Thursday, November 01, 2012

'Possum In The Principal's Office

It’s Halloween.  Let’s have a little fun.  Fun is all Halloween ever was to kids when I was growing up.  Never once did we ever think of worshiping evil spirits and paying homage to Satan.  It was just a day of the year that we dressed up as ghosts and goblins and were allowed to pull off some pranks and stay out later than usual without getting in trouble.

As a little kid, I took a brown paper bag around to neighborhood houses and, behind a mask, extorted candy and other treats by threatening a trick.  What a trick was, I haven’t the slightest notion.  But that’s what every other kid said, so that’s what I said.

I wonder what I would have done if somebody had said: “You’re not getting any treats from me you little thief.  Go ahead, trick me.”  I most likely would have run home crying.

But after I got big enough to go spook’n, that was another story.

It started out innocent enough.  Daddy showed me how to make an awful-sounding noise on people’s windows with a pencil, a rubber band, a match stick, and an empty wooden spool.  By cutting notches in the rim of the spool, and rigging it to the pencil with the rubber band, I had a real noise-maker.  Winding it up tight, then releasing it so that the spool spun around very fast on the window surface, made a sound like a hail of bullets hitting the glass.

When the homeowner opened the front door to see what was happening, it wouldn’t be unusual for him to step on a cow paddy or worse.

When my big brother was a kid, he and some of his buddies put a farmer’s buggy on top of his barn.  Of course they were recruited within the next few days to help him get it down, but everybody had a few laughs.

Our tricks were mostly harmless.  Nobody got mad about them and usually just laughed, sometimes even confronting you in the next few days with: “You kids really got me this time!”

However, my high school principal was an exception.  Nobody liked him.  I don’t know why.  But he was especially obnoxious and irritating.  I think it was because he had his sense of humor removed at birth.   So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he made the entire study body stay after school just because nobody confessed to putting a ‘possum in the principal’s office.

The stinking limburger cheese smeared on the radiators didn’t seem to bother him like that ‘possum.  And he became really incensed because none of the perpetrators would confess.  They stonewalled in a fashion Richard Nixon would have applauded.

On the other hand, even the city police were perfect gentlemen about finding a 100-pound pig in the back seat of their squad car.  They acted plenty silly when discovered it, but they didn’t spend one minute trying to find out who did it.  And to my knowledge, the farmer from whom the pig was stolen didn’t even report the theft to the police.  Heck, it was Halloween.  Things happen on Halloween.

It’s a good thing it was late at night with hardly any traffic.  The two cops got into their car and drove about 50 yards down Lindell Street before the car swerved violently and nearly ran up onto the sidewalk.

Both front doors sprang open simultaneously, and those guys must have walked around that car 25 times, looking up and down the street to see who was watching, then peering into the back seat to verify they weren’t seeing things.  Finally, they got back in the car and drove straight to the north side of town, where the pig-in-the-police-car prank paid tasty benefits.

Rather than canvas local farmers to see who was missing a pig, the cops drove out to Aunt Jemima’s Barbecue place and donated the animal.

The perpetrators paid for that pig, one sandwich at a time.  We—uh, they--enjoyed the barbecue almost as much as watching the cops discover that pig in the back seat.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Plain Speaking Harry Truman

Not since President Harry Truman has there been a truly conservative Democrat President.  The following excerpts are from Plain Speaking: An oral biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller.
Looking back on them, the years don't seem simple at all.  Think of it--the dropping of the Bomb, the formation of the UN, the Korean decision, the Hiss case, the firing of MacArthur, the birth of Israel, NATO, the Marshall Plan, McCarthyism, Point Four, and so on and endlessly on.  And through it all, for almost eight yers, Harry Truman was there, not in the eye of the storm, he was the eye of the storm.

He did it, all of it.  He asked his associates to tell him how long he had to decide whatever was to be decided, and when the deadline came, the decision had been made.  And no regrets, no looking back, no wondering if-I-had-to-do-it-all-over-again, would I have?  Dean Acheson wrote that Harry Truman was totally without what he called "that most enfeebling of emotions, regret."

Regret was self-indulgent, as bad as, maybe worse than telling people how you felt.  No time for it.  "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." 

Like that sign on Harry's desk when he was in the White House.  "The buck stops here," it said, and that's where it stopped.  The mistakes were Harry's, and he never blamed anyone else for them.

And another sign on his desk, that quotation from Mark Twain that his sister had at the little house out at Grandview the last time I saw her: "Always do right.  This will gratify some people & astonish the rest."

Mr. President, it's been said that the Presidency is the most powerful office in the world.  Do you think that's true?

"Oh, no.  Oh, my, no.  About the biggest power the President has, and Ive said this before, is the power to persuade people to do what they ought to do without having to be persuaded.  There are a lot of other powers written in the Constitution and given to the President, but it's that power to persuade people to do what they ought to do anyway that's the biggest.  And if the man who is President doesn't understand that, if he thinks he's too big to do the necessary persuading, then he's in for big trouble, and so is the country."

The Possible Dream

Just because you want something to be true doesn't make it so.  There are some things you cannot change.  You can't dip the Pacific Ocean dry with a teaspoon.  You can't change today's weather.

Discernment allows you to see what you can change and what you cannot.  Accept what is and work to change it for the better, not deny that its exists.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Forgiveness: The Divine Gift

With the Internet, we can forge friendships around the world with people we may or may never meet in person. Not long ago I lost a friend I never met--Ken Rhodes.  He was a friend to many online, and he is missed.

Hearing of his death was a shock to me.  His death reminded me of what a kind, generous, and courageous man he was.  He had a chance to prove it to me just before he died, and he did.

Ken wrote a comment to one of my posts that hurt my feelings and to which I took offense.  If that same remark had been made by someone I did not know, I would have ignored it, but since I knew Ken, I wrote a private message to him, expressing my feelings.

He almost immediately wrote a private message back to me explaining what he meant and apologizing to me.  I won’t tell you the whole message, but it concluded with this:

I meant no disrespect to you in my comment . . . was designed to carry some humor. It is obvious that both efforts failed.

Again, please accept my honest apology. I meant you no insult at all. Feel free to delete the comment.

Best regards, and a Merry Christmas to you and yours.


I sent him this reply within minutes

Ken, I accept your apology. And I apologize for taking offense when none was intended. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "A person who takes offense when no offense was intended is a fool." That would be me.

Your friend,

We wrote those messages December 14, 2009.  A week later Ken was dead.

Jesus taught us to forgive, if we want others to forgive us.  He taught that we must forgive others if we want God to forgive us.  I now see the wisdom in this teaching more than ever, because it would have been doubly tragic if I had lost a friend and a rift between us remained.

The Void

By Harvey L. Gardner

Telling a person what we truly feel—
that we
love them,
value them,
trust them,
rely on them,
admire them—
a thing seldom done.

A pity when they’re gone.
Greater pity though,
The void in our soul.
Telling would’ve made us whole.

Copyright © Harvey L. Gardner, 1999

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Funerals Make Me Hungry

Besides Sunday dinner on the ground at a country church and Christmas at my mother’s house, the best food I’ve ever eaten was after family funerals.

I don’t mean any disrespect, but just the thought of a funeral makes me hungry.

Since I’m a Baptist, most funerals I’ve attended were Baptist.  So I can only speak from a Baptist perspective. 

No higher honor can be given the deceased and their kin than to be the first person to arrive at the family home with a covered dish.  There are women in my hometown who begin circling your driveway when they first hear you’re sick.

When word of one’s death passes like wildfire throughout the community, food begins arriving in large quantities and in continuous streams right up until, and even after, the funeral. 

This is a Southern custom I’ve grown to appreciate for more reasons than one.
The house fills up with friends and even strangers who begin laying out food, pouring iced tea and coffee, washing dishes, and generally making life easier for the family. 

They bring casseroles, fresh garden vegetables, fried chicken, barbecue, banana pudding, pecan and chocolate pies, homemade biscuits and cornbread, pickles, relish. . .why it looks like the county fair.

Most of the eating before the funeral is done by visitors.  After they’ve hugged the family members and given their condolences, there isn’t much to do with their hands.  A buffet laid out by the best cooks in the county gives them something to do, and something to talk about.  So visitors to the family home don’t have to be asked twice if they want something to eat.  You bet they do!

No blue ribbons are awarded to the best cooks, but believe me, they’re being judged.  The winner is determined by which dish is emptied first.  So there is some heavy coaxing going on. 

“Hon, why don’t you get yourself some more of those fresh butter beans?  What you have on your plate wouldn’t fill a hollow tooth.  And don’t forget to get you some of that banana pudding, darlin.  Eunice made that, you know.  Nobody can touch her banana pudding.  Why it’ll make your tongue beat your brains out.” 

Family members and the deceased’s closest friends are too distraught to eat much before the funeral.  Besides they are busy greeting those who’ve come to pay their respects.  The house is full of people for a day or two preceding the funeral.  Every visitor shakes every hand and talks a good bit too.

But after the funeral and burial services, all the neighbors instinctively know when to go home and leave the family alone.

By this time, the family’s feet and hands hurt from standing and greeting hundreds of people.  They also are absolutely starving.

Never has a table of food looked so good.  Nobody says anything.  They just grab a plate and elbow their way to the pulley bone.  There isn’t a lot of talking during the first two or three circles around the kitchen.  Just tinkling silverware and smacking lips.

You may be thinking that good Christian people should remember that gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Not for Baptists.  That’s Catholic!

You see, to Baptists eating is the ONLY sensual pleasure that isn’t classified as a sin.  Our conscience is clear.  So we just quietly eat ourselves into a stupor.

Finally, somebody breaks the silence and the family begins telling stories about the deceased.  Stories that are funny, or sad, or inspirational.

My favorite story at Daddy’s funeral was told by my sister.

“Daddy was talking about you, Harvey, just the other day,” she said.

He said, “You know, Faye, Harvey is real successful, and I’m proud of him.  But, you know, I’ve never really understood what he does for a living.  Thomas drives trucks, you and Charles run a hardware store, and I understand that.  But just what does he do anyway?”

There was a long silence, she said. 

Then Daddy, a yellow-dog Democrat who died before he’d even heard of Bill Clinton or Barrack Obama, finally spoke incredulously.

“You know, I think Harvey’s turned Republican.”

Everybody had a laugh.  And a big slice of somebody’s homemade pie.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Martin High School's Most Devoted Fan

Bill Elliot
Our town had its village idiot.  Well, everybody thought he was an idiot. His name was Bill Elliot, aka Wild Bill Elliot.  Wild Bill “wasn’t quite right,” people used to say, but people loved him anyway.  People made allowances for him, we always said.

I first saw Bill—my parents taught me to call him Bill out of respect, but others called him Wild Bill—at a high school basketball game.  He never missed a basketball game, or a football game, or a ball game of any kind, unless he was banned from the venue.

You see, Bill was not just a fan, he was a wild fan, with a booming voice that could be heard above all the game noise.  He was Martin High School’s most devoted fan.  He delighted and embarrassed us at the same time. 

Opposing fans were amused by Bill, and most tolerated him, but game officials dreaded him.  We never had a game he didn’t disrupt.  He simply could not help himself.  He couldn’t control his emotions or soften his bullfrog voice.  Many times he would run onto the court or the field to challenge the referees’ calls.  Technical fouls on our team, because of Bill, were numerous.  Ejection from the gym or from the sidelines of football games was common.

Bill was also an avid baseball fan, and his favorite team was the Brooklyn Dodgers.  That took courage in a Southern town in the 50s because Brooklyn had Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella on their team, both Negroes.  Bill, of course, was called a “nigger-lover,” and worse, but he never wavered in his loyalty to Jackie, Campy, and the Dodgers.   That showed me a lot a character in Bill that I’m sad to say most people didn’t see and appreciate.

When I got to high school and began playing football, Bill befriended me, as he did all the athletes in school.  Encouraged by my parents, I took a liking to Bill.  He was kind, funny, and a walking encyclopedia to baseball trivia.  If you wanted to know who struck out Babe Ruth in a particular game, Bill knew the name.  He also knew the date, the inning, and the count.  Not only that, he could recite the pitcher’s stats all the way back to the minors.  You name the baseball game, Bill could give you the box scores.  He was amazing.

I never knew Bill’s affliction.  When he was not overly excited, he appeared almost normal.  He would talk to you about anything, but he had a childlike understanding of things.  He had seizures from time to time, so he couldn’t drive a car.  That never deterred him from attending out-of-town games.  If he couldn’t hitch a ride on the band or team bus, he’s get a ride with somebody, but he was always there.  We might not see him, but we always heard him.

Bill never held a regular job, but he was always working at something.  He would do odd jobs of any kind, even if he didn’t get paid.  Every Thursday afternoon, you could see Bill at the intersection of Main and Lindell selling the Weakley Country Press, our weekly newspaper.  Most of the paperboys were boys, and Bill was just one of the boys.

When I returned to Martin after college and after serving in the Marines, I purchased a minority interest in the Press, and became its editor and publisher.  I was delighted to see that Bill, now in his 50s, was one of my paperboys.

The papers usually hit the street about 3 p.m.  At 4 p.m. Bill would sell out of papers and return to the office to pick up another 100 or more, but I noticed he didn’t return to Main and Lindell, which was right in front of our office.  I also noticed he never brought any papers back.  He always sold as many papers as all the other boys combined.

One day I asked, “Bill, I notice you don’t go back to your usual place with your second bundle of papers.  Where do you go?”

He said, “Oh, I go over to the shirt factory.  They let out at 4:30, and I stand at the bottom of the steps and just hand them out with one hand and take the money with the other hand.  Folks have the right change ready.  It saves them and me a lot of time.  It’s a lot easier than stopping cars on the street and making change.”

Bill taught me that even people with handicaps have offsetting abilities.  He taught me that one can learn a lot from any person, by just becoming their friend and getting to know them. 

Bill wasn’t intellectually smart.  He wasn’t emotionally stable.  But Bill had something that wasn’t common, then or now.  He had common sense.  He had character.  He was loyal to his town, his school, his teams, his employers, and his friends. Bill was quite a man.  He was no idiot!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Democrats, Republicans, and Separate Realities

We don’t see things as they really are; we see them as we are.  Individuals, the same as cultures, see and think about things in vastly different ways.

It is impossible for two individuals to see things exactly the same way.  We literally can’t be any other way.  There are no exceptions to this rule.  Individual thought systems are unique.

If we understand this both intellectually and emotionally, we will virtually eliminate quarrels, arguments, and misunderstandings.

To expect otherwise creates conflict.

If two people expect otherwise they have a small-scale conflict.  When groups of people, or whole nations expect otherwise, we have conflicts of enormous scale.

It’s futile to try to change others, so conflicts arise in two ways:

1. We think others do see things our way.
2. We believe others should see things our way, because we think our way is reality.

Our thoughts and opinions are not reality.  They’re simply our thoughts and opinions.  Everyone has a separate reality.

To the extent we understand separate realities, we free ourselves from these catalysts for relationship problems.

“Others not only shouldn’t see things our way,” says Richard Carlson, Ph.D., “ but in fact they cannot.”

There is no need to take personally what others say or do.  Separate realities are a fact of life.

This doesn’t mean we have to give up our deepest beliefs or opinions.  Beliefs and opinions by themselves are neutral.  We shouldn’t label specific beliefs or ideas as right or wrong, but understand how ideas are formed.

We can continue to maintain our beliefs and opinions.  The difference is that ours and others’ objection to them won’t be such a source of hostility or pain.

Accepting separate realities drops defenses and opens hearts.  Growth and compromise are possible.  It gives us the opportunity to listen, learn, and perhaps develop new and better ideas.

Growth and compromise are needed in America perhaps as never before.  Democrats will never have precisely the same opinions as Republicans.  Republicans will never have precisely the same opinions as Democrats.

The key word is “precisely.”  Our forefathers understood separate realities.  They put into place a set of guiding principles and legislative, judicial, and executive procedures that people of good will can and should agree to follow.

Civil debate, compromise, laws, judicial review, veto, veto overrides, repeals of laws, and individual liberty giving individuals the right to select our leaders or reject them by our voices and our votes.

President Harry Truman, perhaps the most underrated of our presidents, said there is “my way, your way, and the right way.”

How do we find the right way?

A good place to start is to understand and accept the law of separate realities.  Listen to the opinions and ideas of others, respectfully present our ideas, and agree where we can.

A return to civility may just save our great nation.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Everybody Ought To Eat More Ice Cream

His name was Wilbur Vaughan, but his family called him “Mr. Wips.”  I called him Wips.  He called me Harv.

Wips was a big, gentle man.  He also was a gentleman, and one of the friendliest people I’ve ever known.  He was funny.  He was wise.  He was my friend.  My big, wise, good friend.  Even though he was 20 years my senior, he took a liking to me and stopped by my office every day he was in town.

Wips was a natural philosopher.  He thought deeply on many subjects, and knew a lot about many things.  He was in industrial and public relations with the Illinois Central Railway.  Wips didn’t always tell you when he was going to give you some advice.  Sometimes it just flowed out of him naturally.

Seeing him dig into a container of ice cream was something. You will never see a 50-something man so happy.  He would look up, grin, and say, “Everybody ought to eat more ice cream.”  No explanation needed.  Who wouldn’t want to be that happy?

“I’m taking Frank fishing tomorrow,” he said licking his lips.

“You are?  Why?” I asked.  Frank was a man we were talking with about a business venture he wanted us to invest in.

“I never do business with anybody until I’ve taken him fishing.  I always drive, and I purposely forget the food and water.  If he whines and complains all day, I pass on the deal, because it’s just as hot, hungry, and dry in my end of the boat as it is in his end of the boat.  He’ll give up on you at the first sign of trouble.”

We passed on the deal.

One day Wips dropped by my office to congratulate me for winning some recognition for my newspaper from the Tennessee Press Association.

“Harv,” he said, “I can see you’re going to be really successful one of these days.  You’re going to make lots of money, but don’t go buying lots of stuff to show everybody how well off you are.”

“Why not,” I asked.

“Because,” he said, “if people think you’re in the big leagues, they’ll start throwing you fast balls, curve balls, and sliders.  They’re hard to hit.”

I dropped by Wips’ house one day just to pass the time, and he was painting his fence.  When he saw me he stopped painting, didn’t say a word while he put down his paint and brush.  Then with sweat dripping from his face onto his already-wet overalls, he looked up at me and said, “Harv, I’m older than you, so I’m going to give you some advice.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Shoot.”

“Don’t ever buy anything you have to paint or feed.”

All of Wips’ advice was good, but this piece of advice is better than most.  I’ve proven it over and over.

Friday, July 13, 2012

What We Really Need In Congress

Congress has an 11% approval rating because they are not doing what we sent them to do.  We want them to solve problems, by debating issues in a CIVIL manner and reaching SENSIBLE solutions. 

Instead they cling to their rigid personal ideology, bicker like school children, make self-serving attention-getting speeches, point fingers, blame their opponents, and feather their own nests. 

We need statesmen who put the people's interests above their and their party's interests.  Consider voting out all incumbents--Republican or Democrat--who in your opinion are guilty of the above.  Don't vote or anyone who doesn't agree with your core fiscal, social, ethical, and moral values--all of them, not just one. 

These ineffective members of Congress are there because we voted for them; it's time we fire them.  If we don't, we can't blame anyone but ourselves.