Father Haiku

Dad's shirt from his days at Reeder Auto Parts
Photo courtesy of Terry Ball

Greased-stained forever,
Dad’s shirt bore proof of hard work,
and so did his hands.


NOTES: Dad was a son of the Great Depression, accustomed to hard work. He didn’t have the chance to finish high school due to the need to find work to contribute to the family.  The work available was farm hand labor at a dollar a day.  Hoeing beans, putting up hay, stripping blue grass.  Good money if you could get it.

Too young for World War I, he got a pass for World War II because by that time he was the only adult male on his own farm.  The idea was to keep all the farms operating to provide for the war effort.  So while all 4 of his brothers-in-law went off to fight, Dad stayed home growing corn and soybeans and producing eggs and milk.

In the post-war prosperity, Dad prospered and saved his money.  Finally, in the late 1950s, he made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, sold the farm, and went into the farm implement business.

We moved from the farm to the farm town of Marshall, got a house with indoor plumbing and central heat.

Things went fine for a few years, but then something happened.  I was young and didn’t get the full story.  But either through some poor marketing decisions, or through some financial shenanigans by a partner, the business went into debt and had to be sold.

It was a defeat for Dad, but he didn’t let it defeat him.  He landed a job in the shop at Reeder Auto Parts.  It had to be tough going from the boss to being an employee again, but Dad never complained.

He just showed up everyday and kept chopping wood to do what it took to pay the mortgage and keep hamburger on the table. I recall a time when I was whining about needing a few dollars to buy some knickknack or the other.

My older brother Larry took me aside and gave me the older brother admonishment.  “Shut up and quit bothering Dad,” he said.  “Don’t you realize we could lose the house?”

I had no idea.

But, Dad kept working away.  Mom got a job baking pies at the MFA Grocery Story and we didn’t lose the house.

Let it be said that Dad was a master mechanic.  He made things work.  He also was perpetually marinated in grease and gasoline.

He would clean his hands with Goop grease cutter and then wash his hands with Lava soap.  But they never really got truly clean.

When I hung out with him I usually got the job of cleaning parts in gasoline.  I grew to hate the smell, and my mechanical ability has suffered accordingly.

He eventually went on to establish a freelance mechanic business.  He primarily served the farmers around Marshall, making house calls to repair balky tractors, combines, corn pickers, and hay balers right where they died out in the fields.

His services were in demand, and he had all the work he wanted.  Sometime the farmers would pay him in produce.  Like the old German farmer Ludwig who sent Dad home with a quart jar of canned horseradish.

As the family story went, brother Larry returned home late one night scrounging around in the refrigerator for something to eat.  Seeing a jar of something that looked like gravy, he unscrewed the lid and took a big snort.

Farmer Ludwig’s horseradish nearly blew the top of his head off.

I’d love to have some of that horseradish today.

 

Haiku Haiku

The haiku master
explicated his own work.
So I could do worse.


NOTES:  You could get the idea in sophisticated poetry circles, that it’s low-rent to indulge in writing poetry about yourself or discussing your own work.

You can almost hear a schoolmarmish voice laying out the ground rules.

“Best to write about concept and ideas, and always with an ironic detachment lest you should be accused of wallowing in sentimentality.

“Do not indulge in personal poetry. And, whatever you do, be sure to let the poem speak for itself. Don’t commit the sin of talking about your work or trying to explain what it means. The work is what it is, and it means what it means to the reader.”

Well, I say hogwash to all that.

And my first expert witness is none other than Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master.

Like every fan of haiku, I had read Basho’s poems, but I couldn’t say that I had really gotten to know Basho until I stumbled across his travel diaries.

If I have some free time on a weekend, one of my favorite pastimes is to duck into our local used bookstore to see what new poetry books have trickled in. A couple of weeks ago, I spotted “The Essential Basho” translated by Sam Hamill.

After thumbing through a few pages, I knew I had to have it.

What I learned was that Basho made several walking journeys around Japan in the 1600s. Often accompanied by a student, he walked from town to town seeking out shrines and temples, natural landmarks, and other artistic souls along the way.

And as he went he not only wrote haiku, but he kept a journal. He would explain where he was and what he was seeing as he wrote his poetry.

Sometimes he would quote an ancient poem written about the same view he was seeing.  Sometimes he would write his own poem.  But sometimes he would humbly decline to add anymore.

Basho hired a boat at a town called Yoshizaki so he could sail out to see the famous pine trees at Shiogoshi.  He was well aware of the poem written some 500 years before by Saigyo.

All the long night
salt-winds drive
storm-tossed waves
and moonlight drips
through Shiogoshi pines.

Basho declined to write a poem of his own.

“This one poem says enough,” Basho wrote. “To add another would be like adding a sixth finger to a hand.”

But, when he does write his own poems, Basho often provides the setting to give the reader enough context to better understand the meaning.

For example, when he writes this haiku, it is possible to get a feel for what is going on from just the text itself:

If’ I’d walked Walking-
stick Pass, I’d not have fallen
from my horse.

But it means much more when you read Basho’s explanation.

“They say the ancient poet Sogi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga,” Basho wrote. “I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.”

In other cases, without the poet’s explanation, you won’t really understand the poem at all.

On the second day,
I’ll rise early to welcome
the oncoming spring.

On the surface, this seems like a sentimental, but shallow little seasonal poem.  But when you read Basho’s context, it becomes a much more interesting and humorous glimpse into his soul.

“Reluctant to see the year-end,” Basho wrote, “I drank until well past midnight on New Year’s Eve, only to sleep through the morning on New Year’s Day.”

It turns out Basho missed the first morning of the new year because he was hung-over.

If he had been alive today, I’m pretty sure Basho would have been a blogger. I’m happy he left behind his journals to help us understand his work.

With such an illustrious example as his, I resolve to be less sheepish about providing commentary on my own poetry.

Hometown haiku

 

Minuteman missile silo, Saline County, Missouri
Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Just miles south of town
missiles waited in silos,
hell in a cornfield.


NOTES:  In the early 1960s, we began hearing talk of the government planning to put missiles in underground silos in our part of the country.  Sure enough, Minuteman sites began to appear in fields across west-central Missouri.

The silos weren’t advertised, but they were not hidden either.  There was one clearly visible from the main highway south of town.  Many others were scattered about the surrounding countryside, both in our Saline County and in neighboring counties.

The Minutemen were intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.  They burned solid fuel, which allowed for much faster launches than the older, liquid-fuel missiles.

The idea was deterrence.  Our missiles were able to target Soviet cities, which would discourage them from initiating an attack on the United States. They had missiles pointing at us.  We hoped nobody blinked.

It was vaguely unsettling to know that we had nuclear missiles located so close.  But, I was just a grade school kid, and didn’t think too much about such things.

A few years later, when I was in high school, talk started about upping the ante and locating anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) nearby.  These were defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming ICBMs from the other side.

I read a couple of articles, believed myself to be an expert, and declared my opposition to the ABMs.  If I remember correctly, the nationwide high school debate topic was about the ABM issue.

I really didn’t know what I was talking about.  My big argument was that having ABMs located close to our homes would make us a primary target.  I remember having no real answer when a classmate’s big brother, who attended the Naval Academy, pointed out that we were already targets because of the Minuteman missile installations. Having ABMs nearby, he said, would at least give us a chance to shoot down the Russian missiles headed for us.

The Minuteman missiles stood on guard until 1991, when then President George H.W. Bush ordered them off alert status.  Under the terms of the START I treaty, the missiles were removed and the silos destroyed a few years later.

In hindsight, the Minutemen seemed to have done their job.  The Russians never attacked.   The inherent weakness of the Soviet Communist system gradually became more and more evident as their economy crumbled.

In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev did indeed “tear down this wall,” as Ronald Reagan demanded.  Or at least the Soviet leader allowed East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall themselves.  And then we saw the Soviet empire collapse.

China essentially gave up on Communism around the same time, when its leaders realized that if  they wanted to make money, they had to harness the power of markets.

Today we see Venezuela teetering on chaos as its experiment with socialism goes up in smoke.  Cuba still soldiers on under the heel of the second-string Castro, yearning for the day when real freedom returns.

Of course North Korea continues to keeps the flame alive for all those who dream of establishing a world-wide Worker’s Paradise. It’s our best example of what happens when Communism reaches full flower.

It seems fitting on May Day to pause and think on these things.

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

Marshall High School cheerleaders, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Unattainable,
cheerleaders stirred crowds and our
imaginations


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.