Memento Mori Free Verse

Sappington Cemetery

Old Cemetery

That day we ditched our duties at the music contest,
And drove to the old cemetery out by Arrow Rock,
The one with the mossy tombs above the ground,
Like down in New Orleans.
And it was even better because it was like we were playing hooky,
Only there were no classes,
Just that we’d volunteered to welcome the kids from other schools,
And help them find their rooms.
It was expected that we’d show up and do our civic duty,
But we figured they’d never notice we were missing.
We heard the call of other tunes,
And we had other demands that day to serve.
It was coming down one of those warm spring rains,
The air and everything was wet and willing,
It was the middle of the day but no one would be driving by,
And, even if they had, the old Ford’s windows were so fogged up
That no one could ever see what was going on inside.
In school, we’d learned how the doctor buried there
In the grandest tomb of all had made his fortune and his fame
selling quinine to cure malaria,
Made it possible for pioneers to settle in the boggy bottomlands,
And for America to finish where the French had failed
at digging the Panama Canal,
Opening up a passage that had never before been penetrated.
(In another class, we’d hear it wouldn’t be the last time
We would have to bail out the hapless Frenchmen.)
And though the aging tombs beckoned us to come and learn,
And contemplate the weakness of our flesh,
We’d have to take our teachers’ word for it.
That day we never got out of the car …
++++++it was raining so hard …
And we had other geography to explore,
And history of our own to write.

Notes:  Growing up in my Missouri hometown, I heard stories like this actually happened. This one may or may not be partly true.  Names have been redacted to protect the guilty.

The medieval Christian tradition had an ascetic practice called memento mori, meaning, “Remember that you will die.” The monk might keep some object, such as a skull, to remind him that life is transient, and that death is inevitable. The idea was to focus the soul on things that really mattered.

I’m not sure, but some of the poems I write might serve as my own personal memento mori.


Hometown tanka

The 1969 M senior guys and their pyramid scheme
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Dear upperclassmen,
we idolized you so much,
you were like heroes.

Then, that class trip fiasco,
And class trips were abolished.

NOTES:  The class ahead of us in high school was impressive.  It included some very smart and talented people who challenged and inspired us underclassmen.

Counted among its members were some of the best athletes, actors, debaters, musicians and scholars ever to come out of our little Missouri town of Marshall.  When they went away to college in the fall of 1969, they returned on their breaks with fascinating stories of life at their campuses.

I paid close attention to their testimonials, and followed a couple of them when it came time to make my own college choice.

The class of 1969 certainly went out with a bang.  Our high school had long had a tradition of the senior class trip, which involved a long trek to some exotic destination far enough away to make getting there grueling and sleep-deprived.

That year the seniors made the long bus ride to Six Flags Over Texas.  But during the course of that journey, something happened.

The stories we heard were somewhat hushed and confusing, but whatever happened was so serious that school officials cancelled senior trips forevermore.

The next year, there was not even a discussion about our own class taking a senior trip. Not. A. Chance.

The Class of ’69 was already notable in that it had voted to abolish the venerable tradition of selecting the most popular and respected girl to preside over Achievement Night as Miss Fair Marshall.

Now, our heroes had managed to put the kibosh on another tradition.  In a way it enhanced the reputation of the Class of ’69 even further.  In addition to all their other superlatives, they had also become the Biggest Screw-Ups.

I’m hoping some of my old schoolmates from the Class of ’69 might finally come forward with the true story of what transpired on that notorious trip.  Why don’t you just come clean?  Confession is good for the soul and the statute of limitations on your crimes certainly has expired.

Some members of my own class are still a bit aggrieved that we didn’t get to have our senior trip because of you.

It would be good to be able to put the scurrilous rumors to rest, and to finally forgive and forget.

STYLE NOTE:  Like haiku, the tanka is a traditional Japanese short poem form with a prescribed number of syllables.  The pattern is 5-7-5-7-7.

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.


Hometown Haiku

1960 Marshall High School Noctua Yearbook.  Marshall, Missouri

We lost the big game,
But at least we’d never say,
That our lives peaked there.


Hometown haiku

Auditorium of the former Marshall High School, Marshall, MO

What one among us
Could bear his innermost thoughts
Inscribed on the wall?