has dreamed all of his life.

Vanderbilt, from my perspective, remains one of the most wonderful places on earth. It combines the best of academia with a confluence of the most wonderful people i have known outside of family. The MFA was my dream to correct the degree i should have earned but screwed up a half century ago by bad decisions and lack of focus and misplaced priorities. This effort was my attempt to correct that.

And now i will never be a certifiable member of the Vanderbilt cult, only an outsider looking in.

That is enough of my selfish whining. More importantly, i now must decide how i will take this rejection and make it better for me and all those around me. One impact is my writing will take another course. I may intensify my writing efforts. I may just let it take me where it wishes to take me. I may rest for a while and turn to other tasks awaiting me. I may work on my golf game.

For the next couple of days, i will wrestle with all of that. i have wrestled with worse.

In many ways, the results were good. For example, i can get on with me growing old.
Regardless, i have learned from the hunt even though i did not catch the elusive fox. It has even been fun.

I am in great appreciation for those who have joined me in the chase: Carla Neggers, Pete Toennies, Dave Carey, Bob Koenigs, and Amelia Hipps who submitted letters of recommendation in my behalf; Dave Young who provided me with great advice on changes, significantly improving my writing submissions; all of those who continued to offer me support and counsel about all aspects of the application process, in particular my wife Maureen, my two daughters Blythe and Sarah, my brother Joe, my sister-in-law Carla, my niece Kate, and Alan and Maren Hicks. And thanks cannot overlook the impact JB Leftwich has had on me since he became my mentor in journalism and provided me the impetus to write seriously over fifty years ago.

i am looking forward to getting on with it. Besides, i don’t have to move from my home in Bonita.

The poem below was the last of those i submitted in my application. Somehow it seems to fit my current situation.

Dreams and Innisfree

Mr. Yeats, that revolutionary son of a bitch,
wrote of the Isle of Innisfree,
creating yet another dream for me,
which i did not need for
i have dreamed all my life;
it’s time to put aside such distractions.

tomorrow, i will meet a young woman,
not needing some dreamer to interfere;
we will converse, enjoy our time
discussing possibilities
in the ambience of the avant garde eatery:
she will go away again,
forging her own path.

i will go home to
play my role,
subjugating my dreams;
it is time i gave up dreaming,
then that ole sum bitch Yeats
tempts me with Innisfree:
I will succumb and dream again.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Some Mid-Watch Thoughts

This watch has officially begun.

It is not a Navy watch, officially beginning on the hour for four hours (except the two-hour dog watches), but much like those bridge watches in that one really relieved the off-going watch fifteen minutes before the official hour – i am writing a long poem about those Navy watches.

My life does not hinge on acceptance or rejection to Vanderbilt’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing (i applied for one of the three poetry positions). As desirous as i am to be selected; learn to write better poetry; finally, actually get a degree from where i should have received a Bachelor of Arts almost half a century ago; and be near my parents for the next two years, i recognize such a venture will be very hard work, could be unpleasant, and may not be anything like i envision. I will be disappointed not to be accepted, but ready to turn the page, get on with my life, make a little money, and settle into growing old gracefully.

So i am up and awake in the middle of what would have been the mid-watch many years ago, on watch. The watch has officially begun.

I checked the internet, even though i knew news from Nashville would not yet arrive. The program administrator, in the program herself, emailed me a week ago, not answering my actual question, but explaining they were trying to make the final decisions and notifying applicants by today, the first of March and further explaining the number of applicants was much greater than expected (they were “expecting” over 600 for the six positions). I told Maureen, my wife for those who don’t know, that meant, like it means for all government agencies and academic institutions, the word would certainly come after the first and certainly not early.

Word of acceptance or rejection didn’t come early. I am up trying not to think about it so i can go back to sleep.

I am thinking about what to do with the rest of my life if accepted or not. That is a hard consideration to turn off.

So i have included a poem here i re-wrote and re-edited for my application. i have been placing the revised poems here for a while, but this one seemed fitting for an old codger…er, curmudgeon, as a group of old golfers call ourselves on watch in the middle of the night.


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;
did they volunteer to the sacrifice?
now they stimulate 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.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A break and a sea story

SAN DIEGO – Recently, these columns have been somewhat formulaic, and there were some people and things back home, who and which I wanted to mention.

But now I want a break and tell a sea story, which, by the way, can never happen again.

In the autumn of 1979, I was required to leave my Brigadoon, actually Texas A&M after almost four years. I was a single lieutenant commander, the senior Naval officer in the Marine-oriented NROTC unit, and an associate professor. The Aggies love the military and accordingly, held me in high esteem.

But duty called. I came to the Southwest corner for a month’s course in tactics before reporting to Amphibious Squadron Five as the staff current operations officer.

Joining the squadron was no mean feat. I flew to Los Angeles, boarded a Military Airlift Command chartered airliner departing that afternoon. At midnight, we stopped in Anchorage, Alaska where a young woman on her way to join her husband in the Philippines traversed from the aircraft to the terminal and back in short shorts and a halter top in 25-degree temperature.

After a snack, we re-boarded for our trek to Fukyoka, Japan; Okinawa; and finally Clark Air Force Base on Luzon: 26 hours with about three hours of sunlight. After a 60-mile bus ride without air-conditioning (the equivalent of a three-hour sauna) from Clark to Subic Bay, I lazed for a day before taking a 14-hour flight to Melbourne, Australia, where I caught a six-hour flight to Hobart, Tasmania.

Needless to say, I was beat. I reported aboard the flagship, U.S.S. Tripoli and was told the squadron would get underway the next morning. As much as I wanted to visit Hobart, I remained aboard and hit my rack (that’s Navy for going to sleep).

The next morning, the ships got underway. I began the process of relieving Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Borman. We spent a week in Sydney, Australia and another in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on our voyage north.

Two days after standing out of Port Moresby, we celebrated “Crossing the Line.”

For centuries, crossing the equator has been a sailor’s concoction of initiation, high jinks, hazing, and a break from the tedium of life at sea. Those who have crossed the equator before are initiated “shellbacks.” For those making such a passage for the first time, they are reviled as “pollywogs.” Although I had been at sea for nearly a decade, I remained a pollywog, until that day.

Normally, being a pollywog is a group thing. But the flagship had crossed the line on its way to Australia, and almost 2,000 pollywogs had magically become shellbacks and were anxious to initiate the new pollywogs when the ship re-crossed the equator. The new pollywogs consisted of 100 brand new enlisted Marines, and one Navy lieutenant commander.

Guess who got the most attention.

But Conrad promised he would look after me during the day-long initiation. For about three hours, he held to that promise, escorting me through donning my uniform inside out, limiting my weird breakfast concoction, ensuring the shillelaghs (Irish clubs, but made out of fire hose for the Navy ceremony) weren’t wielded with too much enthusiasm, and limiting my time “kissing the bosun’s belly” where a shellback rubbed the pollywog’s face into his very large, greased belly.

As I started my 40-yard crawl through the garbage chute, Conrad Borman was called to decrypt an incoming top-secret message. Although spent, I crawled through the yuk fast, anxious to get to the cargo net, where I would be hoisted with four or five of the Marine pollywogs and washed off with a fire hose spray, ending the ordeal.

But the shellbacks had other ideas for this inverse khaki clad officer. They rerouted me back to the start. I went through the route three more times before Conrad returned for my rescue.

Today’s Navy is not a raucous as it was then. Political correctness and women at sea have down graded such rough-housing frolic to wimpdom. There is no question, today’s Navy is much more capable and efficient, but I wouldn’t fit in.

And today’s sailors won’t have much of a sea story when they “cross the line."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Way up in the Rocky Mountains

way up in the Wasatch mountains,
where snow covered the Mormon pretense
one hundred, fifty years or so ago;
passages to the west were few
except in the warm months;
only the hardy would climb so high
with mules, packs, jerky, coffee
to mine the silver,
hunt the plentiful game
in the cold deep white of the mountain.

now the heights are a playground,
cleared groomed slopes skied down after
rides up the mechanized chair
where hunters and miners
persevered in the hard months,
now playtime in the rockies
for the masses.
the old town street running up and down
the hill called Main
was general store, haberdashery,
gin mill, assayer,
probably a red light house or two,
amidst the good, lord abiding citizens;
pizza joints butted against
boutiques, fashion salons,
restaurants with high cost haute cuisine;
only the Empress theater and saloons
bear some resemblance to their former selves:
instead of grimy miners
swigging down the swill,
home brew out of pails,
rot gut whiskey.
now movie stars,
dressed to the nines
sipping wine
at the festival of cinema
named after an outlaw;
town and tourist drunks
drinking the trendy micro brews
Still, in the quiet after a late winter storm,
there are tracks
of rabbit, mountain goat, even elk,
if one dares to climb so high.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A different place in the Southwest corner

This column was published in The Lebanon Democrat January 24.

SAN DIEGO – Last Thursday, my family went to a place greatly different from anything in Tennessee I know about.

This place where we went is good, but in some ways, it is bad, even sad. My visit rerouted today’s column.

I was going to write about Lebanon places, which no longer exist, or I was going to write about my lifelong friend Sharry Hagar who is challenged with health issues and hopefully succeeding. I have put those thoughts aside for later.

My daughter Sarah and I went to the Navy Medical Center, Southwest Region to get her a new dependent ID card and ensure she was covered on our healthcare program. To keep us both straight, Maureen joined the cavalcade.

We parked the two cars and walked to the modern complex downhill from the old hospital buildings. The medical center is in Florida Canyon, adjacent to Balboa Park and the Zoo.

Inside the “Personnel Services Detachment” (PSD), Maureen waited while Sarah and I went into the cubicle with three positions for processing, sitting at the end position. Soon a young man took the middle position. When he arose to leave, he drug one foot stiffly as he exited.

I hope he was completing rehabilitation from a disability while in Iraq or Afghanistan. The fact he was in administrative processing suggested he was on his way to recovery.

Sarah received her ID, and we moved to the next task. This time, Maureen accompanied Sarah into a cubicle while I sat in the waiting room. An attractive young woman sat down with one of those new-fangled combo portable crib-car seat contraptions. I admired the baby’s knit cap with bear ears on top and asked the mother if she was the knitter. The woman proudly gave credit to her own mother.

Looking at the tiny baby, I asked his age. She told me he was into his third day. The father rejoined them, and they disappeared into another cubicle: young adventurers serving our country in troubling times but encouragingly normal.

Paged by my wife, I went to our cubicle. Looking back, I watched a young man enter with difficulty. He was in a wheel chair with both legs missing from the knees down, obviously from military action. . He broke my heart.

I wanted to walk over and thank him and say something encouraging, but I just couldn’t think of anything encouraging to say. While I pondered, he received his needed information and left.

We decided to lunch at the cafeteria, walking through the plaza surrounded by the six main buildings. We saw almost a dozen casualties from military action walking about the plaza. Most had prosthetics for both legs, some with just one. Others were walking on crutches.

Maureen noted how she didn’t mind being routed to civilian dermatologists because the department here was overworked from attending to the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a lump in her throat.

San Diego’s Naval medical center is one of a few treating severe military casualties. The old hospital buildings, originally planned for destruction, have been renovated and are a rehabilitation center for hundreds of severe casualties from our conflicts.

There has been an incredible outpouring of volunteers and ad hoc non-profit organizations who are dedicated to helping these young veterans and their families to return to civilian life with as much normality as possible. The efforts have been, for the most part, successful and heart warming.

I am sure the people in Lebanon would respond with as much support as those in the Southwest corner. But the travesties of military conflict are in my face, unavoidable here.

With every young man and woman I passed in the complex last week, I cried inside. It occurred to me I spent over twenty-one years of active duty with the possibility of being like these young men staring at me. I was luckier.

It does not seem fair because it isn’t fair. It is life, and now a life much more difficult for them. I wish I had an answer for them, but there is no answer as long as terrorism and domination are the goal of idiots, locally and internationally.

So for the past few days, the Southwest corner with its beautiful sunny January isn’t quite as beautiful for me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I was a sailor

I was a sailor
when the boatswainmates
swept down and triced up
and the decks were spotless
and first division stood
at the ready on the forecastle to
cast away all lines
and the sleek greyhound visaged lady
got underway,
no tugs,
and no bow thrusters
like they, the pansies are required to use
no sir:
we ruled the seas
standing proud in quarters standing out,
no manning the rails for show,
we did it like it was supposed to be
and the bow cut through the channel like
it owned the sea
and the trough slid up the side
only feet under the gunwale
and the stern wash was white with foam
and we were underway
rocking and rolling.

I was a sailor
back when being a sailor
was tantamount to
being a man;
there weren't no great number
of automatic controls back then,
not one hell of a lot of video games
or graphics to read:
you turned the valves and the steam hissed;
you cleaned the boiler plates on the lower level
with the blowers blasting air in your face
for relief from the hot wet heat;
inserting the plates and firing it up
hoping it wouldn't smoke white
blow your ass
off the naval station
to kingdom come;
and the boilers would rumble
and groan and croak
and spew their smoke out the stack
and build up steam
until there weren't no smoke
and the boiler tenders
down in the bowels
knew they would be
getting underway
we lined up the feed pumps
and kicked off the auxiliaries
and went on ship's power,
dropping our umbilical cords from the pier
like the doctor cuts the cord
on the newborn:
separating us from mother earth,
sending us to the bounding main;
when we turned the nozzles of steam
onto the turbines of the main engine
and watched the tree trunk sized shaft
turning slowly;
the engine room wheezed and coughed
and made us feel like we
were in a jungle of sweltering pumps and motors
while the distilling plants gurgled with
Rube Goldberg smugness,
making you wonder if
they would really make
good water

I was a sailor
back when we manned the big guns,
not standing apart, aloof, with computer controls
in the air conditioned spaces
but inside those big guns,
metal death traps where
we stood alongside the breech
when the firing shook our brains, our guts, our souls
and we loved the thrill of it all
and the brass kicked out the aft end
and the hot case man with his asbestos gloves
smacked them out onto the rolling deck:
no automatic, manless machine of death
back then.

I was a sailor
back when we didn't know
what the hell politically correct meant,
back when they meant
what they said when they said,
"if the navy wanted you to have a wife,
they would have issued you one."
Navy was a way of life,
living on board, locker in a club
just outside the main gate
with civvies,
you could go down to sailor town
drink beer and cheap whiskey
enough to make the woman look
pretty enough to pay
for the night so
you could get back in time
for quarters at 0700
unless there was a fight.

I was a sailor back then
when men were men
sailors were sailors
then was then.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Old is Almost a State of Mind

SAN DIEGO – Age is a relative thing whether it’s in the Southwest corner or back home in Lebanon.

This past week I turned 67. I am not sure why the event seemed so much more cataclysmic than 65 or 66, but “67” just sounds older.

Before the first line of W.B. Yeats’ famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium” was unfortunately stolen by Hollywood and used as the title for the violent movie “No Country for Old Men,” the poem addressed aging.

I like the poem but had thought little of it in the past few years. I revisited a quote from the poem courtesy of National Public Radio last Thursday. The beginning of the second verse goes, “An aged man is but a paltry thing / A tattered coat upon a stick.” I can identify with that whether my coat is tattered or not and even though my stick is a pretty thick, bald stick.

The NPR program “All Things Considered,” discussed productivity of the aging, dwelling on creative folks. The discussion was generated by “Lastingness: the Art of Old Age” by Nicholas Delbanco. Delbanco’s book discusses late productivity, citing examples of artists Claude Monet and Georgia O’Keefe and the composer Giuseppe Verdi, among others. Yeats himself wrote up to his final days when he died in France at 74.
Consequently, I decided I was into lastingness.

* * *

When I told my father, half-way to 97, I felt old at 67, he laughed, “You’re not old yet.”

He’s right, of course. I am fortunate to be in good heath. I can do most things I have done all of my life, but I do them slower with a lot more creaks, crackles and grunts than there used to be. I also have found it takes me a lot longer to do anything.

For example, I used to rise and be out of the house in 15 minutes to play golf. I arrived at the course and immediately went to the first tee. Now it takes me an hour or more to wake up, stretch, take pills, and check to make sure I am taking all that I need. Once at the course, I must stretch again, have a cup of coffee, hit a small bucket of range balls, practice chipping and putting before teeing off. It takes almost a full work day to golf.

* * *

For those of us who grew up in Lebanon from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, I am the second oldest of my high school class (LHS and CHMA). This doesn’t seem quite fair as Gayle Marks Bryne, the only person older from the 1962 class remains lovely and young looking.

So I’m going for “lastingness.”

I am even working on relating to the young. My youngest daughter Sarah and I will soon attend a San Diego State basketball game. The Aztecs have the longest winning streak in the country (20) and are ranked number six in the country. Sarah became interested in college basketball when I took her and her mother to a Vandy game two years ago when we were home for Christmas.

Sarah is buying a guest ticket, and we will sit in the student section. I plan on keeping my shirt on, not painting my body or face, and wearing my ear plugs. I don’t intend to act that young.

* * *

I seem to think about this growing old thing more than most. I am not sure why I am so wrapped up about aging. In fact, I find as I get older, I am less sure about a lot of things.

So I’m going for “lastingness.” And why not?

On my birthday, I received several cards and a number of emails wishing me well. I finagled two dinners and a golf game out of the occasion. Sarah made her grandmother’s boiled custard to celebrate the day.

On my birthday eve, I received a phone call from my parents who sang “Happy Birthday” to me. The next morning, my computer displayed an internet video of my grandson, courtesy of my older daughter Blythe, singing that song to me. Neither version was exactly on key.

But they were the two sweetest songs I have heard in a long, long time.
Right then, I decided there are a lot of good things about lastingness.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mount Miguel February Sunrise

This is the second in a series of revisions to existing poetry submitted to Vanderbilt for consideration of acceptance into their MFA program for creative writing:

East north east of my front door,
Mount Miguel wore a shroud this morning;
Low clouds draped across her shoulders
below the peak at sunrise.

By circumstance, my front door faces east,
greeting the sun god
like the Navajo’s hogan door has done for centuries
over in Four Corners, a mountain or so
east of here.

Man’s antennae now reach skyward
on Mount Miguel’s peak,
silhouetted black against the rising orange orb,
before it slings white hot heat and light low to the south,
moving through the day,
bowing to the Baja lands of Mexico,
as it is wont to do in the winter months
here in the high desert.

The instruments of new fangled transmission look foreboding:
Spanish castle towers of the inquisition;
I wonder if the Kumayai once sat atop,
above the cloud shroud,
lifting their own clouds of smoke,
transmitting their own news of the day.

The city folks implanted here
tend to forget what this land beneath them was;
really is.
We have learned to just add water
to get paradise,
now overrun with those that forget
to look East at the sunrise
silhouettes of the ghost talkers.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Obits at Sixty-Seven

i do not know why
my hands turn the pages to
the obits
my eyes scan the listings there;
i am not from here,
not likely to know anyone
heralded as dead here,
if i did know someone
buried there in the obits,
i would already know
their kin, their age,
the disease or what it was
which killed them;
so why do i go there?
i ask myself with
no real answer;
i go there almost daily,
scanning, reading the curious obits,
hoping i really won’t know anyone listed there,
passing by most of the really aged,
perhaps because i ain't there yet,
who these dead folks really were,
what were they really like,
if they died nobly,
how their loved ones feel, really feel,
about this death thing
what made them write or contribute
the words to the obit,
including or omitting pertinent facts
what were those omitted facts
realizing i am sad they are gone,
perhaps because
i am getting a bit long in the tooth,
i go to the obits
i am damn glad
it’s not me
listed in the obits.

Bonita, California
January 19, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

An Oil Well in Lebanon and What Might Have Been

SAN DIEGO – With all of my travels and other pursuits in the past month, I needed a break, and no, golf doesn’t count.

Last year, my father gave me a box of memories my cousin had passed on to him from my aunt. Naomi Martin, my father’s older sister not only kept her memories but also retained my grandmother’s memories in that box. It is a treasure trove I am trying to figure out how to disperse to my family.

I took my needed break and decided to go through the memory box again.

I picked out and carefully cradled a yellowed newspaper clipping in my palm, afraid it would disintegrate – Newsprint paper, like us, becomes fragile when it ages. Although there was no date attached, this fragile clipping was from 90 years ago.

The article was not from the Democrat. It had a Lebanon “special” dateline, a practice used only for out of town articles, and was most likely from a Nashville paper.

The news might have changed Lebanon’s future. It certainly would have changed mine. But a denouement could not be found in the box of memories

The headline would have startled readers today: “Crude Oil Found in Abandoned Well.” The four-paragraph article describes the oil being discovered by children playing in my grandfather’s yard.

The story reported these children had lowered tin cans into the well and pulled out crude oil instead of water and an analysis revealed the stuff was of “exceedingly pure quality.” The article explained experts predicted “should it be found to be in commercial quantities would equal to (sic) any crude oil in America.”

The article ended noting my Grandfather, Culley Jewell, previously had been a well digger and was directing well clean up with intent to lease the well.
“What happened?” I wondered and, as usual, sought Lebanon history information from my parents. While explaining my call, I asked my father if he was one of the “children.”

He laughed his knowing laugh, admitting he was around ten when he and others were dipping tin cans in the backyard well. So the oil discovery occurred around 1924.
The water well had been abandoned a dozen years earlier when city water became available. This struck me as funny considering city water availability today. My grandfather and father’s home was at the east end of West Spring Street, two whole blocks from the square.

Extreme dry weather – without Al Gore and his legions claiming global warming – had warranted reopening the well, but the restoration had not been completed.
My father told me he was playing with friends when they pulled up their cans filled with black liquid instead of water.

“We thought it was gasoline,” my father recounted. “We even put it in our old Ford and it ran on the stuff.”

“I couldn’t find any follow up clippings,” I explained. “Obviously, there was no oil or Lebanon would be replete with oil derricks today, and we would be rich,” I reasoned, “So what happened?”

“Daddy had it analyzed and they eventually decided the oil was just run off from a stream,” my father concluded, laughing again.

As he explained, I thought about how many experts today would be flabbergasted over such a sequence. Automobile makers would descend on Lebanon in droves to learn more about this magic stuff which could make automobiles run from straight out of the earth. Petroleum engineers and geologists would hover over the well and froth over the prospects of oil in Tennessee.

Real estate agents would clamor to buy up all of the property within miles and hook up with oil interests to mass produce and market the black gold. And eventually, an environmental protest against improper dispensation of oil would bring thousands to the square. Somebody would be arrested and have to pay a king’s ransom for a fine.

Politicians would make speeches, and enact 500 laws. All of the news networks would send hundreds of cinematographers, production crews, and pretty announcers to tell the nation nightly of the progress.

But in 1924 or thereabouts, there isn’t even an explanation of what ensued. My father didn’t even get his name in the paper.

I think I would have liked it better back then.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

poems, revised by a faint hope

Last fall, i applied for a prized goal, to be accepted to Vanderbilt's Creative Writing MFA program. It is the most selective program of its type in the country with over 600 applicants for six positions, three in fiction, three in poetry. It is one of the top 15 such programs in the country.

I applied for the program fully aware of my long odds. Acceptance would move me toward a long time goal of completing a degree from Vanderbilt, an opportunity i squandered almost half a century ago. More importantly, i have recently come to the conclusion poetry is my best avenue for my story telling and writing, a focus which should remain my passion for the rest of my life. i thought the pursuit of this degree would give me skills, knowledge, and discipline to write better poetry.

As i went through the application process, i found i was enjoying writing and editing my poetry even more than i anticipated. The application process itself help me transition to a different way of thinking about my creative writing, and, i think, has positively impacted my writing.

i still hope Vanderbilt's review board for the program will pick me. i think i am good enough of a poet to compete. But i also accept i am a bit older and the board member's personal preferences in poetry will impact the outcome. With stiff competition, i recognize it is highly more likely i will be rejected rather than accepted. If that is the case, then it's okay. This six month pursuit has improved me.

One significant contributor to this improvement has been Dave Young. Dave received his Master's in English from San Diego State and has retired from his teaching career at San Diego's Mission Bay High School. Dave critiqued the poems i intended to submit with my application. He gave me some wonderful guidance and i have taken all of his comments into account.

The original poems have been posted here previously. i thought you might like to read the improved versions. This is the first.


When most folks meet him,
they notice steel blue eyes and agility;
his gaze, gait and movements
belie the ninety-five years;
those folks should look at his hands:
Durer, if he saw them,
would want to paint them.

His hands are marked from
tire irons, jacks, wrenches, sledges, micrometers on
carburetors, axles, brake drums, distributors,
starting in ’34 at twelve dollars a week.
He has used those hands to
repair the cars and
our hearts;

His hands pitched tents,
made the bulldozers run
in war
in the steaming, screaming sweat of
Bougainville, New Guinea, the Philippines.

His hands have nicks and scratches
turned into scars with
the passage of time:
a map of history, the human kind.

Veins and arteries stand out
on the back of his hands,
pumping life;
tales are etched from
grease and oil and grime,
cleansed with gasoline and goop and lava soap;

They are hands of labor,
hands of hard times,
hands of hope,
hands of kindness, caring.

His hands own wisdom,
passing it to those who know him
with a pat, a caress, a handshake.
His hands tell the story
so well.