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A “Caesar Cipher” side rule that substitutes one letter of cipher text for another letter of plain text. Photo credit: ciphermachines.com/pictures/SlideRule/sliderule.jpg

As a pre-teen I became fascinated by ciphers and codes. The idea that one could transmit a secret English language message by means of a simple substitutionary cipher intrigued me. Indeed, the “Caesar cipher,” in which the alphabet is shifted a fixed number of spaces was great fun to play with; for example, a two space shift replaces C for A, D for B, E for C etc. Thus, the plaintext, “YOUR FATHER LOVES YOU,” became in ciphertext, “AQWTH CVJGT NQXGU AQW,” grouping the encrypted letters in clusters of five. The fun came in trying to break the code without the help of a key.

I, like Ralphie Parker of A Christmas Story, was enthralled by the Ovaltine decoder ring. Unlike Ralphie, however, I was not disappointed by the messages I received. The deciphered text did not urge me to “Drink Ovaltine,” a crass exploitative and inane message. As I grew more mature, I realized that coded messages lay hidden everywhere. In letters of written languages are coded sounds and thoughts. I marveled at the alien scripts of other tongues: Greek, Hebrew and, most strange to me, Chinese ideograms such as Tiān 天, the heavens, that sensibly enough is a modification of the symbol for large: Dà 大 , formed by the addition of a bar at the top. This was a visual code that fascinated me then and still intrigues me today. Thus, I had to acknowledge that other systems of communication, so foreign to my experience, were as valid as my own. And I saw coded text everywhere in other ways.

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

I discovered science early and realized that all around me were puzzles written in code that, with effort and cleverness, we could decypher. My life has led down the path of science to the life of a physicist. Physics is more than a career that I have chosen; it is who I am. I have an innate urge to understand how things work. To my delight, I have found that the universe, large and small, can be decrypted. What a gift to humanity: a comprehensible world! Even as a youth in the swamps of Alabama, I could see and understand the fall of an acorn from an oak or the progress of a ripple on the stream.

Friends and strangers have often asked me with wondering looks how I, as a rational scientist, can be a Christ-follower, a theist. Such queries from others and from myself prompt me to reflection and (typically) to read. Last year, I finally read a work of Blaise Pascal, one of my scientific heroes. La Penseé, “The Thoughts,” are a compilation of this eighteenth century natural philosopher’s metaphysical musings and notes for a treatise he never completed. Among his notes is the fragment in which he speaks of the principal character of the Bible “Dieu est un Dieu caché,” that is, “God is a hidden God,” he remarks. Hidden, like a treasure cached or stored away out of sight, but accessible to the blessed. Following Pascal’s lead, I see that science may decode the cypher of natural phenomenon only to reveal a plaintext in a language unknown to science. Just as the breaking of the infamous Enigma Code used by the Nazis during World War II, required both advanced cryptologic analysis and German language translation, in the same way science may review “facts” about the Kosmos but be inadequate to provide any sense of the meaning hidden therein. Yet, it seems to me that the meaning of it all is of primary importance.

Indeed, many scientist observe the elegant universe with its exquisite laws and intricate workings and see no meaning or purpose in it, at all. I, on the other hand, see the wonders around us and my heart rejoices. Viewed through the lens of the gospel, the night sky speaks to me and my soul sings with the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork./Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge./There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3)

My heart hurts for those who, like my color blind friends who cannot appreciate the beauty of the sunset, seem to be blind to the riches of God toward us. I suspect that this is what the doctrine of election in Christian theology “looks like” in reality: those who are not graced by God, “just don’t get it.” In response I can only offer three suggestions: (1) the testimony of my life proclaims that all creation recounts the glory of a Creator who loves us and desires fellowship with us, rebellious though we have been; (2) the witness of giants in the faith and culture throughout the ages declares His existence, the evidence of men who like Pascal faced an uncertain future as do we and lived triumphantly; (3) the ultimate Rosetta Stone of the Kosmos: the collections of little books known as the Holy Bible provides a reliable lexicon for an alien tongue exposed in the plaintext of decrypted science.

Thus, in fact, we have a grand and holy decoder ring at our ready disposal to help us make sense of the meaning of it all. A helpful hint to the meaning of the decrypted message? A key to unlocking the true meaning of it all? “God so loved the Kosmos that he gave his only begotten that whosoever believes in him will have everlasting life.”

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀, All the heavens天recount God’s神dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1) Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀,
All the heavens 天 recount God’s 神 dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1)
Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

It Rains in LA

A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA--   http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA–
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

In “LA” it rains. Indeed, it rains hard in Lower Alabama, as they call it, as if there were something lower or more common about the ‘Bama swamps where I began my journey among you. Rain is in the nature of the place.

There, I grew up to be a connoisseur of precipitation. A daily cloud burst rolls in from Mobile Bay when a white cloud that began like the backdrop of a Constable landscape, philanders with the sea, grows steely gray, and gets pregnant. She delivers the bastard with a shout. All speech is suspended during the long, sustained, hissing rant. Then silence!

I see a summer squall quarrel with his wife: punching pewter arms straight down between the trees and pounding the marsh with silver hammers, making her shake as if she were terrified at the sky’s sudden petulance, who is plainly abusing her. When he stomps off, the swamp lies stunned, not breathing, beaten. At last, she opens her sun-eye, and the sky kisses her once more as if to offer an apology, and the black earth, smelling like pipe tobacco, gives back its surfeit of water in a ghostly upward pirouetting sprite. All is forgiven.

At times, the rain kneels down, so fine, little more than a cloud, to kiss your hand. Yet in winter the same mist will bite with a thousand tiny rasp-teeth.

And rain comes like tears.

Mother said, “It always rains when something important happens.” It rained when Ma died. And when my friends’ baby was still born; when all those boys went off to a monsoon-drenched Viet Nam. It rained each time heartache visited a house in my neighborhood.

Irony took no holiday when it rained there. How could it when even my high school was called “Rain?” It has rained tears on my classmates these fifty years; one in six is gone. Put it off to actuarial statistics or not; it is so. It is only a matter of time: ultimately we all will be gone. The rain will surely fall on my house at last, too, I know.

I had to come west before I learned of virga, rain that repents and returns to the cloud, evaporating before it hits the ground. In Lower Alabama, the clouds are more honest than that, even if they seem ever unsympathetic. It rains hard in Alabama, but, then, it rains on everybody.

Virga is rain that evaporaates before it reaches the ground. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

Virga is rain that evaporates before it reaches the earth or sea. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

The Toys

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany.           Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Play is the serious work of children, and toys are the tools of that play. I share a persistent affinity for the well conceived play-tool, “Der Spielzeug” as it is known to German children and adults. Such clever and engaging devises of childhood occupation have transcendent appeal, not only for me, but also for all children. Indeed, such toys are known and loved world-wide, their charm universal and their delight easily translated into indigenous glee for the children, die Kindern, les Enfants, los Niños, Watoto, the little ones of a thousand lands. The universality of child’s play suggests its hidden utility in shaping human work.

Impoverished and crippled, assuredly, is the spirit that does not play. There among the tools of play we see character abuilding: Imagination clocks in for work in dress up and in snow forts; Design dresses for the day and a life with crayons and stubby pencil; Discourse struts in a puppet theater; Analysis sits, reflecting on a collection of handsome rocks, curious bones, odd seeds or colorful buttons. We learn first very real empathy and then justice in the malleable make-believe kingdoms of our juvenile creation. The problems of the world—technical and interpersonal—have solutions tried on for first fit like a tailored bespoke suit in the give and take of playmates, there chalked up for alterations later in the diplomacy of adult statecraft and social interaction. In the tussle of a game of ball on the green or the dusty village clearing or a session of paper dolls in the parlor with a sibling or with a gang of friends, a child reaffirms for herself the rules of fair competition and the oxymoronic selfish joy of unselfish teamwork and shared accomplishment. In idle dreaming and cloud gaping are birthed wonder and the liberating possibility of hope.   All this is child’s play, the work of children.

Anything is a toy if we play with it, but the very best toys are they that demand that the child or the child-in-the-man supply the principal and missing ingredient themselves, from within. The best tools are not those with the most lights or LEDs or microprocessors or that clang with the loudest bells or whirr with the most raucous whistles; rather they serve us best that should have had an advisory label attached: “Some Fancy required (Imagination not included).” When I recall the toys of my youth there are few that survive the sieve of years and fading memories. There are yet a few toys that still bring joy to my heart to recall; they are items that never fade since their luster comes from within me, from what they evoke in me.

A Teddy Bear was my frequent companion in the “Birdville” projects on Flamingo Drive. I christened him “Tim” because that seemed his appropriate name. I imagined my pal an intrepid, high wire artist—graceful even if furry—as he scaled the dining room chairs and walked the strings across the circus of the living room, high above the center ring laid out on the bare hardwood floor far beneath. It was his warm and fuzzy whisper heard only in my ear, more than any adult’s exhortation, that put heart into me and lent me courage to face the ether (“Now count backward from a hundred, Sammy”) and the awful scalpel—really a wire-loop-tool—for a tonsillectomy (Do you want some ice cream afterwards?). And, painfully, he also taught me remorse at age six. I thought him beautiful, despite or perhaps because of his blue and white pillow ticking chest where Mother had repaired him when I left him on the stoop, vulnerable to the neighbor dogs that naturally ripped out his stomach. But I was bereft and guilt-stricken when I thoughtlessly deserted him again, and he was obliterated completely. It was my fault, I knew. Loyalty, I suppose, made me give up on Teddy Bears altogether after that; no successor that my kind parents offered would suffice to take his place or assuage my grief and guilt.

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

There were other more durable toys, fortunately, ones I learned to treasure and care for better. I, like millions of other children, was in the Saturday morning thrall of Howdy Doody. I laughed and sang with the television screen along with my brother and sister at the antics of the wooden-headed cowboy and his posse. I begged my parents with earnest pleading voice—and in writing to Santa Claus, just to be safe—for a Howdy Doody marionette. I was blessed to find him under the tree the next Christmas. He entertained us for years afterward with spontaneous and creative puppet shows, staged with sofa cushions and dining room chairs. He was joined by a supporting cast of sock puppets animated by small hands, characters that we fabricated on the spot or acquired with the savings of our pennies and nickels. “Howdy” earned his place in our memory by faithfulness; he always danced when we juggled his strings, and he always spoke our thoughts with his enameled jaws. Thus, he still stands or hangs about today, well worn and well loved among the kites, the interlocking lettered blocks, and the Lincoln Logs, a freckled icon of my childhood. Mother kept him safe for me as she did other playthings, some that I never understood, like the voice-actuated Japanese bus that “Slim,” Aunt Sister’s and Uncle Howell’s merchant marine friend gave to me one April when he was in port. It buzzed and whirred and flashed and changed direction when you called to it, no matter if in English or Nipponese. It was a curiosity for a week, then went, boxed again, up on the shelf forever. It came with all its parts and demanded nothing more. I was grateful for the stranger’s generosity but unimpressed.

In “Birdville” and later in the swamps of 1950’s Lower Alabama I had fewer toys than I wanted, but probable more than I needed.   At my house I learned that the statement “I’m bored” was not accepted as a valid complaint but rather was thought an admission that I was too lazy or too uninspired to think of some play to entertain me. So, I learned to augment our toy box with found things. The day the Catchots next door killed and plucked a huge turkey I seized upon the wing feathers and soon the air above our court of Broadmoor Place swarmed with “hawks” we built of three feathers wired together in a “T” and flown with a few yards of thread.

An old discarded shoe’s leather tongue and two lengths of its shoe string became David’s sling that launched egg-shaped pebbles far into the woods. And thus I proved to myself and to my delight the potential lethality of the shepherd-king’s defense against Goliath. I whittled twigs, with scars to prove it. I hammered wire in miniature black smithy to shape small knives and forks and spoons to complement wooden plates that I carved from rounds sawn from pine boughs. I built covered Conestoga wagons with other sectioned-limb wheels. I joined “Pete” and Dean Cooper, next door, to explore our woods and draw maps of buried and imagined treasure. I dreamed of sailing ships with models and pencil and paper, of automated and robotic automobiles that drove themselves for us and rockets that I would someday build and fly to the ionosphere. I studied chemistry in the kitchen sink with baking soda and vinegar and ecology in a drop of hay-infused creek water under a toy microscope in the wash room. I so equipped my soul with play-tools and my mind with games, that today if I am sometimes forced to sit, waiting, idly it seems, I can busy myself within. I jokingly say, but only half in jest, “Not to worry. I have a rich inner life to entertain me.”

And so my grandchildren benefit from my appreciation of play. Paul Samuel, first grandson, was heard to remark with pleasure, “I’m glad Papa is coming! He plays with me.” But now with them, mine is not the play of children, self-absorbed and selfish. Now the children are my toys, to wonder at and to encourage, and I suppose, I am theirs to use as well, a smiling and benevolent overgrown playmate or a colossal robotic doll. Play was something my grandparents had forgotten how to do by the time I came along, and I regret that deeply.

Yet, I was and am a blessed child of this planet. I am indeed a fortunate man-child, one whose adult work rewards creativity and affords his imagination a wide field in which to play. I would gladly pay, if I had the means and it were required, to do the “work” that I have chosen most seriously to pursue, for I very often find that the best work I do these days, the labor for which I am most highly appreciated—as much now as when I was rightly called “a mere child”— looks so very much like the business of children’s play; and the tools I employ to accomplish great deeds are—of a truth—really my newest toys.

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a "tuned" wive goblet, one of his many science "toys." Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a “tuned” wine goblet, one of his many science “toys.” Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Johnny’s sailor hat, atop his Mexican head, is an image that always reminds me of a truth I only realized later in life: inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them.”

Perhaps it is just our “nature.” Deep within our brain lies a small but powerful organ in the most primitive part of our brain. This master of emotion is called the amygdala. Evolutionary biologists explain that it is a remnant of our hunter-gather past. This feature of our cognitive equipment, they argue, was selected for by the preservation of “our” kind, a drive to protect the gene pool embodied in our family and clan from the danger posed by the “others,” who do not value or bear our genotype. The amygdala is source of the unthinking start we experience when we see out of the corner of our eye a sinuous shadow in the woods. Before we can think “stick” the primitive part of our brain shouts “Snake! Run!” and our heart races and our muscles contract with an unannounced rush of ephedrine. This is the famous “fight or flight” syndrome.   Thus, we might say, “It’s only nature” when we wish to justify our fears of others, just as we might claim it is natural to feel our heart race at slithering shadows.

I call for a new resolution: Question instinct! Examine intuition! I challenge what is “natural.” I contend that all that we call “natural” is not necessarily good, healthy or right. Too much adrenaline will stress the heart and other vital organs unnecessarily.  Moreover, morality is decidedly unnatural. Much of ethics is counter-intuitive. Consider the Judaeo-Christian injunction to empathy and doing good to all, even those who would harm you. Indeed in the Levitical law the Almighty enjoins us, “When an alien lives with you in your land do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens.” Apparently, divine admonition is insufficient to cause us to modify our behavior. The problem is not that we do not know what is the right thing to do; rather the problem is simply in doing the right thing. It often is amygdala versus cortex, fear against reason. Too often our lower nature wins.

Sad that, while we live in a different technological world that is so distant from the archaic horizon where our brain arose, we are still captive to the automatic, instinctive, intuitive “natural” brain of the first humans. What Jeffrey Kluger wrote about worry is true about our unreasoning xenophobia. He remarked in a Time feature article, “The residual parts of our primitive brains may not give us any choice beyond fight or fleeing. But the higher reasoning we’ve developed over millions of years gives us far greater—and far more nuanced—choices.”

Ironically, the very clannishness of our species may have made possible a way to reveal who we really are and where we have come from. I am fortunate to know my lineage, the genealogy of the “Matteson’s,” at least in America. Thanks in no small measure to the research of cousin Porter Matteson, I am aware that ten generations ago, Henry Matteson (1646-1690), called “The Immigrant” arrived in Rhode Island around 1666 at age twenty. Two or three years later he married Hanna Parsons recently arrived from England. I am designated J.411.a in the family record, tenth generation three hundred forty years here on this continent.   Most who bear my family name in the United States are descended from Henry, who is reported to have originated in Denmark. It gives a strange irrational satisfaction to know where one’s forefather lived so long ago.   Yet, the plain fact is that no matter how long one’s family has been in the America’s they immigrated here at some time.

A Genetic Decoder Ring  Recently I read that a project was underway to determine where all of humanity migrated from the first reaches of prehistory. I gave myself a sixtieth birthday present when I purchased on-line a participation kit. I was as expectant as the time that I sent off box tops for a decoder ring.

I went to the mail box expectantly every day. I had a premonition that the kit would arrive soon, and there it was, in the over-sized compartment of the communal mail box. I was sure what it was from the return address: “National Geographic Society.” I could barely restrain myself from tearing open the brown cardboard box immediately, but my prefrontal cortex did its work and reigned in my impulsiveness with an appropriate, rational inhibition. “Later when you can give it my full attention,” it told me. The rest of me agreed reluctantly.

Later that evening, I did allow myself to unpack the shipping box. Inside was a strikingly illustrated carton, six by nine, that bore the silhouetted image of a lone man walking an empty landscape. This figure suggested to me the unknown ancestor or ancestors who more than two thousand generations ago fathered all who would live today, all we could call human. From what I read, I concluded that this earth, the Adamah, is such a harsh place, at times, that only one family has survived from that time 60,000 years ago. Gone are the thick muscular children of the cold dwellers whose bones were first found in the Neanderthal; gone, too, are the tiny children of Florens; and gone are all the other hominids, all the other man-like creatures that have walked on two legs on this unforgiving and lethal planet. What is more, only one clan, the offspring of one Homo sapiens survives, a man who lived in north east Africa about sixty millennia ago. We humans are the children, the great-many-times-over grand children, the progeny of one individual or a small family. For good reason geneticists call this man “Adam.” The word is a Biblical Hebrew name that meant originally both “man”-kind and “earthling.”

Hnry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religioous leader Roder Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Phot source NPS www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

Henry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religious leader Roger Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Photo source NPS http://www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

I conclude after deep reflection that, no matter how superficially different the “other” earth dwellers that I encounter on my way, we are family, the Family of Man. In fact, “they” are actually “us.” This is what Johnny’s hat taught me those many years ago, and for that additional gift, I thank him.

Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

My first friend was a Mexican. It was early in a long life, so it was well before I learned that this detail should matter. Before I was informed that “they” are not “us.” Johnny Hernandez, or Juan, if I were to speak more precisely, was a few years my senior and befriended me, the skinny one, “El Flaco,” during my days in the Birdville housing projects. I recall very few images of his face, the memories of early childhood corroded by decades. Only the back of his head and neck are vivid. They remain a vision of a fine round shape studded with the short black stubble of a crew cut and topped by a blazingly white, perpetual navy seaman’s cap, its upturned cuff of a brim carefully pulled into an oval and worn slightly canted to the right. When I think on it, it brings to mind the cap worn by Popeye the Sailor Man of the cartoons. But Johnny was more than a cartoon.

I say that Johnny was a “Mexican,” although I really never knew on which side of the border he was born, whether in Alabama or some other US state or in one of the states of Mexico like Coahuila, Chihuahua, or Sonora. It never occurred to me to ask, so we never spoke of it. It would not have mattered anyway since I had no concept of a state or a country then, nor of the significance of the information.

Johnny was just my big friend who looked after me in the communal meadow where the neighbor kids climbed and swung from the ancient oaks, played chase and ball and roamed. I was his “Swinn-fendered” friend too who rode on the back of his bike up and down Flamingo Drive, my legs outstretched to avoid entanglement in the spokes or sprocket and chain. It was he who picked me up when I lacerated by calf on a broken bottle in the commons and who carried me bleeding on his back, nearly soiling his pristine cap in the process of my rescue. I still bear a white line of a scar with four pair of pale dots as outriders where the staples went through the skin to effect a closure of the muscle and other tissue. It is a constant reminder that my memory of the experience is real and of the reality of Johnny’s kindness and friendship.

Maracas Phot credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

Maracas Photo credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

The truth is that Johnny is a friend from the dawn of memory when all things that I still retain are mist-covered and rose-hued; he was part of the days before I went off to school and learned the cruelties of the playground, the will to power that is the feckless desire of nations. Thus, only later did I conclude the country of origin of Johnny’s family from reconstructed evidence: the souvenir maracas that always rested on the telephone table by the stairs that exulted in colorful painted and fluid script, “Mexico!”; the strange way Johnny said the word, “Meheeko” when I asked about them; the sweet but indecipherable speech he used when he spoke to Senora ‘Ernandez; the exotic aromas of onion, garlic and cumin that wafted like a halo around her as she stood in the doorway of her cocina next to the hand-tinted print of Jesus of the sacred heart that hung above the dinning table. She was a short, very tan lady who reminded me of a younger version of my beloved grandmother. She never said a word to me, only smiled when I came calling on Johnny.

Señor Hernandez I saw only on the weekend and always in a cotton-ribbed undershirt and khaki twill pants. Often he held a newspaper in his hand when he greeted me at the door, his smile barely visible through a black moustache peppered with graying hairs. “Hello, Sammy. Johnny will be down in a minute,” he would say. Then turning to the stairs he would shout across the maracas something that I could not understand that could have sounded like “¡Oye, Juanito! Ven aquí! Tu amiguito esté aquí.” Then he ignored me as he returned to his newspaper. In a few minutes I would see the white seaman’s cap sail down the staircase with my friend suspended underneath.

Despite his friendly demeanor, Johnny’s father frightened me a little, as did all of the unfamiliar Dads in the neighborhood. His mother I did not know at all since she never spoke to me. Thus, I was never invited to sample any of the dishes she always seemed to be preparing in the back room of the apartment. Not until I had moved on from Birdville and out to the swamps on the Bay and had deserted my Spanish-speaking friend did I even taste “Mexican food.”

My first taste of Mexico came from Mrs. Adams, known behind her back as “Mrs. Atom Bomb” for her volatile temperament, who was my desperate sixth grade teacher at South Brookley Elementary School, and who was the unlikely source of my initiation into Latino cuisine. She opened a small tin can of tamales and warmed them in an electric skillet she had set up next to the cloakroom door during an otherwise forgettable social studies unit on Central America. It was my first and only taste of Mexico for many years. Her culinary experiment unfortunately missed the mark as I and my classmates were put off by the nondescript taste of the greasy pork blobs held together with translucent corn husks and masa glue. I looked at the faces of my peers and saw there the same repulsion that I felt. Nevertheless, I knew better than to hold my nose as I had done to impress Mary Louise Thompson of the long platinum hair when Mrs. Adams had read the story of Lazarus in our morning Bible reading a few weeks earlier. “Sammy Mat’son, meet me in the cloakroom!” She had demanded. My penance: to stand alone, banished for an hour after a severe chastisement for irreverence.  I was unimpressed by the food, not only by its taste but also by its unhappy association with the nearby closet.

On the other hand I was very much impressed by the appliance she had brought to school for the occasion. I had never seen such a device before nor had Juan, I suspected. I wished he were there to see it. The skillet was manufactured by General Electric whose motto—“Progress is our most important product”—was emblazoned just below the trademark. From the demonstration I concluded that if tamales were all a Mexican chiquito had to eat, it was no wonder why he was starving. It was also clear to me why he surely and earnestly longed to emigrate northward across the river to find real food such as I enjoyed.

For a long time afterward I thought of Johnny’s nameless cousins whenever I was admonished by Mother to eat everything on my plate. “Remember all of the starving children who are going to bed hungry tonight while you throw away food.” Thus, I internalized the lesson of nonsensical consumption on behalf of the huddled and hungry masses of the world. I learned to feel a sense of global obligation whenever I sat at table, one I discharged faithfully with “Please pass the mashed potatoes and the gravy” and by manfully cleaning my plate.

It would be necessary for me to abandon the South and migrate west before I could really taste the flavor of “Tex Mex” and fall in love with chili peppers. During my college years, however, I subsisted on Tuesday night enchiladas at El Chico Mexican Restaurant. What is more, summers—while I was in college—were spent in Texas, too, where I received basic training in extreme “southern” cooking, that is, cuisine that came from south of the Rio Grande. The city of San Antonio was where my palate acquired its affinity (at five for a dollar) for the crisp, delicious melded flavors of meat, corn tortilla and greenery. I crunched contentedly and  I audibly blessed the unknown genius who invented the taco. I thanked God for my good fortune to happen on the crispy Mexican sandwich at last. In the Alamo City one can not escape the scent of Latin spice, but in Mobile in my youth we did not know of such “ethnic” or “immigrant” cuisine, Mexican, Chinese or even Italian.

I have reflected on the oft-asked question: what does it mean to say “I am an American?”   Almost all of the people I meet are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Only some have come to North America earlier than others; only some under more affluent or respectable circumstances than others.

The “Mexicans” and other Spanish-speaking Mesoamericans, as well as Middle Eastern speakers of Arabic or Farsi surged to our republic at the end of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century it was merely different peoples: the Irish, and the Italians, and other Middle Europeans. A century earlier the British and the Spanish and the French came to the “New World”—and Africans. Some immigrants came willingly; some were compelled. From the first European colonization of North American until the trade in human life was outlawed in the United States in 1802, twelve and a half million persons were forced to immigrate to this continent as slaves, 10.7 million surviving the journey.

“El Flacho” a.k.a Sammy, Johnny’s amigo. Family photo ca.1953

By whatever means we came or whenever was the day, none found a welcome from the “others” who had preceded him. I have read of the resentment of the Irish Catholics who dared to settle in Protestant New England.   I have heard of the scorn of freed men in the hearts of their former masters during the “Reconstruction” of the South. The first inhabitants of America who had themselves immigrated here ten to twenty thousand years earlier did not welcome the avaricious “white” men and apparently for good reason. Inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them” and in the process miss out on so much, I fear. The thought saddens me and I wish for all, the same innocent friendship I knew in Johnny, joyfully ignorant of our irrelevant respective and divergent patrimonies.

In the succeeding post next week I will examine why the human compulsion to tribe is both natural and immoral. Until then, I offer this sweet comradeship that many would disdain: my first friend was, most likely, an alien but also a most kind human child, who befriended me without condition.

The intangible gift received by the skinny kid (pictured above), now a man grown old, he will forever treasure just as surely as if he still held his friend’s hat in his very hands.

The Fish Camp

Proud Sammy, the Fisher boy, ca. 1954. Family photo, via Cindy Matteson King

Proud Sammy, the Fisher boy, ca. 1954. Family photo, via Cindy Matteson King

Today, I am an indifferent fisherman. I suspect knowledge of that fact would be a small disappointment to my grandparents, were they alive today to acknowledge it. Pa Moates and Ma Bertie were themselves gifted and serious anglers, who more than subsisted on the bounty of the creeks and rivers of lower Alabama. Although, I think of the two, Ma was a trace better at outwitting the fish, judging from the photos of her holding gargantuan bass.

Fishing is best when the sun is just up, or so Pa claimed. So they often stayed in the plain cabins under the pines at the Fish Camp. The little two-room-with-a-bath boxes were paneled inside with Masonite, had cold water and a hot plate kitchen and were located less than a hundred yards from the river. Bertie’s sister, my great Aunt Kittie, was the proprietress and manager of the camp and its small diner. Fisherman would bring their catch to her, gutted, the scales and heads removed, of course, and Kittie would fry it up along with her famous hush puppies. Served with iced tea it was a banquet. Aunt Kittie seemed to me to resemble the proverbial “horse that was rode hard and put up wet.” Her face was a pale gathering of wrinkles resting in a nest of gray hair. But her dark eyes twinkled with an impish delight as if she were thinking on a secret or a joke that the rest of the world did not know.

Kittie’s Fried Fish and Hushpuppies

One afternoon I helped her serve in her diner when a pair of fishin’ bubbas brought in their catch for her to cook. They smelled of beer and looked a little unsteady on their feet. I became convinced of their inebriation when they began to flirt with Aunt Kittie, fifteen years senior of the eldest bill-capped angler and so unattractive to my more sober eyes. I concluded that their befuddled vision and questionable judgment was not a total lost, however, when one of the scraggly bearded diners, after he had finished his fish and corn bread, hooked his head twice to me, leaned to his left reaching into his jeans pocket and slapped a silver dollar down on the oil cloth of the table. “He deserves a tip, Kittie.” Then he winked at Aunt Kittie, who smiled a crooked smile and nodded to me to pick it up. Fishing was a gentle sport, I reasoned, that seemed to bring out the best in most people, sober or not.

Pa took me fishing a few times; even fewer of those times it was just the two of us. We stepped into the boat sending waves out across the river. I shivered as I saw the stream darken in a slithering burst of water moccasins that had been resting in the shade of the gunnels. I pointed at them but Pa only chuckled at my goose flesh and wide eyes. They were only part of the nature of the place. It was no matter, Pa did not swim where he fished.

The motor at the square end of the john boat cleared its throat with the first two pulls on the rope Pa made, then began to sing with a puff of pale blue smoke smelling of burnt oil that rose from the tea brown water at the stern. Pa skillfully revved the little Evenrude and turned the bow of the boat toward the center line of the river. The water parted before us in a sharp “vee” than went out softly and lapped against the shore where we had passed.   Soon the motor’s monotonous “aaah” lulled me into a quiet reverie. I watched the palmetto plants under the Spanish moss-hung cypress trees slip past us. On the knees and snags that stuck up from the still water an occasional box turtle lolled in the sun or a snake bird perched; the strange bird was silhouetted like a crooked cross as it dried its wings in the sun. I looked down into the water and could see the white sandy bottom and occasionally thought I saw a fish. I wondered if the word had got around the fish gossip-line that the fisherman was out.

Soon we were at one of Pa’s favorite fishing holes. I watched Pa bait his hook. I was amazed that he did not hook his big hands; they shook so with “the palsy.” I hooked my earthworm as he had, with steadier but more fumbling fingers. We cast the lines a few yards from the boat. I watched the red and white bobber float idly on the surface. I was tempted to lift it from the water and cast again, but I knew that Pa would chide my impatience with “You can’t catch a fish with your hook out of the water.” So I sat quietly and gazed at the ripples on the water and watched the sun play at decorating the side of the boat. I could see the line beneath the cork going down and then vanishing in the glare.

The Ones That Got Away

Pa did not speak much. He rarely spoke at all and almost never when fishing. Back at the camp he enjoyed a good joke, however, preferably a fishing joke. “The warden suspected a fellow of using dynamite when he fished, so he arranged to go out with him one day. Sure enough, the fellow picks up a stick of dynamite. Lights it and throws it into the lake. The warden shouts, ‘You can’t do that!’ Then the fellow lights another stick and tosses it to the warden, ‘You gonna fish or talk?’” I can still hear Pa’s laughter, slow, deep, like the sound of thunder from heat lightning over the horizon. I loved telling Pa a new joke; if he had heard it before, he still laughed, whether out of courtesy to me or for the pure pleasure at the humor of it all.

My line went taut and then began to write “s” on the surface of the placid stream. My heart jumped and I reeled in the line. I felt the tension of the fish pulling hard to get away. I reeled and pulled; then I jerked the line and heard a disappointing “snap!” The line hung limp.

“You lost him when you jerked your line.” Pa said in a slow drawl.

“He was a bigg’n wasn’t he, Pa?” I jabbered.

“Sure. The biggest are the hardest to land. Don’t fret none. I’ve lost a few myself. There are more fish to catch out there. . . . But you’re gonna need a hook. Let me see your line a minute.”

We fished all morning and into the afternoon. We caught a mess of stupid perch and crappie but did not boat any of the wily bass. They are still in the lake, I suppose.

In Appreciation of Fishermen

I appreciate the taste of a well caught fish. I know that somewhere some fisherman has exploited all of his guile in a metaphor for all the rest of life to wrest a living and sustenance from the bounty of the sea, the river, or the lakes of this world. It comforts me both that we, humans, are near the top of the food chain, but also that there are many fish that get away. Often they are the biggest and the most desirable.

Fishing is surely a sanctified preoccupation, seeing how the apostles, Peter, James and John, were fishermen who lived by angling. I imagine the lakes of heaven calm and peaceful like that day on the Fish Camp river, with a strange threesome—Pa and Ma and Saint Peter, the Big Fisherman—sitting serenely in the Jesus boat wetting their hooks, angling eternally and joyfully for the biggest fish that ever got away.

Bertie MOates, Sammy's grandmother. Now there was a fisherwoman and a grandmother. Family photo 1858, courtesy Cindy Matteson King.

Bertie Moates, Sammy’s grandmother. Now there was a fisherwoman and a grandmother! Family photo 1958, courtesy Cindy Matteson King.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)  Photo credit: www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/maya-angelou

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) Photo credit: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/maya-angelou

Eleven years ago I attended, with my wife, a speech by Maya Angelou at the University of North Texas. It was an inspiring ninety minutes that included a slam poet Joaquin Zihuatanejo, a personal friend and a powerful voice for La Raza and the Chicano experience. Much was made of words, little swords of truth, even to the point of encouraging the listener to write their own works.

The message was not lost on me. I was inspired to compose a poem in response to Maya’s challenge. Of course, one does not write a poem or prose to be read in your closet, speaking only to the walls. Therefore, I sent the poem to the university sponsor of the event. She insisted (to my embarrassment) that we send a framed copy to Maya Angelou herself, which we did. I do not know what Dr. Angelou thought of my work, but no matter, it was a positive response to what she proposed we (read I) do. Last year she died. Thus, I will never know.

Given the events in our nation in the last few weeks and my post last week that reveal how far we have come in race relations (not far it seems), I offer this poem for your reflection and your inspiration. Write your verse and share it however you may.

On Hearing Maya Angelou

I would live a large and unabridged life,
Not a quiet, small, condensed, digested
Version, read so safe, content, and cowardly,

A life as large as black mommas singing
Gospel hymns and William C. Handy tunes,
The poesy of black humanity’s pain.

Think not that Angelou could sing the blues
With such wide mirth and clarion voice unless
She first had bound it—to speak at last for us.

Think not that you alone stand soaked with rain
And search in vain for Noah’s sign above,
A lost rainbow-hope in clouds of dark struggle.

Think not that Christ the hope of Easter morn
Secured without its price of Thursday’s long
Night of olivine doubt and Good Friday’s cross.

Rainbows come only when our own sun winks
Through the storm and back refracts its wan light
To show to us gossamer spectra within.

I would live a large and unabridged life
Where pain and joy together teach me what
A human is: black, brown, white, bold, joy-filled, large…free.

Joaquin Zihuatanejo, slam poet. Photo creddit: /twitter.com/thepoetjz

Joaquin Zihuatanejo, slam poet. Photo credit: https://twitter.com/thepoetjz

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