September’s sun has come and gone ++++And now the fall is here.
October’s blaze adorns the lawn, ++++The swan song of the year.
The bonfires of my autumns past ++++Burn cool as I recall
The hayride loves that failed to last ++++Beyond the end of fall.
Out on the gridiron battlefield, ++++Where so much toil was paid,
Where cheers and chants once loudly pealed, ++++Now flags and glory fade.
Our friends and kinsmen now are few. ++++Our lovers are all gone.
All those we thought would see us through ++++Cannot be counted on.
When we were young we loved the fall. ++++We loved the leaves aglow.
Knew always we’d have one more fall. ++++Those days, what did we know?
NOTES: Something about autumn makes me want to return to the poems of British poet A.E. Housman.
Housman once said in a lecture that the special function of poetry was “to transfuse emotion–not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.”
There is something in so many of his poems that vibrates on the same wavelength with the sense of loss I feel when fall arrives. So when the nights began to cool and the leaves began to turn, I picked up my old copy of A Shropshire Ladand relished Housman’s lean, direct, and delicious verse once again.
One of the forms he used was a type of ballad that alternates lines of 8 syllables with lines of 6 syllables. It’s the form Housman used in one of my favorites, Number XXXVI in Shropshire, a poem that opens:
White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies,
That leads me from my love.
It’s a seemingly simple form, but ideal for conveying emotion in a concise, concentrated way. It’s tricky because the lines are so short. There is no room for filler or fluff. I had tried my hand at it before, but neglected it recently.
So, with my emotion fortified by Housman’s verse, and my memory refreshed regarding a potent poetic form, I sat down this week to try my hand at “transfusing emotion.”
“We’ll sell no wine before its time,” we’re told.
The fat and famous spokesman made it clear,
Each vintage has its period of gold.
(You must assess the pressing and the year.)
So, likewise, for each vintage comes a time
The point past which there’s no return at all.
Decay and oxidation work their crime,
And turn your sweetest nectar into gall.
So come, my dear, what are we waiting for?
Our cellar holds a few more bottles still.
Pick one and brush away the dust before
Time turns its contents back to must — time will.
Cast off our caution and our clothes and pour,
And drink with joy until we’ve had our fill.
Notes: The news lately has been filled with dreadful reports: mass shootings in Las Vegas, bombings in far-away lands, vile behavior by the powerful of Hollywood.
Because I know that mankind is fallen, I have no confidence in “human nature.” But my innate positive outlook this week has been shaken.
When the week began, I learned that the son of a friend and former colleague had been one of the wounded in the Las Vegas mass shooting. He had been a law enforcement officer for over 20 years and had never been shot, nor shot anyone in the line of duty.
And then he was shot in the neck and shoulder while he was attending a country music concert.
Thankfully, he survived and is on the mend today, and should be okay.
Then, the news about the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal broke. My Facebook feed has been filled not only lurid stories of the rich and famous, but heartbreaking firsthand accounts from women I know who have suffered in silence from heinous actions of abusers.
The sheer amount of #me too is overwhelming.
Evil is real and more common than we want to admit.
One particularly poignant series of posts has made me reassess my own hometown experience.
I’ve written glowingly about my childhood and my hometown and my education.
As I have processed the new information, I must admit that — depending on where you stood — my hometown could have been more Twin Peaks than Mayberry RFD.
There was stuff going on back there that I had no idea about.
So, in the face of horror and dread, I will resort to a place of solace and peace.
I will celebrate love, and marriage, and monogamy.
I will seek to find meaning and comfort in order and rhyme and meter.
When the society and the culture seems to be disintegrating, I will look to the good examples I have in my life and celebrate faithfulness and honor and love.
I really don’t know what else to do.
I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles became a television pitchman for a sort-of-good American wine.
Welles had been the genius who panicked the nation in 1938 with his faux-documentary radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds.” In 1941, he directed and starred in “Citizen Kane,” considered to be among the best — if not the best film of all time.
By the late 1970s, Welles was making commercials. His Paul Masson spots are still classics.
“We will sell no wine before its time,” was a magnificent slogan.
cheerleaders stirred crowds and our
NOTES: Here’s another invaluable photograph from my friend, Susumu. This must have been taken in the fall of 1968, amidst an exciting small town high school football season.
It most certainly was an away game. The home games of the Marshall High School Owls were played at Missouri Valley College’s Gregg-Mitchell Field, and this setting does not look familiar. I’m guessing it might have been the away game that year at the home field of our most hated rival, the Excelsior Springs Tigers.
Marshall had been playing second fiddle to the Tigers for several years, just unable to put together enough power to overcome dislodge them from the top of the Missouri River Valley Conference.
The year before, we had endured a humiliating defeat as the Tigers came into our stadium and beat us on a frigid night in Marshall. Those old aluminum benches had never felt so cold.
This year turned out much better. Coach Cecil Naylor had us worked into such a frenzy that we could have taken on a band of Viking berserkers. We travelled into the Tigers’ home turf, took care of business, and vanquished them 20 to 0.
But I digress.
The topic is cheerleaders. What is with their mystique? And why couldn’t they get a date with their own classmates?
I could be misremembering, but it seemed that very few cheerleaders ever dated guys in their own class. Older guys might work up the confidence to “date down” with a cheerleader from lower grade. But mating between cheerleaders and a classmate was scare and rare.
One of life’s great mysteries. The Cheerleader Paradox.
Mysterious even when you factor in the fact that in our little town, many of us had attended school together since first grade, and the rest of us had been together in the same building since 7th grade.
The long history and close familiarity meant that most of your classmates were like family. That contributed to sense that the cute girl in chemistry class seemed more like your sister or your cousin than girlfriend material.
I mean, you’d grown up together! You’d seen each other on good days and bad days. Good hair days and bad. You’d fought on the playground in grade school, and competed for teachers’ attention. Not much mystery left.
But even that doesn’t explain the Cheerleader Paradox.
Dr. Freud, call your office. I’m open to hypotheses.
The old hometown is aging, as am I,
The once wide streets grow narrow with the years,
As night descends, you all but hear a sigh,
For what once was has gone, and twilight nears.
Now friends and kinsmen number fewer, too,
And memories fade like the painted sign
Proclaiming that the city “Welcomes You!”
Strange how one’s soul and place so intertwine.
Life used to bustle round our stately square
‘Til commerce shifted to the edge of town.
The grand facades are now much worse for wear,
Some landmarks have been torn completely down.
The business of my life took me elsewhere,
Cracks grew in walkways of both man and town.
NOTES: I must ask forgiveness for reposting this poem so soon. But one of the photos sent to me from my old friend and schoolmate has made it necessary to repeat myself.
Quick explanation: During my junior year of high school, our school hosted a foreign exchange student from Japan. Susumu jumped into the life of a Missouri farm town with both feet. Among other activities, he participated in music competitions and he landed a role in our semi-annual school musical. Ironically, that year we were producing “South Pacific,” which took place against the backdrop of the U.S. war against Japan.
Susumu was a real sport, even when his role as Lieutenant Cable involved him talking about “Japs.”
Susumu took some photos during his year in my hometown, and he shared them with me recently. The photographs are full of beauty and nostalgia for me.
The shot above is an image I’ve been seeking for a long time.
I actually had something quite like it in mind when I wrote this poem.
The shot is of the southeast corner of our town square. The large, 4-story brick building that dominates the scene is the original Farmers Savings Bank.
The east side of our square was clearly the “serious” side of the square. If you could just see a bit more to the left in the photo, you would see the other bank in town, Wood & Huston, which anchored the northeast corner of the square.
The Farmers Savings Bank was a landmark. I still remember walking in there for the first time in the mid-60s with my dad to open my first savings account. I had landed a job detasseling corn with DeKalb, and needed to sock my money away in a safe place.
My memory of the bank was dark wood, glass and really fancy tile or stone floors. I could be completely wrong. But that is the impression the place left on me.
It definitely gave me the experience that banks at one time strived for: Substantial, important, unshakeable, solid, eternal.
I also have another memory of that building. I’m not sure if this is a real memory or if I imagined it. The memory goes like this: I’m with a couple of my buddies, and somehow we gain access to the hallways of the offices that occupy the stories above the bank.
We explore and when we get to the top floor, we open a door and, behold — inside is a Masonic Temple, with its colorful and elaborate falderal. A exotic stage set for a play with curtains and colorful, elaborate props. A sense of mystery and danger.
We don’t stay long.
Sadly, sometime after I departed my hometown for college, the bank was torn down to make way for a more modern, low-slung and efficient building. I’m sure that was the fashionable thing for banks to do in that era.
I always hated what that demolition did to the look of the square. The old bank building had been a solid landmark one could count on. Solid. Now it was gone.
Most bank buildings I walk into these days (and only when I must), seem more like low-rent office buildings. Nothing impressive or awe-inspiring about them. Designed with the corporate stock price firmly in mind. Designed to encourage you to skip coming inside and avail yourself of the ATM outside instead.
Old streets remind me
I did not know compassion
when I walked them then.
NOTES: I have come into possession of a treasure trove of photos from the late 1960s taken by an old schoolmate, Susumu. He was our Japanese foreign exchange student when I was a junior in high school in 1968 and 1969.
Across the years and across the internet, we reconnected and he sent me the photos he collected during his year in my hometown.
Susumu saw things through his camera lens that I had long forgotten. These are shots I would never have thought to take. Simple street scenes. Iconic buildings long since torn down. Teachers and friends long forgotten.
The gift of these photos is almost indescribable. It is as though I am seeing my hometown again, for the first time. I’m transported back nearly half a century to the place of my childhood, to the places where I lived my formative years.
No fancy Instagram filters are required. These photos already have the faded Kodachrome quality you cannot fake. They come with authentic poignancy.
These photos take me back to my youth. And my heart is filled with questions. What if? If only? Didn’t I realize?
There once was a time
when blossoms and I were both
fresh and unabashed.
NOTES: When I was a junior, my high school hosted a foreign exchange student from Japan. Susumu stayed with the DuBois family, who lived a few blocks away.
A couple of years ago, through the miracle of Facebook, I reconnected with Susumu. When I discovered he had taken several photos of his days in my hometown, I was excited. He very kindly shared them with me, and I have been lovingly looking through them and rekindling old memories.
Those photos include precious images of teachers long since gone. Of friends and classmates not seen for decades. And simple scenes of my hometown, a town that has changed so much since I walked its streets.
One of the photos was of me. I don’t remember it being taken. All evidence points to it being the spring of 1969. I am outfitted in what passed for a tennis uniform in those days. I must have just finished practicing with Susumu’s host brother, Dave DuBois. We were teammates on the Marshall High School tennis team, and we practiced out on the new hard surface courts at Missouri Valley College.
From the foliage, it was early spring. The tulip tree was in full bloom, but the other trees had not leafed out. I wore a leather bracelet on my right wrist, which was the cool, hippie thing to do.
My hair was growing out and would need to be cut before football practice started in August. (Coach Cecil Naylor really didn’t like long hair!)
So blithely we scrapped
our outmoded traditions.
But what did we know?
NOTES: My high school had long observed a set of traditions at graduation time. While probably only a few decades old, to us callow kids, those customs may just as well have been prehistoric.
For as long as we could remember, our school had marked the end of the school year with a Baccalaureate service, a Commencement ceremony, and Honor’s Night. The first was inspirational, and still carried a whiff of religion. Commencement was more perfunctory, and mainly served to get your tassel turned and your diploma into your eager, waiting hands.
But the real ceremony happened at Honor’s Night. That was where academic achievement and athletic prowess were feted. Scholarships were announced. Awards and certificates of all types were handed out. But while the awards were many, there was still a good measure of exclusivity. Not everyone got a trophy. It was the merit system on steroids.
The pinnacle of Honor’s Night was–as it had always been–the presentation of the Honor Stations. Four couples from the senior class had been selected, each meant to represent one of the four cardinal virtues of our school. They were to be arrayed on the stage of the auditorium beneath solemnly lit candelabras dressed in formal gowns and white dinner jackets. They personified:
(Historical note by way of full disclosure: My brother Larry had been named Most Courteous in 1960, coasting to the honor on his winning smile and prodigious gift of gab.)
At the center of the stage sat Miss Fair Marshall, complete with a tiara. We were not sure, but we suspected she represented all the good and pure and gracious qualities of Missouri womanhood.
I forget exactly how the Honor Stations were nominated and selected, but I seem to remember some sort of balloting by the student body.
THE DEMISE OF MISS FAIR MARSHALL
Miss Fair Marshall had a male escort, but he was merely unelected arm-candy. The star of the evening and the center of attention was the fair maiden.
I should add one more fact, especially for those too young to remember. The late 1960s were a time of upheaval and ferment. Across the country, kids were growing their hair, listening to loud music and protesting the Vietnam War.
The times were a’changing, and although change might have come more slowly to our Missouri farm town than other places, we were not immune.
When I was a junior, the senior class of 1969 did a bold and daring thing. (Many of my classmates and I admired our elders in the class of ’69. We saw them as smart and sophisticated and worldly.)
The dramatic move they made was to vote to eliminate Miss Fair Marshall. It was a shocking move.
I’m not sure if there was ever a cogent explanation made why this was a good idea. I suspect it had something to do with an unconscious awareness that having a “princess” without an equivalent prince was somehow unfair or sexist. Or perhaps it was a rejection of the whole patriarchal-vestal-virgin vibe given off by the institution
I dunno. But the hippies and the intellectual artsy kids rejoiced that year over the demise of Miss Fair Marshall. And, I suspect that many would-be beauty queens wept.
THE NEXT YEAR, OUR CLASS HAD ITS TURN
I recall sitting the next year in our snoozy all-senior-class meeting called for the sole purpose of deciding whether we would bestow a clock or a plaque as our senior gift to the school.
At some point in the proceedings, I turned to my friend Clyde Smith and joked, “Wouldn’t if be funny if we abolished Honor Stations?”
He replied that that was a great idea, and that I should propose it. I told him to do it. He looked directly at me and said, “No, it’d be better if you did it.”
Thinking back, I do recall that there had been some earlier joking about how ridiculous the Honor Stations had become. The year before, the position of male Most Industrious had been filled by our older friend John Swisher. Now John was one of the smartest, funniest and cleverest guys you’d ever want to meet. But he was the first to admit that he was nowhere close to being the most industrious member of his class.
John had even made many a hilarious joke about his lackluster work ethic and the irony of him being named Most Industrious.
So, I had already concluded that the Honor Stations were hypocritical. And, with no more forethought than that, I popped out of my seat, walked to the front and made a motion to abolish Honor Stations.
I think I heard what you might call an audible silence.
I’m not sure exactly what happened next. I thought I detected murmuring from the gaggle of popular girls. Probably looking forward to wearing formal dresses up on the stage, I thought.
There may have been a person or two who spoke in opposition. But I distinctly remember the debate ending after Tom Nicholas stood up. Tom was the most rock ‘n’ roll member of our senior class. He had long hair before anyone else. He played guitar in a real band, and he exuded rebel cool.
Tom strode forward, leaned into the microphone, and pronounced with authority, “We have a word for this. It’s called ‘ego-trip.'”
That pretty much sealed the deal. Honor Stations were ego trips. The question was called, and the motion overwhelmingly carried.
The Class of 1970 had finished the work of our predecessors. We had killed off the Honor Stations and drained the pomp from “Pomp and Circumstance.”
I was exhilarated and pretty darn proud of myself–for a short time.
A UNEXPECTED LESSON
Later that day, I was pulled aside by Mrs. Van Meter for a brief, one-way conversation. Dorothy Van Meter taught English, and was pretty much universally regarded as one of the “cool teachers.” She conducted discussion nights at her apartment for students and former students. These were heady salons where heady subjects like philosophy, truth and beauty were seriously discussed.
Mrs. Van Meter had hung a small peace symbol over the door to her classroom, and on the day of the Vietnam War Moratorium, she came to school dressed in black. So, she had credibility with the free-thinking, progressive students. She was actually the last teacher I suspected would hector me for my blow against hidebound tradition.
She was also known to take an interest in the character formation of her students. She was known to prescribe books or disciplines she thought would round out a particular student’s soul. I was a muscle-bound jock and she told me to pick up a book on yoga. And when I was flirting with the moral perils of agnosticism she gave me her copy of Screwtape Lettersby C.S. Lewis. She even recommended weight-lifting for one of my classmates who was musical and brilliant, but soft and plump.
Her word to me on this day was matter of fact and brief.
“You know,” said Mrs. Van Meter, “some ideals are worth preserving whether they are fully lived out or not.”
That was it, and she wheeled around and left.
Her words took a while to sink in. But that simple truth just might have been the most important thing I learned in high school.
Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
NOTES: In many ways, my dad was a simple man. Farmer. Mechanic. Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.
He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language. He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.
But he knew what he thought and what he believed. And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.
Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company. He was a confirmed Ford man. He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.
He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air. He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.
He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.” You just knew these were great men.
We didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation. The leadership was handled by laymen like himself. When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me.”
Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.
Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia. “Your mother,” he said, “was the best. I never met another women like your mother. Never.”
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 Lettersby 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 Christianityall 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.
We may have been poor
but we always had clean clothes.
Our mother made sure.
I hadn’t seen a clothes pin bag like this is decades. But, recently, in Sonoma of all places, in the laundry room of a little house my family had rented, I found this item from the past. It was identical to the one my mother used all through the 1960s.
It seemed to be just another part of the retro-nostalgia vibe of the décor. It took me back in time. Back to that little house on East Mitchell Street, where a Missouri farm family found their slice of the American Dream.
My mother used to wash our clothes in an electric wringer washing machine that was more wash tub than machine. I’m pretty sure my dad must have proudly ordered it back in the 1950s from the Montgomery Ward catalog to make life easier for his wife, our mother.
The modern feature was the wringer that squeezed the excess water out of the clothes to speed up the line drying.
I suppose it was a big step up from the washboard down by the stream, but it still required considerable manual labor.
One day, my mother absentmindedly fed some clothes through the wringer and got her left hand caught. I remember blood and crying and a bent wedding ring.
But, all in all, that was a minor event in the grand scheme of things. We knew more than one farmer who had lost a whole arm in a disagreement with a stubborn corn picker.
When it became apparent that the first location of the clothesline in the back yard was interfering with the natural layout of the whiffle ball diamond, my dad relocated the clothesline, even though uprooting and transplanting the poles amounted to considerable work.
Is it my imagination, but is there nothing like the smell of clothes dried on the line in the July Missouri sun? It’s a fragrance Proctor & Gamble can only wish they could duplicate.