Classmate Haiku

Tom Nicholas addresses the MHS Class of 1970 class meeting

You exuded cool.
We all wanted to be you.
And now you’re gone.


NOTES:  With great sadness I learned yesterday of the loss of a classmate. Tom Nicholas grew his hair long and sported leather jackets before any of the rest of us. He seemed to float above the traditional cliques and intrigues of high school.

Tom was cool without being a jerk.

His passion was rock and roll, and he pursued it with zeal.  He got good,  Really good.  Played in some bands.  Cut some records.

When Tom’s band Estus put out its self-titled album in 1973, it included Marc Bell on drums.  Bell would go on to play in the Ramones for 15 years as Marky Ramone.

Tom would never make it big–  like fill-stadiums-big — but he could play guitar and sing like crazy.

THE DAY TOM SETTLED THE MATTER

My most vivid memory of Tom was from the only all-class meeting of our senior graduating class of 1970. (I first wrote about this incident in a post last March.)

We were debating a motion to eliminate Honor Stations, a tradition that recognized the male and female student who best exemplified one of 4 qualities: Most Industrious, Best Citizen, Most Courteous, and Best Sport.

This was the fall of 1969, and revolution was in the air.  The class immediately before us had voted to eliminate the position of Miss Fair Marshall, as it was considered a sexist relic of a bye-gone era. Now there was a push to finish the work of our predecessors and eliminate Honor Stations as a musty vestige from the past.

There may have been a person or two who spoke in opposition to doing away with Honor Stations.  Most of our classmates were still fairly conservative.

But I distinctly remember the debate ending after Tom stood up.

Tom strode forward, leaned into the microphone, and pronounced with authority, “We have a word for this.  It’s called ‘ego-trip.’” (That exact moment is preserved in the photo at the top of this page.)

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 the class that came before us.  We had killed off the Honor Stations and drained the pomp from “Pomp and Circumstance.”

But, for better or worse, I’m pretty sure that never would have happened had Tom not spoken up.

Rest in peace, dear classmate.

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Spring haiku

Bobby Ball standing in the DuBois' driveway, late 1960s. on Rea Street.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

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!)

Ah.  If I only knew then what I know now.

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.

Late fall sonnet

Autumn leaves

Falling Leaves Like Lovers

The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.

But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality–
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.

For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down–they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.


Notes:  Some of my favorite poems compare the death that comes in the autumn to the end of a love.  Or poems that use the dying natural world when winter approaches as the backdrop for the story.

I think of Robert Frost’s Reluctance, with its heartbreaking line about it being treasonous “to bow and accept the end of a love, or a season.”

Or Thomas Hardy’s Neutral Tones, which uses a frozen landscape as the setting for the realization that a relationship has ended.

Then, there is John Crowe Ransom’s Winter Remembered, with its wonderful image comparing the forsaken lover’s cold fingers to “Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.”

I may never have discovered Ransom had it not been for my 11th grade English teacher,  Paul Hagedorn, back in Marshall, Missouri.  We spent an inordinate amount of time on poetry that year.  The major assignment, as I recall it, was to select an American poet from a lengthy list, and then immerse yourself in the writer’s work, and finally write a paper.

Knowing nothing about most of the choices, I picked John Crowe Ransom solely because I liked the sound of his name.  I got lucky, because I discovered I enjoyed his work.  Had I chosen Wallace Stevens with his difficult, cerebral verse, I probably would have flunked.

Another assignment was to prepare a notebook of our favorite poems.  I remember making daring choices, including song lyrics by such radicals as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.  Now  that Dylan as been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I consider myself foresighted.

I was fortunate that Mr. Hagedorn approved of my choices.  He was the cool, young teacher back then.  He managed to fan the flames of inspiration and love for poetry.  They smoldered for years, flaming up now and then, and have finally started burning here in this blog.

Hometown haiku

House on East Porter Street, Marshall, Missouri
The old hometown seems
smaller than I remember.
Once, it was magic.


Notes:

For Van Morrison, it was Cyprus Avenue in his hometown of Belfast. The fancy, tree-lined street where the upper class lived.  Where a working-class boy went to dream and catch glimpses of aspirational girlfriends.

In my hometown, that street was Eastwood.  It was a shady, tree-lined street with what passed for mansions in my little Missouri farm town of Marshall.  And there here were even a couple honest-to-Pete mansions among them.  Reminders of old money abounded.

To a Johnny-come-lately, working-class kid like myself, it seemed like the coolest place on earth.  I lived on the other side of town.  Not in the poorest section, but definitely in a different layer.  My house was brand new, but it was a plain 1950s ranch house.  Utilitarian and homely.  Decorated in the finest Late Depression.

At first I didn’t have any friends among the Eastwood society.  Unattainable, I thought.  But when all of the grade school kids graduated to junior high, we were suddenly thrown together.

I became buddies with an Eastwood kid, Clyde, who, while he didn’t live right on Eastwood, lived close enough — a long block off of it.

His home was a demonstration of exquisite interior decorating, and his family a wonder of graciousness and hospitality.  I felt lucky to have such a cool friend.

We played football, we raced slot cars, and talked about our growing interest in girls.  I heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time in his basement.

When my cat didn’t come home and was eventually found struck to death by a car, I went to Clyde’s to play basketball.  I played so furiously that I eventually egged him into our only physical fight.

Because that’s how 12 year old boys grieve.

In those days of flower power and Vietnam, we did find ways to wage a few political protests, and fight against what we saw was hidebound traditions at our high school.

We eventually began to drift our separate ways, spending more time with girls than with our old guy friends.

One evening, late in our high school years, we sat around a campfire out at the park, vaguely aware that our sheltered years in our old hometown were drawing to a close.  Our oh-so-enlightened conversation including a one-through-10 ranking of our female classmates.

If I remember, we did try to maintain a sense of irony about it.

The photo atop this little poem is a recent shot of Clyde’s old house.

Hometown sonnet

Arrow Street, leading into the square of Marshall, Missouri
Hometown Sonnet

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:

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but last year I made a couple of trips back to my childhood hometown. My high school class held a reunion, and there was the lingering matter of tidying up my late parents’ estate, which seemed like it would never get resolved.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my old classmates, and re-igniting long dormant memories. But, not all my classmates are doing well.  Not all of them made it back.  Not all are still alive.

The visits led to reflection, and that led to poetry.

 

Parable Haiku

Be as gentle as a dove...
Eurasian collared dove. (Photo courtesy of John Marquand.)

Like the gentle dove
I neither hate nor judge. But …
like the snake, I watch.


Notes: My childhood friend and schoolmate, John Marquand, takes some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen.  He rises early to get the Colorado morning light, and day after day amazes with remarkable nature photos.

He has become somewhat of a bird  whisperer.  I’ve never seen great blue heron photos like John’s.  But he is not limited to birds.  He somehow manages to make even insects look beautiful

John was kind enough to send me this shot of a Eurasian collared dove to illustrate the haiku.