The Rise of Fall

The Rise of Fall

Swaying red Maple
Leaves chase themselves to the ground
Fall is here to play.

Surrealism in War

True to my form, lately, I caught the last day of an exhibit at the Frist, but I’m very glad that I did. The exhibit was Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s. 

 Surrealism arose around 1920, according to the exhibit, as artists were influenced by Sigmund Freud, and felt that they could step beyond the confines of the past. Many of the artists had been soldiers in the First World War, and surrealism gave them an avenue to paint their dreams and nightmares.

The most famous of the surrealistic painters are likely Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Pablo Picasso, though their styles are very different. Picasso’s most famous work is likely “Guernica,” which is an incredible bit of surrealism that came directly from the Spanish Civil War, representing an intense bombing of that Spanish town. While “Guernica” remains in Spain, the influence of the Spanish Civil War was intense upon the artists who created surrealism, and works by Picasso, Joan Miro, and others influenced by that terrible war were featured.

Surrealism was not confined to painting, and sculpture and cinema were also featured, including Un Chien Andalou, which was the first movie from Luis Bunuel. You may be familiar with Bunuel from a depiction of him in the film Midnight in Paris. I feel compelled to tell you that the 1929 surrealistic movie is about as weird as anything that I’ve ever seen, and I did not sit through the entire film. But if you ever feel inclined to see a bit of outrageous cinematic history, it is available on YouTube and clocks in at 21 minutes. 

If surrealism was born from war, then it also seemed to die with war, as the end of WWII seemed to usher in the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and others. I enjoy these types of works and artistry, and this exhibit was a great opportunity to learn more about the rise and fall of surrealism.


The Revival

It was toward the back, at the end of the fence row, partially tucked underneath an overgrown cedar. The tires were flat and the wheels were painted white, though you could not see them. Blackberry bushes had overtaken the automobile over the years, but today they had been knocked aside, revealing the turquoise doors and fenders. The roof was white, but dulled by sixty-something years of sunlight and sap.

The rear bumper retained the majority of its chrome and the sunlight reflected off of it, avoiding the taller grass that entwined its curves. The license plate was dull, rusting at the lower left corner where it had been bent in a long-forgotten accident.

The hood fought and squealed with the stress of the metal as it was raised. The cables were still attached to the six old spark plugs, all set in a row. The carburetor was open and imagination brought forth the smell of gasoline. A mouse’s nest was hidden to the rear of the fender, with an escape always available through the vent to the dashboard. The battery was missing.

A hard pull freed the driver’s side door, and the interior offered a musty smell. The upholstery was blue and worn and slick. The rearview mirror was tilted, then adjusted to view the imagined traffic that was following. The clutch engaged and the gas pedal held firm, though the brake fell to the floor. The light switch to the left of the floorboard sounded as it always had. Click, click, click - bright, dim, bright.

A push of a button popped open the trunk, cavernous and empty, except for an old jack and a box of yellowed newspapers.

The windows were all intact, and the wind blew down the hill and pushed back the grasses to expose the vehicle even further.

It had been decades since the 235 cubic inches of the motor had powered the old Chevy, but it had once climbed hills and raced teenagers home before curfew. It had sat in the back row of a double feature drive-in movie featuring an alien with two heads. It had rushed an expecting mother to the hospital, making it just in time for her early arrival. It had taken a sleepy father to his third-shift job at the aluminum plant, so that his children would have toys for Christmas. It had lived through the lives that it carried, and it was forever a memory to its passengers.

The log chain wrapped securely around the front bumper and the pickup truck strained as it pulled the old car free from its years of neglect and entrapment. The young man smiled as a mouse scurried up the hill.


Gone Fishing

The pair of teenagers gave the boat a shove and hopped in at the last minute, wanting to be sure that they didn’t get their feet wet. One of them had new Chuck Taylors and he didn’t want his mother to say anything.

“It’s not so much the heat as it is the humidity,” said Dennis, as he wiped his boyish face.

“That’s a good one, never heard that before,” said the other boy.

“It’s kind of an old one,” said Dennis, “but I like it.”

The story was that Dennis Flatt could call out a thousand different little sayings, and that he had at least three or four things that he could say on any occasion. Later on in life he would be the first person to ever say It is what it is, so everyone was always impressed, wondering what would become of this teenaged prodigy.

But on this particular day it was about the fishing. Dennis was something of a sportsman, which is to say that he didn’t always do things the legal way, but that he would never break the law if there was no chance of getting caught. Dennis had an honor code, that he would never fish illegally unless he knew that the game warden was in the county and had a chance at catching him.

“There is something to be said for nightcrawlers,” he told the other boy, “but you would never catch me with one of them jelly worms or a spinner that looks like a disco ball cutting through the green water. For my kind of fishing we’re gonna need to paddle out to the middle of the lake.”

“I didn’t know I was gonna be paddling. You said you had a boat with a motor.”

“Oh, I’ve got a nice Johnson one point five, but it’s in the shop, has a wasp nest or something, who knows.”

As they eased across the lake, Dennis opened up a duffel bag and started sorting and assembling, while the other boy just kept on paddling and sweating.

“Hey, we left our rods in the car,” said the boy.

“That’s fine, we won’t need ‘em out here. Let me tell you something John Pepper.”

(He always called friends by their entire name, which only reinforced his intelligence and his standing as eleventh in his class. He would have been top ten if it hadn’t been for that time it snowed so much and he wrecked his sled on that steep hill.)

“John Pepper, I know a man who has a contraption that looks like a television antenna, and he lowers it over the side of his john boat and then he clips that on to a couple of car batteries and the electricity shocks the fish and they can’t swim, so they have to float to the top before they drown. Fish need air, people don’t know that. So when they float to the top he scoops ‘em up and carries ‘em home. But that’s dangerous, only a fool would fish that away.”

“So what do you do, then?” asked John.

“I use dynamite.”

“Is that any safer?”

“It can be. Mine’s homemade, so I know how to handle it, and I can make it safer. I come from a long line of dynamite fishermen, so I would kind of know just by nature. They called my grandaddy TNT as a nickname, if that tells you anything.”

By that time they had got to the middle of the lake or rock quarry or whatever it was. You know the place just under the hill, right there at Whitleyville, but before you get to Kemp’s store.

Dennis pulled out a stick of his homemade dynamite, and John said he thought it should be red, not green.

“A common misconception,” said Dennis. “This is actually just part of an old hose pipe that my daddy let me cut up, and I’ve got it packed pretty good with black powder and some other secret ingredients that I cannot divulge at this time.”

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

“To quote Shakespeare,” said Dennis, “the middle of the lake ain’t the place to decide whether you can swim.”

“If you say so,” said John Pepper, wondering whether Miss Kelly was missing him in fourth period algebra.

“So I’m gonna strike the primer with this frizzen and it’s gonna light the fuse and you’re just gonna throw it as far as you can from us. Can you do that John Pepper, can you throw it far?”

“You know I play outfield and I can get it to the catcher in just one or two hops, but this seems kind of, I dunno, not smart.”

“I’m third generation at this, and I promise it ain’t gonna be nothing. When I light it, though, you have to throw it fast and far while I paddle. Can you do it?”

“I can do it.”

Dennis struck down upon the homemade dynamite, once, twice, three times. He didn’t cuss, because he never cussed, but the look on his face said it all.

John started to be redundant and say something again about he wasn’t sure this was a good idea, but then with one more strike the fuse was lit.

Dennis handed the sizzling dynamite to John, then picked up the paddles and gave it what for. Then he saw the panic, the indecision, the ignorance of a boy who wasn’t third generation.

“Dang it, John. Are you just gonna sit there and let that thing burn, or are you gonna fish?”


Something Good Happened Today

Something good happened today. Something good happens every day, but this good thing arrived to me in an email early this morning, while I was not yet completely awake. It’s an opportunity that I’m trying to make for myself, and it will be a fun “try” regardless of outcome.

All my life I’ve enjoyed writing, like so many of my friends - you know who you are. And it’s a fact that anyone who enjoys writing is also fond of reading. I suppose I should clarify that to say that most writers enjoy reading, and that it’s a fact that reading a lot helps our ability to write.

In my high school years I really enjoyed a diverse assortment, everything from Southern authors to science fiction to the classics. I have given away a lot of my old books from those days, but still on the shelves at my parents’ house is a good number of sci-fi stuff from Asimov, Zelazny, Cherryh, and Heinlein. Those books are in good company with biographies on Boone and Crockett, military-style things like All Quiet on the Western Front, and a pure assortment covering the old west, ghost stories, football heroes, Confederate soldiers, Shakespeare, and those condensed books that Reader’s Digest used to put out. My Memaw gave those to me, and it was in one of them that I first read the Earl Hamner story that would later become The Waltons. I just loved that story about Clayboy and his family and all of the rural, Southern drama of Spencer’s Mountain. There is a difference between the book and the TV show, by the way, and the book is worth a read.

While I’ve continued to read a little of everything (right now on my nightstand is an old Zelazny paperback, the autobiography of the Red Baron, Alice in Wonderland, and a new, weird book of short stories I grabbed off the discount stack), I’ve never abandoned the Southern stories that once seemed antiquated. These days I still enjoy Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, and they are also on that crowded nightstand. Just a few days ago, re-reading a book of shorts by Flannery O’Connor, I experienced that strange pain that A Good Man is Hard to Find always causes. With my favorites I’m given strong characters and well written stories. Simply enough, good writing continues to impress audiences, and some stories (and authors) are timeless.

So, here’s my good news. A couple weeks ago I applied to include myself as an Airbnb experience here in Nashville, and this morning my application was approved. An Airbnb experience is something like a tour guide, entertaining people in different ways. In Nashville you’ll see everything from history walks, pizza cooking, pub crawls, painting classes, wine tasting, and so forth. To be included requires an application and a process where you convince them that you can offer an “expert” experience. While I was optimistic, I wasn’t certain that I would be accepted, so it was great to get that email.

For my experience, I will be offering two-hour classes in which we discuss Southern literature, such as Welty, Faulkner, McCullers, and the Fugitives. We will discuss themes, context, character development, types of editing, costs, and concepts. Alongside and during that “class” we will be writing short stories. The group will decide whether to write individual stories or - as in the case of a group here for a bachelorette party - whether they want to write just one story, perhaps with the bride as a protagonist. Regardless of what is written, we will turn that into a short story and get it cleaned up, edited, formatted, and we will craft a nice cover for it. Then, it will be self-published to Amazon as an ebook, either under my name, or theirs - whatever is their preference.

A couple months ago I read an article about all the brides-to-be and their entourages coming down South to Nashville for parties, and how so many were looking to do something beyond the beer-enabled pedal cars downtown. Those have become so popular in downtown Nashville that the ladies riding them are called “woo-hoo girls” by the locals, a play off of what we hear from them as they ride along the streets listening to country music with a rap beat. That looks like fun but, personally, I’m off to find out whether there’s still a place for Phoenix Jackson and the Misfit. Hoping for success, not afraid of failure. Y’all hide and watch.


Try some, Buy some

A week or so ago I embarked on an endeavor, hoping to write for 30 consecutive days. I did that after a conversation with my son, Cal, who challenged me to do so. I mentioned then that we also discussed a second topic. That topic was advertising.

Cal asked me, “Do you ever really sell any of these books and stories that you’re writing?” It wasn’t a spiteful question. I had been encouraging him to practice his writing, because he’s getting into that aspect of things in class, and struggling a little. But he’s sure that he will be a gamer or a doctor, a director or a soldier, none of which requires writing. (Right, bear with me here.)

So I told him I sell some, but not bestsellers, I suppose. Sometimes I’ll speak to a group and sell to those who enjoyed the talk, that sometimes folks find me online, and sometimes I sell through a couple bookstores or on Amazon. With my books and short stories, sometimes I can find neither rhyme nor reason as to how they sell online, but the phone dings and someone has spent a few bucks to read something I wrote.

It’s a good feeling when someone buys something that you created. There's a very small profit in books, but it’s a nice little compliment. I have appreciated every single time that I've signed something for someone.

Cal, though, said what I need is advertising. I already have a website and a Facebook presence, Instagram and Twitter, an author page on Amazon, a spot on Goodreads, and probably a couple other things I’m forgetting right now - but Cal wants more. In fact, I suppose I had our little talk in mind when I wrote the short The Car Salesman the other day, with the protagonist Walter Philpot checking out his ad in the Yellow Pages, talking about advertising and a fair deal. (Reflecting, Cal is correct. I like the writing more than the selling, and so I have a tendency to just assume someone will stumble across the things I’ve done.)

But my 12-year-old son is about to take things to a new level. He lives and breathes in the world of video, and he is learning to put together little videos and insists that he is going to make some videos for me, as advertisements and commercials. I’m looking forward to seeing what he suggests, and what he does. I do know that it will be fun, possibly silly, and hopefully successful. Even if it’s not, what a blast doing something creative with him will have to be.

In the meantime, since Cal would want you to ask, my books can be ordered directly through my website, and if you order that way I’ll be able to sign them and ship to you. If you’re not interested in a signature (but of course you are! :-)) then you can order from Amazon or from Barnes & Noble. And I hope to get them into more brick-and-mortar independent stores, which is what I really enjoy, myself.

Thanks for giving this little blog a read, and until Cal gets the hit commercials done, please follow the links below. Thanks! James

Goodnight, Daddy

Goodnight, Daddy

It was around six at night, probably a little later, and I bet it was about the middle of February, but not yet Valentine’s because I hadn’t made any cards yet. Momma said that everything would be ready in just a minute, the biscuits were taking a little bit longer than normal. Would I come away from the window and get the butter out and pour the milk? The snow wasn’t going anywhere.

But how could I take my eyes away? I had never seen it snow like this. Never. Daddy had the other children out on the porch and they were watching it whip in little circles as the wind blew in through the naked oaks and sycamores. I had been sick and Momma said she didn’t need me all laid up and missing school. The porch lights reflected off the slips of ice as they came down, mixed with the snow, and I could hear them laughing out there.

For the first snow it was always gonna be breakfast when Momma cooked, whether it was morning or midnight. We had killed hogs that year and the bacon was good like it should be. The eggs were scrambled and light, and Daddy got out honey and sorghum for the biscuits.

Momma let me call the bank’s Time and Temperature line, and it told me what I knew had to be true. It was freezing enough so that the snow would stick. No way were we gonna have school tomorrow. Just no way. Daddy started to get out the Rook cards, but Momma gave him that look.

I coughed and Momma said that I needed to go to bed, that everybody needed to go to bed, and can you just imagine what it’s gonna look like when we wake up in the morning. And I stood there and looked out the window and dreamed of the feel of the wind, of the sleet as it might hit my face, of the wakening cold that was pushing through the gaps in the glass.

As I slumped to the next room to go to bed, Daddy grabbed me and picked me up off the floor and hollered at Momma that we’re going out for just a minute. She hollered back oh no you’re not - but he was laughing and so was I, and maybe Momma was too.

Daddy stood me on top of his boots so my sock-feet would stay dry. I hold so few memories, but standing on his boots when it was wet and cold, the comfort of his arms pulling me into his ragged old denim coat, you don’t forget that.

Just look at it, son, just look at it. Listen. The snow fell like feathers, or blankets, and the grass fought and surrendered, and the trees were glorified in the whiteness that rarely came to my home. The quiet, I remember the quiet, as all sounds were muffled. I could see Daddy’s coon dog running off toward the pond, and that was the only movement. The old Dodge truck was losing its form and our swingset was barely visible through the larger wisps of rushing snow.

The moon shone upon it all and gave us a feel of warmth and reflection, like a new quilt, then turned the colors of the world all yellow and white. Daddy said that if he ever gets to Heaven, that he’s just about sure that it will look like that, made to order. Then he whisked me up and said better not get Momma mad.

It’ll be a foot deep tomorrow and we’ll have snow cream. Ain’t no way y’all are going to school in this, the bus couldn’t get up here even if it quit snowing right this minute. Get your teeth brushed and get in bed and your momma will be there in a minute to say prayers with you.

His whiskers scratched my cheek. Sweet dreams, horsefly, feel better.

Goodnight, Daddy.


Monday Morning

Monday Morning

“And your change is one dollar and sixty-eight cents,” the cashier told Ashley, as she gently closed the register drawer and stepped back toward the coffee machine. 

“It’ll be just a minute.”

Ashley took her receipt and looked at her change, realizing that she had been shorted by a nickel. As she stood there waiting for her order, she stared at her new shoes and began to think.

What if I were shorted by five cents every time I made a transaction? That could add up to a hundred dollars a year, maybe more.

If that prissy little girl took a nickel every time that someone paid in cash, then she could be making five bucks a day just pulling off her little scam. She seems honest, but so does every other scam artist in the world. They smile and they yes-ma’am you, and five minutes later you’re short a nickel.

But that’s silly. She’s young and in a hurry and when you’re in a hurry you just make mistakes. If I started up trouble every time someone made an honest mistake, why I’d just spend my life complaining about people. God knows I’ve made my share of mistakes.

Still, this is a learning opportunity. She’s probably still in high school, and this is the sort of thing you need to know in the real world. That it’s fine being pretty, but that there’s more to it than that. You also have to get it right. People count on you, and you can’t just rush into it.

“It’ll be just another minute, ma’am. They’re cooking some fresh hash browns.”

“That’s fine, no hurry, I’m good.”

I’m not good! Why do I say things like that? It’s only a nickel, but I’m going to be thinking about it all day. Which is stupid. When she gets back with my order, then I’ll just casually mention it. I’ll say something like, “Oh, I’m saving change for my nephew’s classroom fundraiser, so I noticed that I’m missing a nickel here.” She won’t think I’m cheap or weird if I say it like that.

Am I really going to say something about a stupid nickel? You could take all of the nickels that I’ve ever held in my hand, and I bet they wouldn’t add up to a car payment. But am I just saying that because I’m afraid that I’ll embarrass myself. Am I trying to use cognitive dissonance as a way to get out of doing something that’s going to make me look stupid?

My grandpa told me once that he knew a man so cheap, that he’d hold a nickel so tight that the buffalo would holler. Maybe I could make a joke about that to her. But she wouldn’t get it, it’s an old joke. Or maybe she would, because don’t some nickels have buffaloes on them now? Or is it a bison? Are they the same thing?

OK, those have to be my hash browns that are waiting there. I’m actually in a hurry to get to work, so I won’t say anything, because I need to go. Why is the cashier also having to work the drive-through window? I need to look up “cognitive dissonance” to be sure I’m using that right. What if I’ve been using that term the wrong way for all these years? I don’t want to be like those people who say irregardless. What was that movie where the guy said “That word you keep using, I don’t think it means what you think it means?”

“Number fourteen! This is your order ma’am, chicken biscuit, hash browns, small coffee. Anything else?”

Ashley looked at the change in her hand, then realized that the nickel had simply been resting underneath one of the quarters. She kept staring at the coins scattered across her palm as she slowly walked to her car and drove away. There was no other sound except the silence of her mind. 

Twenty-three minutes later she pulled into her office parking lot and took a moment to breathe, to calm.

I’m fine, I’m good, I’m totally, absolutely fine. It’s just Monday. I’ve got this!

Four miles and 12 stoplights away, the cashier threw away Ashley’s forgotten breakfast.


Don't Quit

A million years ago, maybe more, I read a poem called Don't Quit. It's one that most of you have probably ready at some time, and, though it's relatively famous, no one knows who wrote it.

But it's one of those little things that motivates me, so I always carry a copy of it in my wallet, and have for years. They wear out every few months so I have to replace them, as will soon be the case with the one I'm carrying right now. Sometimes I give away my copy, if I talk to someone who's feeling overwhelmed. And we are all overwhelmed sometimes, I know.

I'm just on Day 6 of my little challenge to myself, and I'm having fun writing a little something every day, enjoying the false pressure. So this slip of paper was a little "boost" for me today.

For the next million years I will be reading poems such as Don't Quit and Invictus, and I will enjoy the motivation that they give me. Is there anything you read, or something that you do, to keep yourself on track?

Keep Plowing Away

Keep Plowing Away

I watched my father plow, when I was a child,
The slow, straight, deliberate lines of a man trapped on the land;
When he turned and drove away I watched and admired him,
As he came near I looked away, toward the distance. 

“Hop up now and bring me the water jug
And check the fertilizer to see what I’ve got left;
Hurry boy, I don’t have all day - Coming Daddy;
It’s gonna rain and I can’t be out here forever.”

His face was burned yet his body held a strength of ancestry,
Of those who came before and struggled for their own;
He worked so that I could leave those rows of dust
To do the things he wanted, but never would.

The tractor turned, he pondered, smiled, hollered to me
“Grandma’s slow but she’s ninety-eight.”;
But he was too young to know the pain and the waste of time,
That he would be out there forever.

Take the Side Road

Two weeks ago I took the kids to Knoxville to watch our Vols destroy BYU, and to send their boys limping back to Utah with a lesson learned.

The Pride of the Southland Band - 150th Anniversary

We had a great time. We got to spend a couple hours at a fantastic tailgate with my old roommate and his wife and other assorted friends and visitors, then Ella got to see the Tennessee dance team up close, so close that she actually got the jitters. I was able to "high five" with Smokey, which was very cool, or very lame. (Yeah, cool, I know!)

Smokey is on the prowl
Everything was great, until the game started. Check that. Everything was great until the game ended. Then 90,000 of us zombie-walked out of Neyland Stadium, with the main topic of discussion being what kind of basketball team we'll have next year.

The next morning we got up early and left Knoxville, going to stop by Granville to check on the folks. As we pulled off the interstate in Baxter, I asked Ella if she wanted to do something different. She said sure, so we went a little farther north and took the time to visit Cummins Falls. Cummins Falls is a relatively new state park, and may be the prettiest place in Jackson County that isn't in Granville.

We decided that it didn't matter whether we were properly dressed, that this was a perfect chance to go swimming, or rock climbing, or snake wrestling, or whatever else the wilderness might throw at us. Cummins Falls is gorgeous, but it is impossible to get to. The trek to the falls includes rappelling yourself down a hillside, then sliding down a fallen poplar tree until you fall butt-first into jagged, still-hot volcanic rocks. They hurt, but you never want to let your kids see that, so when you cry you tell them that you're thinking about a song by Air Supply. That usually works with my two.

Cummins Falls pool

After several hours of hiking up the creek bed, tripping over people who thought it would be good to bring their dogs, complete with ropes tied around their precious little necks, we finally found the actual falls. The kids were disappointed that they had no bathing suits. Not a problem, said their sympathetic dad. Ella had a sports bra on, and Cal doesn't need one yet, so just take off your shirts and shoes and jump in with your clothes on. Both kids agreed that that was the correct answer, and for the next 90 minutes they climbed all over the rocks and stood beneath every bit of water that fell over the ledge. They also enjoyed jumping into the pool. They could have killed themselves, but that's the chance you take.

Cummins Falls

Our trip to Cummins Falls was one of the best days that we've had in a while, and probably because it was completely impromptu. I read this morning that the place has become so popular that they're probably going to start limiting visitors, by issuing a limited number of permits per day. That's too bad, but I do understand.

Can you spot the bear?

I think I want to go back there with the kids, but need to do it soon, because it does take endurance and feats of strength to get down there. The hike back up the hill is even worse, but I can handle that. As Cal says, anytime that he's faced with insurmountable odds, you've just got to believe in yourself.

If you're anywhere near Jackson County, I highly encourage you to make the trip over to Cummins Falls. I exaggerated a little about getting to the falls, maybe even lied, and I bet you can make the journey down, take a swim, and climb back out. Just watch out for the gators. Go Vols!

The Car Salesman

The Car Salesman

Walter Philpot drummed his nicotine-stained fingers across his desk as he flipped through his latest copy of the Yellow Pages. His new ad would be there, and advertising is what it takes to sell cars. The gas shortage had played the devil on old-timers like him, and most of his inventory was the bigger vehicles. Who wants a used Grand Prix or a Belvedere when they can get one of them little Ford Pintos or a Datsun or whatever else they’re shipping over here from Japan.

There it was, a quarter page, exactly the same as last time. No need to change something that’s been working. Maybe not working all that great, but not bad either. Tough times to be in the used car business, but hustle is what it always takes. That and a fair deal.

Walter shoved the telephone book to the side of his cluttered desk and unfolded his morning newspaper for the fifth or sixth time that day. It was all bad news, don’t expect anything but bad news. The worst news was in the back pages and he gave in to impulse and looked there again. All day long he had looked there. Her picture was one from high school, maybe college, and that’s the way he always saw her. Even approaching 70 with grandkids, he saw a high school cheerleader. He reckoned that someone had paid extra to get her name at the top, because it would not have been in that spot had it been alphabetical.

Sullivant stepped through the front door, and as the little bell signalled his grand entrance he hollered out, “Well, it’s another hot one out there today, Mr. Philpot.”

Walter took a look at Sullivant with his ironed white shirt and blue tie with little yellow flowers, and would have taken him for a dandy, had he not known better. But this boy knew cars and could fix just about anything that folks dragged in there for a trade. If I had a boy I bet he would have been just like him.

“It takes advertising, Sullivant, then when you get ‘em in here it takes hustle and a fair deal. Someday you might run this place, and you need to know such business principles.”

“Yes sir, appreciate that. Think I’m gonna step around back and eat a sandwich. Momma packed ham and biscuits for dinner today, and it looks like you’ve got it covered here.”

“I’ve always got it covered here,” he replied, as he reached for a book of company matches.

“Take your time, I’m always here.”


Walter lit another Marlboro and took the luxury of kicking his feet upon his desk. He looked past the coat rack holding his red and black plaid sportcoat, then let his eyes linger toward the calendar that Raymond at Jackson Tires brought him every year. The girls in their bikinis were practically scandalous, and a married man would have had a hard time keeping a calendar like that on the wall. He smiled for the first time that day, as an old man might.

He puffed his cigarette and felt the pull into his lungs as a new sensation, of a fullness that he had missed, even though his last had been just twenty minutes earlier. Then, for the sixth or seventh time that day he reached over and picked up the newspaper and read her obituary. Janet Tolley, nee Roberts, it told him. But he knew that. Every damn fool in Putnam County knew that.

Walter took a dime from his pocket and got his afternoon Coke from the machine. The sun reflected through his plate glass window and he admired the brilliant colors of the curved paint and the dancing reflections of the chrome, and he saw his life setting on that car lot - the only thing he had ever really done. He wondered what would happen if he just hopped in that red Plymouth and started driving. Maybe hit Route 66 and go all the way to Albuquerque, or wherever it is that it takes you. Or is that a young man’s game?

Sullivant came in through the back door, and Walter handed him a couple nickels for a cold drink.

“Let me tell you something, boy. The things you think are important at your age, they probably are, but they might not be neither. Don’t think that there’s wisdom in old age. There’s only common sense, that’s all there is. It’s all you need, that and a fair shake, an honest deal.”

Sullivant nodded.

“Look pulling in there, Mr. Philpot. That’s the fellow that was here yesterday looking at the old Rambler. He offered $600 but you was holding out for $650.”

“Well today he’s gonna get a fair deal, yes sir,” said Walter.

He slid on his sportcoat, adjusted his crimson tie, and opened the door to the accompaniment of the little brass bell. With a quick turn he stepped back into the office, then gently removed the newspaper and dropped it into the bottom drawer of his desk. As he returned to the door he stepped over and took down the Jackson Tires calendar and pitched it into the trash basket. Walter Philpot took a look at all he had and all he was and didn’t allow himself the time to ponder any of it.

The bell rang again as he stepped into the glaring sunlight.

“Good day, sir! I’m Walter Philpot and have I got a deal for you.”



Setting Goals

Last week I was discussing goals with my 12-year-old son, Cal, specifically regarding his English class. He's a great reader and likes most of what he reads, but he's having trouble carrying a theme when he writes. That corresponds, I think, to the fact that sometimes he doesn't do well on his English testing (multiple choice, usually) because he rushes to choose an answer instead of thinking about what the most correct reply might be.

That brought to mind two thoughts to me. First, I remember disliking the days when reading was not just for fun, that I would be tested. Second, I asked Cal to start writing a little bit, so that he could better understand how themes and stories and characters work, the things he's falling short on at the start of this school year. Set a goal to practice, which can only make him better.

As we discussed that, I told him how I write a little something every few days, just to keep in practice. It may be a short story that I never intend to finish, a bit of dialog, maybe a poem. So he challenged me to set a couple goals. One of those I'll discuss later; but Cal challenged me to write something every day for a month - something I had previously discussed with the kids - and to put it on the blog. I told him that I intended for this blog to be mainly about battlefields and life lessons, that sort of thing, but he said that I really should be able to do whatever I want. He's right.

So, for the next month I will be writing and posting a little something every day, and I hope that you like it. The grammar may be bad and the style may be conversational. The look and format of the blog may be odd. I often struggle with making these things look nice, especially when I'm including pictures. Plainly, it will not be perfect, and I'm OK with that. Still, I hope that you enjoy these little bits of "flash writing." If you don't, then say "bless his heart" before you get too critical.

And, in the true spirit of a guy who always worries about reaching his goals, I'm counting yesterday's blog on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem as Day 1. This little blurb is Day 2.

As we walk on down this road of my trying to improve my writing, I hope you'll smile as you read this quote by one of the finest Southern authors, Flannery O'Connor, and try not to think of me: "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

Bear with me, bless my heart.


The Battle of Arnhem - 75th Anniversary

Today is the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Arnhem, an integral part of the Allies failed Operation Market Garden in WWII. There is a tendency to see the European invasion as a simplistic series of events, one in which the Allies land on D-Day, the Germans are quickly pushed back, then a tough fight at the Battle of the Bulge. After that, we see the victory that was always going to happen. But that's not reality.

Artillery at the John Frost Bridge

The reality is that the victory in Europe was hard fought and that the failure of Operation Market Garden set back the effort by weeks, if not months, and cost lives that need not have been sacrificed - military and civilian.

View from inside the Arnhem Museum

In 1944 there was a thought that the war might end by Christmas, that the Germans were on the run from France and the Netherlands, and practically racing to get back home. British Field Marshal Montgomery felt that it might be possible to send men to the north, and let them push through the Netherlands and into the heart of industrial Germany. The concept, in a nutshell, was to send in paratroopers and gliders to secure bridges and footholds along the Rhine River, then have ground support follow up to help hold them. From there it would be a smooth ride to Berlin. That was the theory.

Memorial at Hartenstein Hotel

The reality was that thousands of German soldiers (seasoned and trained to defend against airborne attacks) had escaped from the coast and were able to reinforce the men who were already in the area. A further reality was that Germany had considered the fact that the Allies might try this type of invasion along the Rhine, and they were ready. The Dutch Resistance had, in fact, warned that the Germans were there in large numbers. British General "Boy" Browning discounted these reports and pushed forward with the idea, though the failure should be attributed almost wholly to General Montgomery.

Memorial at Hartenstein Hotel

On September 17, 1944 paratroopers from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and 82nd Airborne Division began landing at their designated positions to the south, while British and Polish forces landed elsewhere, including Arnhem. There stood the most northern of the bridges they hoped to capture.

Cal at the John Frost Bridge
But it was in Arnhem where the Germans had the biggest advantage, and that advantage consisted of two Panzer divisions, which could fairly easily push against lightly armed paratroopers. The support that the airmen were looking for all along the front was often delayed as tanks and vehicles became parts of traffic jams along one-lane roads. Meanwhile, German General Model was rushing troops to the front in a fashion so as to quickly maximize his numbers. By the end of the fifth day the Germans outnumbered the Allies by three to one, and the ratio was only getting larger.

Kremer-Kingma House - Held by Allies on the perimeter

Simply put, the British and Poles at Arnhem were outnumbered and were not properly equipped to fight against tanks and seasoned infantry, and they showed extreme courage by holding out as long as they did. Almost 2,000 were killed at Arnhem, with almost 7,000 captured. The fortunate ones were able to fight themselves back to their own lines; some were rescued a month later from behind German lines during Operation Pegasus, while others remained in hiding for months more.

Entrance to Hartenstein Hotel

I would suggest that you find a book or two on Operation Market Garden, which teaches lessons about arrogance and about the inability to listen to your subordinates. General Montgomery offered that he felt that the operation succeeded about 90% and General Browning said that he felt that they tried to do too much, that they tried to go a bridge too far. (Hence the name of the excellent 1977 movie that was made about this battle.)

Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery
Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery - Polish Graves

This battlefield is just an hour and half by train from Amsterdam, and today in Arnhem there is a smaller, but very poignant and informative, museum near the John Frost Bridge (named after the British General who held the original), and in nearby Oosterbeek there is a larger and very nice museum at the Hotel Hartenstein, which was headquarters of General Urquhart. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to walk these towns and their battlefields with my son, Cal, and today I'm reflecting on the men who gave their all on that ground. Our final stop, before we boarded the train back to Amsterdam, was the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery. There lie the sons who will never return home, the real lesson that war teaches, the casualties of an attempt to go a bridge too far.