Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.

Hometown haiku

Teachers can have a profound effect on the lives of their students

Thank you, my teachers.
You endeavored alchemy
on our feckless minds.


Notes:  When I was growing up in my small Missouri farm town, we were blessed with an amazing collection of teachers in  our public schools.  So many of them were serious educators who saw teaching as a calling.

Just the other day, as I was flipping through an old high school yearbook, I found a loose print of this photo stuck in between the pages.  I’m sure I had seen it before, but it must have been more than 45 years ago.

It’s the only photo I have of two of the most influential teachers in my life.

John Hudnall and Dorothy Van Meter are riding in the 1969 Marshall High School Homecoming Parade as part of the Faculty Pep Squad.  They were good sports.  (I have no recollection what the deathlike character in the foreground is supposed to represent.  Possibly the defeat of our football opponent, perhaps.)

Finding that photo prompted a little meditation about what those two teachers meant to me.

John must have seen some very well hidden potential in me and named me editor of the high school year book.  He sent my fellow editor, Marilyn Doyle Crawford, and I to a journalism summer camp at the University of Missouri, where I got my first taste using good design to tell a story in print.

We came back from that camp and proceeded to lead a great yearbook team in publishing a book that told the story of our schoolmates during our turbulent senior year.

Little did I know that, years later, I would earn my living doing pretty much the same thing.  For my entire career, I’ve been a professional story-teller.  First as a journalist, then as a writer and creative director, with a little poetry on the side.

Dorothy also had a profound effect on my life — not in the professional arena, but in my personal life.  She was the type of teacher who seemed to be always looking for ways to inspire her students to think deeper, push harder, and become better human beings.  She would hold intellectual salons in her living rooms where past and present students would gather to discuss ideas, art, and literature, and debate philosophy.

It was heady stuff for a hayseed kid like myself, just a few years removed from the farm.

She took an interest in me and recommended two books, which I think she prescribed to correct what she diagnosed as deficiencies in my soul.

First, she said I should get a book on yoga and do the exercises.  This may have partly been because I was a bit of a muscle-bound jock, with no sense of the mystical.

Then, she handed me her own hardback copy of Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  She also likely sensed that I was spiritually ignorant and morally vulnerable.  And she would have been correct.

By age 17, I had pretty much sloughed off the simple Christian faith of my parents.  I had embraced the ideas that Freud and Darwin had rendered faith obsolete, and I thought God was dead, whatever that meant.

Dorothy could probably tell I was headed for treacherous moral waters when I left home for college.  The counterculture was peaking right at that time.  The siren call of sex, drugs, and rock & roll was beckoning.

At first, I paid far more attention to paperback book on hatha yoga I purchased off the rack at the local Red Cross Drug Store.  I stretched my muscles, did the poses, and read other books about the masters.  When I went to college, I signed up for meditation classes, studied Eastern philosophy, and tried my best to become a Hindu.  Alas, it was much too difficult.

It turned out that Screwtape Letters would play a more profound role in my life.  I read it right away, and then promptly tried to forget it.  But Lewis’s vivid fictional portrayal of correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew, a junior tempter, stuck with me.

All that stuff about a spiritual world with an ancient foe seeking to work us ill couldn’t be true.  Could it??!

But sure enough, after a year and a half of dissipation at college, I faced a spiritual crisis.  I had the distinct impression God was after me like a coon hound hot on the trail.  When I hit bottom, the first thought I had was to turn to Lewis for help in trying to figure out what was happening to me.  So I reread Screwtape, and it scared the willies out of me.  Then, I ran to the library and started devouring Lewis’s other books.

Here was a guy who was as smart — actually smarter — than my professors.  His Mere Christianity all of a sudden made perfect sense to me, and made faith intellectually acceptable.  Though as providential series of events, I came to faith in Jesus.  And that has been the most important event in my life.

Needless to say, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Screwtape Letters.

These were just two of the influential teachers.  I’ve written before about some of the others:  Paul Hagedorn for fanning the flames of poetry back in 11th grade English class.  Coaches Cecil Naylor and Wayne O’Neal for teaching us how to win.  Mary Lou Porter and Marie Connell for turning us on to Shakespeare.

Margaret Buie for opening up the ancient world through Latin.  David Washburn for inspiring creativity through theater.  And Billy Bob Stith and Catherine Kennedy for making math and science interesting even to a right-brain guy like myself.

I’m not sure if these wonderful educators have been replaced by teachers equally as dedicated or not.  My hope is that kids today would have the chance to be taught by such as the likes of them.

Winter sonnet

That bleak season

That Bleak Season

That bleak season the cold creek ceased to run,
Grey weeds withered beside the roadside ditch,
Flat leaden clouds obscured a sullen sun,
Winds lashed ice-lacquered leaves without a twitch.

Field stalks bowed down to winter’s weary weight,
The world conspired to pile pang upon pang,
Even the crusted snow cried, “Much too late!”
Caged by a skeleton hedge, no bird sang.

That bleak season love went the way of leaves,
Good green seeming, but poised to take the fall,
First frost stunned then assailed by windy thieves,
Some futile few sought stubborn to forestall
The impending end ’til a fell gust cleaves
Asunder with only a scrawny squall.


Notes:  If you read enough Gerard Manley Hopkins, it can mess up your iambic pentameter.  That’s because he often wrote in what he called “sprung rhythm,” which involved tossing out the sing-song metric rules that so many of his Victorian contemporaries followed.

Sprung rhythm was not free verse.  Hopkins followed his own complex set of rules, but he was wildly eccentric for those times.

I do not claim to follow Hopkins or his rules here.  This poem is more like “disjointed rhythm” than sprung rhythm.  But this seems to me to be very appropriate for the subject matter of a world and a love wrenched all out of joint.

This poem still faintly resembles a sonnet.  It still has 10 syllables to each line.  It still rhymes in a familiar pattern, close to the English sonnet, but ending in an e-f rhyme instead of g-g.