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Tell Me Thy Name

A Historical Inquiry into the Life of James Marion Moates
Part the First

As I walk down the hallway in my Brother Dale’s house, a pair of pictures in ornate Victorian frames captures my attention. I examine the Ambrotype of a man. The face that gazes back at me is that of a young groom who at age 23 has already seen much suffering and hardship. As I learn from the notes typed by my mother and affixed to the rear of the frames, this is James Marion (Miley) Moates, my great grandfather. He does not smile, perhaps because of the customary formality of the 1866 wedding portrait, or perhaps it might be more than that. He had seen too much. He was born 3 November 1843 under dubious circumstances. His mother claimed the name “Miley,” as documented by the 1850 census of Walton County, Florida, where he is listed as “James Miley,” living with his mother Rachel, the head of the household. They appear in the enumeration adjacent to the family next door, the Noah Moates clan. Apparently she went by “Miley” even though there has never been any evidence of a legal marriage nor a legitimate spouse.

So who was his father? That has been a mystery for generations in the Moates family. Family stories are generous, suggesting that she was abandoned by an abusive husband. But I wonder. At the same time, I am intrigued. I must also agree with the declaration of my eldest daughter that “somehow knowing more about my ancestor tells me more about who I am.” I am possessed by an overwhelming desire to learn more. I suspect that he was born a bastard child of an illicit union with an unknown Miley. “In ‘the old days’ if children were born outside of marriage their legal surname was that of their mother, not their father” according to professional genealogists. (http://braswellgenealogy.blogspot.com/2007/10/bastardy-bonds.html) Illegitimate births were so common that “Bastardy Bonds” were issued routinely as an early form of child support.

 But how can I be sure? Are we really related to the Miley tribe? We do not want to impugn anyone’s reputation—even centuries late—without adequate evidence. James Marion later took the name of his grandfather Noah Moates, a respected farmer and Justice of the Peace, repudiating his father Miley. We in my family treasure a document that is a penmanship practice that reads, copied out several times in lovely nineteenth century script, “Tell me thy name and tell me now, James Marion Moates.” Indeed, he is listed in the 1860 census in his grandfather’s household as “James Jr. Moates, age 16, son, born Alabama.”

The clues of his journey are subtle and sometimes misleading. For example, James wears the uniform of a confederate soldier in the portrait, but it must be an affection borrowed for the occasion, since it is a new dress frock coat of a sergeant showing no wear. Jim Moates never ascended above the rank of private in his less-than-illustrious military career, and the sartorially splendid attire in the wedding portrait exceeded—by far—anything he ever owned. He was a typical volunteer: an untrained and sometimes undisciplined private soldier, owing more allegiance to family that to “The Cause.” Indeed, he and Uncle Francis Marion Miley were both reported AWOL, then as deserters. Their unauthorized leave occurred when Grandpa Noah’s Brother Jonathan Moates, a man in his fifties who had also enlisted with the younger men in the 1st Florida Infantry (Confederate Army), lay mortally ill in hospital in Chattanooga. He ultimately died on 22 December 1862 after months of being listed “Absent, sick” on the muster rolls. “Noah Moates, bro.”—according to the muster cards—claimed his body in the early spring. Subsequently, Junior and Uncle Frank must have accompanied Grandfather Noah in carrying their Uncle’s body home to Euchee Anna, Walton County, Florida, a three hundred and fifty mile journey. “Uncle Jon-A” (as I imagine his affectionate nickname) was a tragic figure. He had fought in the Second Creek war in 1837 and had not originally declared his intention to join up due to his age, but ultimately did so, perhaps in part to look after Noah’s “boys.” He was recently divorced from his second wife and living with his brother’s family in 1860. The irony is stark that the old soldier was felled by illness (dysentery and measles were epidemic among the rebel troops) rather than in combat. The two infantrymen did finally return from their desertion and did rejoin their units without any apparent disciplinary action, just in time to participate in the ill-fated battle of Missionary Ridge, Tennessee. Calamity piled atop disaster. On the slopes of the ridge James Marion broke his leg during the battle on November 25, 1863. (Curiously, the next day was the first official federal observation of Thanksgiving Day according to President Lincoln’s decree. I wonder if the fact was of any import to Jim, even though he surely was thankful to be alive and to have survived without losing his limb, since the removal of a limb was the most common surgical procedure in battlefield hospitals according to historians of such things.  He evaded capture, however, unlike his namesake uncle and comrade-in-arms Francis Marion Moates, who—after capture—was shipped to Louisville, Kentucky and then on to Rock Island, Maryland where he was released after “taking the pledge” of allegiance to the Union and after volunteering for duty on the frontier, a commitment he apparently never fulfilled.

Meanwhile, after several months of convalescence James recovered in time to fight in the battles of Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee where he also was ultimately captured in December 1864, yet another incidence of hardship. In a strange cycle of history, I and my children now reside near where his military career ended. Later in life Jim would recount that he was “captured at Nashville and held under guard for five months,” that is, until the end of hostilities.  Time and time again I have passed the spot along Harding Pike where young James (He was 21 year old at the time.) was apprehended. Reports of the battle that broke the back of the Confederate Army of Tennessee are gory and devastating. Ultimately, James returned to Euchee Anna, near modern Defuniak Springs, Florida and began or resumed courting Miss Ruth Ann Dew, preacher Thomas Spencer Dew’s daughter. But he surely carried memories of death and defeat with him. Nevertheles, within a year after returning they were married and posed for the photographs that captured my attention. (See the gallery above.)

But the questions keep coming: Where was he born? From time to time J. M. Moates would answer alternatively “Montgomery County” or “Pike County, Alabama” when he was asked his birthplace. In one census of veterans he reported the site of his nativity as “Briarville, Alabama.”  There has never been a Briarville in Alabama. However, a Briar Hill in Pike County is still identified by a place name on maps; it is located near (less than 15 miles from) the several aliquots of land in Section 6, Township 13, Range 20 in Montgomery County east of Ramah that his grandfather and other kinsmen had purchased beginning in about 1825, nearly twenty years before his birth. We can put this mis-identification off to a faulty childhood memory, since he departed Alabama at age of four, or to the surveyor’s mishearing. In the next post I will explore how we can deduce the precise location of his infancy and toddlerhood.

We will also examine in the next post the identity of four Miley men who are potential candidates for Rachel Moates’ partner. These individuals are all the sons of Robert Miley (1762) and his wives Mary Goodman and Elizabeth Smoak of South Carolina. It is no spoiler to name these men: Samuel Miley (1790), William Goodman Miley (1802) and Robert Z. (or G.) Miley (1816), sons of Robert and Mary Goodman. In addition, Andrew Barnwell Miley (1818) son of the union of Robert and Elizabeth S. Miley lived in the neighboring county and we should not dismiss him without examination. I will adopt the practice of adding the year of the individual’s birth after his name as a means of helping identify the player, since often family names are shared and recycled in succeeding generations. In this investigation, I have run upon the difficulties common to genealogical research, struggles that plague every inquiry. These stumbling blocks range from misspellings of names and faulty transcriptions of manuscript, as for example in “Robert Z.” being confused with “Robert G.” to illogical mistakes of prior genealogical researchers, such as confusing a daughter in a census list with a wife.  Reconstructing family trees sometimes requires guess work and deduction, but hopefully not fabrication. We are indeed “connecting the dots” of often sparely available information. Nevertheless, there are facts that drive the conclusions.

But in addition, we have at our disposal a tool unavailable to prior generations, namely, DNA and genetic tracing. I and my two siblings submitted samples to 23andMe™ for DNA testing. Our DNA was compared with the thousands of genomes stored in their data base. They have discovered at this writing 1425 genetic data matches. These are my DNA cousins. Among those are 198 who share DNA segments with me and known descendants of the Miley family of Robert Miley (1762) of Barnwell County, South Carolina. So, “Yes, Virginia,” we are cousins to the Mileys. As an assurance of the conclusion, however, I have submitted a sample to AncestryDNA™ for independent testing and am awaiting the results. In a subsequent post we will examine the details of the analysis of our genetic linkage to the Miley clan that includes determining the heritage of individuals who share Miley genetic markers and in recruiting known Miley descendants to submit samples for DNA analysis. Lest the reader grow too impatient allow me to disclose that the early indications are that the descendants of James Marion Moates are also descendants of the Robert Miley and Mary Goodman family.

In a final post we will assemble all the evidence in the style of a criminal investigation. The case will examine the means, motive, opportunity, any exculpatory or incriminating evidence as well as a theory of the “crime” for all the potential “suspects.” Hopefully a single individual will emerge whom the evidence implicates. Thus, while not an air-tight case, we will be able with some confidence to establish his identity.

As Sherlock Holmes famously stated “We must fall back upon the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

Meanwhile, in English class, Mrs. Thelma Vanderweiss (not her real name) subjected us to a regimen of daily reading of verse in the sincere hope that “culture” would take root in our juvenile minds.  We read and committed to memory sections of “Annabell Lee” by the tintinnabulating poet Edgar Allen Poe and other “classics” of nineteenth century American literature.  She furthermore inflicted upon us one of her favorite “modern” compositions, Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.”  Mrs. Vanderwiess , a tiny woman with a tyrannical air, was the whitest woman that I ever met.  Her skin was pale, her pallor accentuated by her fashionably powdered cheeks.  She was, indeed, fair skinned from her high forehead to her diminutive feet, but I intend more than that; her air epitomized to me the aristocratic pretension that I thought Mobile’s white society espoused.  She always wore large diamond rings on her fingers, white pearls and a demur dress or business suit; and black pumps after Labor Day.   She seemed perpetually offended that she must attempt to instruct such uncultivated pupils as we.   She rarely smiled in my presence.  I recall how she drilled the class daily in the recitation of “The Congo” for weeks.  It was to be the centerpiece of a school-wide assembly.  The sound of her more than her image haunts me still; it is her pointed-toe shoe stomping the rhythm on the worn pine floors of the now razed Robert E. Lee High School building where we were holding classes.   “Stomp—THEN I SAW THE CONGO—stomp—CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK—stomp— . . . .   Do you feel the beat?  All together now! Stomp— CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST—stomp— WITH A GOLDEN  TRACK—stomp. . . .  That’s it!  You’re getting it!”

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Vachel Lindsay source: Unknown-Modern American Poetry website, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

The rhythm was exciting and, despite my aversion to the manner of Mrs. Vanderweiss, I fell in love with the power and music of the poetry.   Lindsay’s rhythms were intoxicating.  There was jazz in the meter.  I suspect that the poet was sympathetic to the plight of the inhabitants of the Congo, but his voice was not the voice of a black man even though it had the power of the beat of the human heart.  His verse was a minstrel voice dressed up in black-face chanting a white man’s song.  It was only pretending to be in the Style Africaine.  Even a young teen such as I could discern the patronizing and denigrating tone of the poem entitled “The Congo, A Study of the Negro Race” with stanzas named “Their Basic Savagery,”  and “Their Irrepressible High Spirits,” and “The Hope of their Religion.”    I was embarrassed but could not explain why when we chanted lines like, “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,” and “A good old negro in the slums of the town/ Preached at a sister for her velvet gown….”  I did not know any Africans nor did I really know any “colored people” in my town, and thus, I had no way to test my misgivings.  But something seemed odd to me about the characterizations and words I was chanting.

I might have marveled then, as I do now, if I had known of the African community around the corner. In a curious and ignored twist of history a transplanted African village existed for a century less than ten miles from where our map hung in my school room.  I might have felt more connected to Africa and to history if I had known of Africatown.  As it happened, in 1860, in the year before Alabama’s secession from the union and the subsequent “War between the States,” a swaggering Mobile ship builder, Captain Timothy Meaker, bragged that, although the importation of slaves had been illegal in the United States since 1808 and had been declared a capital offense equivalent to piracy in 1820, he had built a sloop fast enough to out run any Yankee gunboat.   He could defy the jack-leg Feds and meddling abolitionists.  He made good on his boast when he handed the Clotilde over to a Captain William Foster of Maine for the purpose of acquiring a cargo of humans.

Foster had no difficulty in securing the “merchandize.”  The Dahomey tribesmen who resided in what is present day Benin happily sold their Tarkbar captives to the captain for $100 per head.  Unfortunately for Meaker, when the Clotilde reached Mobile, the Federal troops were waiting.  He sailed the sloop up the Mobile River, herded most of his human cargo onto a barge, and shipped them to Montgomery.    Then he ran the ship aground and burned it.   Later the thirty-two Africans that he had reserved for his own use were cut loose and settled on his property, freed presumably to avoid his being caught red-handed.  When the war broke out, the displaced African nucleus was joined by others who had escaped their captivity up state.  Together, they established a discrete community with a distinctly African culture just three miles from downtown Mobile.  Known locally as

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Abache’ and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis at Africatown. Mobile, Alabama in the 1910s. Source: Emma Langdon Roche, Histroic Sketches of the South (Knickerboker Press, 1914) Public Domain

“Africatown,” it persisted until World War II as an identifiable community.  This was the last instance in US history of the importation of slaves into North America.  It seemed so long ago, but the last survivor of the Clotilde “passed” only thirteen years before I was born.  Meaker was apprehended but was never convicted, the Civil War intervening.  African history happened next door and I never knew it.  Perhaps those who taught me did not know it either, or perhaps they ignored it since they thought it irrelevant.  I realize now that I really knew nothing about Africa or Africans until I met Duke Badejogbin in college.

Duke was a Nigerian.  He was a Yoruba.  He was my brother in Christ.  When we met in my second year of college, I began to learn something of what was Africa.  He was one of the first missionaries from the Nigerian Baptist Convention to the country of Sierra Leon, more than a thousand miles up the coast of West Africa.

“I realized that I needed more education if I were to minister to the people the way our Father wanted me to,” he said, pronouncing “education” with a precision that inspired in me a new appreciation for the word.  “But when I wrote to the mission board to ask to return home, they cut us off completely.  There was no more support.  We were marooned without enough money to buy food or a ticket for the boat home.  We sold everything we had, down to the pans as small as this,” he showed me the pink palm of his left hand as he made a slicing motion at his wrist with his right. “But God is good.  He brought us home and now He has brought me here to study.”

I learned from Duke how he had reluctantly left his children and pregnant wife in the care of his family and ventured to the United States.  I agonized with him and prayed with him when word came of the coup back home and how Elizabeth, his wife, had fled with their children to the bush.  Then I rejoiced with him when he learned of the birth of his son Ayo and at the news of their safety.  Soon Elizabeth and Ayo joined him while the older children remained with his parents.

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Yoruba Ceremony Nigeria. Source: heartmendersmagazine.blogspot,com

He taught me rudimentary elements of his Yoruba culture, how his family name was a badge of honor signifying that his ancestor was the friend and advisor of the tribal ruler who danced the Jogbin dance with the chief, how his family did actually live in a mud hut with a thatched roof and no door.  Thus, I learned of the custom of clapping your hands at the doorway instead of knocking on the nonexistent panel.  He taught me that sanitized running water, air conditioning, electricity and automobiles that effortlessly rode on paved streets were luxuries that I took for granted without thinking.  It was no stereotyped lie; many Nigerians did not enjoy these amenities.  I found nothing to belittle him about.  Instead, I admired this short wiry man, his courage and resilience.

From Duke, I heard of Schweitzer’s philosophy and ethic: that all life was sacred and we must exercise a grand reverence for life.  When a visitor was about to swat a mosquito, the Nobel laureate is reported to have cautioned, “Take thought!  Remember that you are a guest in this country.”  One Sunday afternoon, my fiancé and I were visiting Duke and Elizabeth in their apartment on Second Street near the black church that was sponsoring their stay in Waco.  Suddenly, Duke pulled off his slipper and flung it across the room.  I turned just in time to see a cockroach skitter behind a bookcase.  I asked him, “What would Dr. Schweitzer say?” He replied sheepishly, “That is philosophy. This is different.  I must think about Ayo now.”  Then he smiled.  His look reminded me of what he had told me, “Ayo means ‘joy’.  As Isaac means ‘laughter’ because Sarah and Abraham laughed when he was born, so we called our son ‘Ayo’ because he brought joy to Elizabeth’s and to my heart.”  At that moment we were not Yoruba and Alabamian, Nigerian and American; we were brothers.  I began better to understand Africa.  The inhabitants of the continent were people as we are, grown from a different soil but of the same seed, cherishing a different history and culture but with the same needs and longings.

A curious word “stereotype.”  We use a stereoscope to see things in the round.  We listen to stereophonic music to be immersed in the sound.  In stereo we better understand the reality of a thing and it seems more “solid.” But when we harbor a stereotype of a person or place, we substitute a counterfeit death-rigored lie for the living, breathing reality.   I have grown to distrust statements like “All _____ are _____.”

I still despair sometimes.  We cling so jealously to our tribalism and distrust of others not of our clan. “We belong to the European tribe, the Anglo-Irish clan, the Italian family, the French enclave, the Cherokee Nation,” I think I hear us mutter.  “They” are the Africans or the Indians; they are the Whites or the Hispanics, the Asians or the Arabian; they are all a different tribe.

I hear African voices, “We are Tarkbar; they are Dahomey. They killed our ancestors; they sold us to Captain Foster of the tribe of Maine who was just the agent of Captain Timothy Meaker of the clan of Alabama. . . .  We are ‘Kikuyu;’ we are Muingiki, the second Mau Mau; death to the European exploiters.”
I worry that the tyranny of the tribe survives too strong in our breast. Yet, opposing the rule of the clan, of the tribe, of the race, opposing “us or them” stands the Family of Man.  It affirms that we are one species, one humanity.  It is not “us or them,” rather, it is only “us,” or it is nothing.

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Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

The real shape of the Earth is a sphere, and its net of latitude and longitude begins in the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Congo.  This is an appropriate convention of geography.   “Appropriate,” I call it because anthropologists tell us that humanity—Adam and his bride—began their pilgrimage somewhere in east Africa.  Thus, there is ultimately “home.”  Thus the proper map of Africa and of its place in the world would show it at the center of our view of a globe.  On the other hand, anywhere could be the center, for this planet is round.  In spherical geometry one place is as good as another.  What is more, when we look at it aright, we see that the coast of Africa is the complement of North and South America; West Africa fits neatly into the Gulf of Mexico, while the Gulf of Guinea cups Brazil comfortably.  This remarkable fact exists because once, as children are now taught, the whole of all the land was one great Pangean continent.  Later the waters and our history came between us, but the Earth still has no edge, no real border—no border at all, except that which we have drawn between us and the others—except of course for the great oceans and the rivers, like the Congo that yet spills blue across the map and into the sea of our imaginations.

As we grow, we draw our own maps of the world as we imagine it, gathering cartographic “facts” wherever we can, from what we are told and from what we see for ourselves on the journey.  At the end of the middle decade of the twentieth century—just as you might turn a calendar page or flip over a map leaf to discover hidden notes scribbled underneath—I turned over too.  In 1960 I began to understand for the first time that most issues of life and history are more subtle than they would have you believe who perennially view the world only in black and white and explain it all by a simple and comfortable paradigm and in a rigid stereotype.   The world is not peopled by identical copies of even a few types that are easily characterized as “good” or “evil.”

As I turned the calendar page to 1960, I began to suspect, as well, that ignorance was never an impediment to opinion, and uninformed opinion—no matter how emphatically affirmed or taught, or perhaps especially when it is chanted—is ignorance most blatant, most diabolical.  Moreover, ignorance is often chained in the darkness of its own shadow out back while prejudice hawks out front with midway barker shouts of “Hey! Rube!” but it is actually counterfeited knowledge and bogus light within.  I ultimately concluded that we do well to stand in humility before continents of human experience that are dimly known to us and reserve our judgment of those we do not understand.

 

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A map of Africa ca. 1960 source: http://www.timemaps.com

 

The decade that began when I entered the second year of junior high school was one of world-wide political upheaval.  Colonialism and Imperialism, that had flourished for centuries, were rapidly dying in a convulsion of nationalism.  No object better represents that turmoil in my memory than a giant map of the continent of Africa that hung on the wall of my social studies and geography classroom.  I entered eighth grade with an eager expectation of exploring Africa, at least from an ancient wooden school desk, if not from an armchair.  I, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, had “a passion for maps . . . I would put my finger on [a place] and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’”  In my imagination I already had been there.  I put out my finger and traced the boundaries of Africa, of its coastline, of its rivers, of its colorful countries.

 

In profile the continent reminded me of the brow ridge of a skull—somehow human—like that of a brooding silver back gorilla or of a millions-of-years-old Zinjanthropus, like that which Louis Leakey had just reported in National Geographic, the Atlas Mountains marking the hairline, the Gulf of Guinea the empty eye socket.  Or perhaps the shape was more like a Neolithic axe, a war club, wielded by a gigantic unseen hand submerged in the Indian Ocean.  “It looks like a question mark,” I decided at last, albeit a crudely drawn question mark, limned in blue by the Congo and the Nile, and punctuated by Madagascar.  Africa was a stage of eleven and a half million square miles, a macabre circus for a tragedy of European colonies to play that comprised a cast of hundreds of tongues and thousands of tribes and clans, millions of people and a drama of global exploitation.  It had been explored, “discovered” by Europeans of the last century.  I had heard of the great explorers:  David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, especially the latter who famously, nonchalantly posed the inane query after a grueling search for the famous physician, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  There was, of course, a contemporary adventurer-missionary, even if he were a bit elderly by then: Dr. Albert Schweitzer

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Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) source:wikipedia

—physician, theologian, virtuoso organist, Nobel laureate, and humanitarian.  We knew after his capturing the Nobel Peace Prize that this “Reverencer of Life” had returned from France to somewhere in the heart of equatorial Africa—we were not quite sure where—to serve the medical and spiritual needs of his black “junior brothers.”  He was universally lionized in Europe, the United States, and Africa for his unselfish service to—in the European mindset—the hopeless and childlike natives of the “Dark Continent.”  He was regarded as a champion of the “colored races” even though he publicly supported the oppressive French Colonial Government of Equatorial Africa and regarded the indigenous population as inferior to the civilized European “race.”

 

We thought we knew Africa because we visited its jungles for half an hour every Saturday morning in the adventures of “Ramar of the Jungle” and in the film adventures of Tarzan the Ape Man.  I presumed that the entire continent was a dense tangle of vegetation crawling with snakes and crocodiles, ringing with the howl of monkeys and pocked with treacherous pools of quicksand.  In many ways the images suggested to me that Africa was very much like my back yard, my woods, and my swamp. Yet the human inhabitants of this alien world were both like and unlike those I saw in my country.

In the cinemagraphic jungle that I visited each Saturday, Jon Hal, also known by his other stage names of Charles Locher and Lloyd Crane, portrayed the intrepid Doctor Tom Reynolds in black and white reruns from the 1952 and ’53 seasons.  Ramar, whose name we understood to mean “Great White Medicine Man,” ever wearing a pith helmet, epaulet shirt, Bermuda shorts, and a stoic demeanor, weekly battled evil white poachers and thieves, as well as  black “jungle native” voodoo witch doctors.  He, like the real doctor Schweitzer, took care of his “child-like” patients with a benevolent patronage that demonstrated unequivocally the superiority of the European civilization to the savage “native” culture. Every show could be counted on for a leopard-skin-clad woman, some quicksand, or cuts of stock African wildlife photography—slithering snakes or snorting hippos.

The good doctor was assisted in his exploits in many episodes by his comical retainer and guide Willy-Willy played by Nick Stewart, a black actor who had given voice to the character “Lightnin’” on the Amos ‘n Andy radio show.  He was also the voice of B’rer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South.  It seems oddly ironic that Stewart would reach a measure of notoriety portraying such comically subservient and stereotyped roles, then spend the remainder of his career directing the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles where African-American actors performed serious drama and grand theater.  But much that I saw in popular culture regarding Africa, I now know, was a contradictory mixture of truth and fabrication, but that is the nature of entertainment.

Ramar and Willy-Willy did not actually move about the jungle, rather they performed their

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Left to Right: Nick Stewart (as Wiily-Willy), Juanita Moore , and Jon Hall (Ramar) in episode “Savage Challenge” source: it.wp.com/thebiggame hunter.com

exploits on a sound stage in downtown Hollywood, California.  Neither, to my knowledge, ever got within a thousand miles of the jungles.  The animal scenes were spliced in from “spec” shorts shot on location by freelance adventurers.  My more critical adult eye can discern today the different sources as obvious, but for us, the children, the television took us in reality to darkest Africa.  Every child was sure he knew the sounds of the jungle: “Bwana, listen to the drums.  I hear the drums . . .” and then a piercing “koo-koo-koo-kaw-kaw-kaw,” actually the song of the Kookaburra bird.  Unfortunately, the bird never existed in the wilds of the African bush, residing as it does in Australia.  Its sound was appropriated because it sounded “jungle-like” to an inventive sound engineer.  Curiously, truth and fiction melded everywhere.  Ramar, as well as Tarzan, was often called “Bwana,” a legitimate Swahili word meaning “Lord,” or “Sir” or just plain “Mister.”  Yet this appellation was often coupled to the interjection “Ungawa!”  The latter word is a fabrication reputed to have been the brainchild of screenwriter Cyril Hume, who was inspired by the sound of the answer to the question “Where is Paramount Studio?”  The answer: “On Gower”—Boulevard, that is.  Much of what I thought I knew of Africa was like that: a cauldron of dark ignorance containing much speculation, some fabrication, and a few craven lies, but with a pinch of truth just to make the brew palatable.

 

The map of Africa that hung on the classroom wall became an object of infinite irritation.   The multicolor rotogravure print of the “dark continent” was a continent of frustration to me and others who were trying to learn the political geography of the vast continent.  The inconsiderate Africans had begun, in earnest, the practice that they would continue for the rest of the century: continually changing the names; redrawing the boundaries of their countries; declaring their independence here; building a new nation there.  It was all too chaotic for a junior geographer to master.  Nothing seemed to be as tidy any more as the beautiful poster of colonial Africa would suggest.  If the nineteenth century had seemed a sweeping romantic symphony of discovery, then my century resounded with the melded syncopation of jungle drums and bar room jazz.  In a futile attempt at making sense of the splintering African political landscape, my teacher placed beside the brooding map a tack board headed: “Current Events.”   She awarded points for every relevant article we clipped from newspapers and magazines like the Mobile Press Register or Newsweek or Life.  As we entered the class room we would glance up to the board by the map.  “What is the name of the Congo, today?” I heard more than once.

Indeed, the names of the countries began to change that year, as did the geopolitical realities within the former colonies.  In particular, the Belgian Congo disappeared from the map and was replaced by the Republic of the Congo, or was it called the Congo-Brazzaville?  No, wait.  What about Katanga?  Was it a separate nation?  Was Kenya still a British colony or did it go independent over the weekend?   What about Nigeria?

“At least, they haven’t changed the rivers,” I whispered to myself and to anyone standing nearby as I ran my finger up the Nile from Lake Victoria.  Then I followed the blue, tortured track of the Congo west from the savannah near Lake Tanganyika below the heights of the Mitumba Mountains, crossing the equator twice before disgorging into the Atlantic Ocean.  This was then and is today Africa’s most powerful river and, only after the Amazon, the second most voluminous cataract in the world.

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River Congo, Africa source:africa-facts.org

If I had picked up a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I would have agreed with Marlowe, “There was in it a mighty river that you could see on the map resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”  But Conrad’s masterpiece was not on our approved reading list, nor even in the school library.  Neither was Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy readily available.  We learned simply in our social studies text that King Leopold of Belgium had ruled the Free State of the Congo after the United States and thirteen European nations had met in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century and had agreed to permit him to become the protector and overseer of a territory larger than pre-world war Germany.  If we had read Twain’s scathing pamphlet as we can now via the Internet, we would have been scandalized at the atrocities perpetrated against the people of equatorial Africa—atrocities that rival in brutality those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Particularly savage was the practice of severing the right hand of Congolese men, women, and children as punishment for failing to meet the quota of the rubber tax.   They were required to feed the army that terrorized them.  If they failed to cooperate, they were slaughtered wholesale.  Twain’s final words on Leopold are a bitter epitaph that he hoped would soon be appropriated for use: “Here under this gilded tomb lies rotting the body of one the smell of whose name will still offend the nostrils of men ages and ages [hence].”  When I learned of the exploitation, murder, cannibalism, and abject slavery that Leopold’s agents practiced on the hapless inhabitants of the Congo basin, much of it brokered initially by Henry Stanley, I thought that, if I were Congolese, I would forever despise Europeans and hate the white race implicitly and always mistrust anyone not of my tribe.

I was told nothing about the “unpleasantries” of the genocide for which Leopold was culpable.  The similarities to the exploitation of Kenya by the British should have been plain, but we were preoccupied with news of other atrocities.  The seven-year-long state of emergency in Kenya ended that year.  To our great relief, the Mau Mau Uprising was over.  The Mau Mau or the Muingi were primarily of the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya.  What made the Mau Mau seem so horrific and frightening was the “oath.”   It was a magic ritual in which the blood of an exsanguinated goat was blended with that of the adjurer who, standing before a fearsome idol of the old god Ngai, and the mingled flow was sprinkled over banana leaves and raw earth, recited a vow of obedience to the movement and an eternal, lethal hatred of the British.  Refusal to take the oath meant instant and fatal reprisal by the Mau Mau.  Consequently, it has been estimated that over half the indigenous population of Kenya had taken the oath by the end of the insurrection.  Oaths are not taken lightly in Kikuyu culture, and, despite the criminalization of the oath as a capital offense by the colonial government, the populace had little choice but to comply if forced to swear allegiance to the rebels.

Based on the lurid newspaper accounts, we imagined wild-eyed, dread-lock coiffed, machete-wielding butchers running amok from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi, slaughtering whites wherever they met them.  In actuality only thirty-two Europeans were killed by the insurrectionists in the seven year revolt, while 11,500 “Mau Maus” perished at the hands of the British often without trial; one thousand of them were hanged.  The colonial government’s practice of mutilation of the corpses by amputation of the right hand (“for finger print identification” was the official explanation) is bizarrely reminiscent of the Congo a half century before.

I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

(to be continued)

Ma Bertie in Dothan

Ma Bertie Moates (family photo)

Some would say I got religion early.  Some might even claim that I inherited it from Dad’s family, all the way back to Henry Matteson in the sixteen hundreds.  It is true that Henry was a follower of Roger Williams and a non-conformist believer who was run out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for his Baptist beliefs.  And it is true that there have been Baptists and Congregationalists in my father’s family for generations since then.  But I do not make any claim to prestige because of Henry’s presence in America in the seventeenth century, that he lived on this continent earlier rather than later, since everyone has to be somewhere and everybody has ancestors as ancient as Henry, even if they do not know of them by name.  Nor do I lay claim to any piety by association, not even from my saintly maternal grandmother Ma Bertie.

Rather, I think that there is a deep-seated need in every human to look up.  Awe is an emotion that is appropriate to man.  I felt it early when I looked out on the endless water of the Gulf of Mexico reaching from my feet, halfway to the heavens.  Then, I knew that I must always swim only in the shallow end and marvel, at a distance, at the secrets of the deeps.  I sensed God was at work in the mighty and marvelous things I saw. I knew God in the simplicity of a child’s trust.  The message I heard was plain: the Maker of all that is knew my address, knew who I was and loved me anyway.  We called Him “Father.”

My first memories of church are of singing.  I see myself sitting beside the piano in a white oak chair.  The handle of the piano is as high as my left ear.  Brother Mac, the choir director, is trying patiently to help his music makers to learn the melody of a simple song that we will sing in big church just before Christmas.  It is Dauphin Way Baptist Church. Mother is waiting for me in the parking lot while I practice; then it’s home to our house in Birdville.

I knew the Jesus script well.  He was a baby in December; by spring he was grown and the story grew gorier.  There were rumors of an unjust execution and the death of a perfect man who was, somehow, God inside.  Because God loved me, he took my place and my punishment.   But the full import of that was lost on me.  I knew too little of guilt and no shame at all to feel a need for God’s forgiveness.  But I knew God, not just things about Him.  And who could know God and not love Him?  I talked to Him, silently most often but out loud when I was otherwise alone.   And He talked to me.  Not in audible words but in impression and in peace.

Once, when I was six and after I had been very ill, and I was sure I would die with my father far away in Puerto Rico, I longed for my Daddy’s sure hand gripping mine. Years later, my mother told me what I had said and done.  I asked her, “Momma, when is Daddy coming home?”

To this she responded—exasperated and beat down by three sick children and a husband gone forever on TDY, “Temporary Duty,” that nevertheless seemed eternal –“Only God knows.”

“I’ll ask him, then.”  I agreed.

I left the house on Flamingo Drive and walked down the gray sidewalk between the gray clapboard-sided apartments to the gray and empty wading pool in the common field.  The structure was a square “fort” with a foot and a half high wall, twenty by twenty.  It was my special place, a place that was my thinking place, a special place where I talked to God.  In half an hour or so I returned and said to my Mother, “Daddy’s coming home.  I talked to God.  Daddy is coming home.”  I pronounced it with such conviction that she was shaken.  She called Brookley Field’s operations to see if indeed there was a chance.  But they reported that a hurricane was bearing down on Puerto Rico, and they doubted that anything would be leaving the airfields down there.  Mother was worried my faith would be shaken.  I was unconcerned.

That night Mother received a long-distance call from my father.  He would be arriving at 3:00 a.m. She woke me. “Daddy just called.  He is on his way home.  Let’s meet him at the airport.”  I was happy but not surprised.  I remember seeing my Dad descending the stairs from the Convair turboprop, he sporting a red goatee.  He was home.  He had flown out on one of the last planes to leave Puerto Rico before the storm hit.  He had flown out on a plane whose propellers he had serviced.  His was a faith in his own work.  Mine was a faith that must of necessity lie in something greater than me.  As a child, however, I felt my premonition unremarkable, but it was not the last time I had such an adventure.  Only sometimes the answer was not what I wanted or expected.

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Convair turboprop similar to that the author’s father returned from Puerto Rico. Phosot credit: http://www.goodall.com.au

My Grandmother, Ma Bertie, had a quiet faith that did not shout or boast of its strength.  Hers was like the rocks that lie at the edge of the sea whose strength is hidden deep beneath the surface and is only revealed when the storms crash against them, and they are unshaken.  This was her faith.  I have sat beside her at the harmonium, the pump organ, and listened to her sing in a high reedy soprano the melodies of the faith from the Sacred Harp Hymnal.  The mystic shapes of the notes were like the gamut of her life.  Married as a naive teenager to a straight and strong young man who was a good man at heart but was a lover of strong drink, she, nevertheless, stood faithful.  The notes sharpened as she learned of the struggle of rearing a family at the turn of the century.  During the Great Depression, like other Americans singing the blues in a minor key, she took solace in the hope of her faith despite the privations and the loss of their farm.  She was not perfect, this granddaughter of the circuit riding Pastor Thomas Dew, but she was genuine and strong.  When I knew her, she was already over seventy and had weathered many storms.  She seemed the epitome of resolute faith.

I recall sitting beside her in the Assembly of God church where she attended in Panama City.  I was a little frightened by the commotion that swirled around her when all prayed aloud.  She held a man’s handkerchief twisted in her left hand and whispered softly, “Sweet Jesus! Yes, Lord!” with her eyes clinched shut.  I knew that she asked God for more than she spoke aloud.  I was troubled by those who “spoke in tongues.”  One sister in particular shouted out at every meeting what sounded to me to be exactly the same babble every time she spoke.  Pastor Riddings translated her declaration for the congregation without hesitation.  It was always something on point with his sermon.  But I did not mind as much the show of their worship when I thought of how they loved “Sister Bertie.”  They loved her in warm appreciation and practical ways.  They loved Pa, too, even though he did not attend.   Perhaps the whole affair was lost on him due to his deafness.  I suppose it was to him like the distant incoherent roar of the sea, like the ecstatic tongues that never get translated.

It is told of my Ma Bertie that when a prayer meeting was called at the church to petition the Almighty for rain to end the drought, she was the only one to come to meeting with an umbrella under her arm. Such was her faith.

Ma Bertie’s favorable hymn was “Victory in Jesus.”   The affirmation of the words was like the steel bands of a stave barrel; she held together because of what she believed.  When she ultimately died of stomach cancer that followed throat cancer, all brought on by years of dipping snuff, she faced it bravely.  The scale was returning to “Do.”  She hummed the broken melodies of the hymns of faith with the little strength of her failing body.  But she was unafraid and was hopeful of an ultimate victory in Jesus.

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The author’s mother, in one of her most common poses: sewing. (family photo)

I have shared that faith for much of my life.  I sat in the pew at Hollinger’s Island Baptist Church, realizing that there was something between God and me that I had to get straight.  I saw that Jesus had paid the debt of my willfulness and disobedience.  My “sin,” Pastor Rusk called it, was getting in the way of my life-long friendship with God.  I told Mother after the service that when Brother Rusk told us to give our hearts to Jesus, I wanted to go to the front of the church, take out my heart and lay it on the altar.  She arranged for me to visit with the Pastor.  He quizzed me and declared that I was old enough and understood enough to make my own commitment.  I was nine years old.

I was “dunked” on November 5, 1956.  The baptismal pool was deep, and the water was cold.  The deacons had put a cinder block in the bottom for me to stand on, but I had to swim from the step to Brother Rusk.  “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost…” under the water; “rise to walk in the newness of life!”  I rose from the water shivering, but happy.  I was proud to show outside what had happened inside of me.

My subsequent adventures in the faith have been much like that icy pool of water.  Much of the time I cannot touch bottom and the water chills my soul; occasionally, I do get a toe touch of solid ground, but just for a moment.  Nevertheless, I am rarely afraid, since I grip a strong hand of One who has been here before me, just as I did that November night.

I have examined that faith repeatedly over the years.  Every time I found that it was indeed real and reasonable.  It may have been the faith of my fathers, it may have first belonged to Ma Bertie, then to my mother, but it is also mine.

Some would say I got religion early.  I say that I found God none too soon.  I found Him for myself and have been making sure of it ever since.  What I discovered in my search is that He does not hide when you really look for Him, and you will recognize Him instantly when you meet Him, even if you never saw Him before in your life.

A Pocket Memory

rain

Rain. Photo Credit: dehayf5MHWL7.cloudfront.net

The rain is beating against the window glazing with tiny, crystal-ball hands.  You can see your entire world reflected there if you look hard and long enough, only small and coiled up inside a minuscule globe.  Billowing sheets are down there hopscotching their round foot prints across the parking lot like some ghost of a lost tropical storm were puzzled to find herself in my neighborhood and she does not know where to turn next.  I start when I realize that I have been staring so long out the office window.  The light is failing; night is coming and I can begin to see myself, there in the window—like the portrait of a ghost, too, a framed specter sprinting through the gray hissing gauntlet.  Strange it seems to me, but when the light it is that rose and gray just before sunset or when some twist of the quotidian ordinary pricks loose some fragment of a memory or the smallest piece of a memory of a feeling that it flings up against the inside of my head or the backside of my eyes, I will wander off into a melancholy place.  That is where I am, now, and there I find my grandfather, Pa—Theodore Noah Webster Moates.

Pocket Contents

I do not recall not knowing him or when I first realized that this rock of a man was my ancestor and I, his progeny.  Yet my recollections are really few, much like the contents of a small boy’s pockets: in my right front I find a marble, a pebble, a penny from 1947-lincoln-wheat-pennies-value-78-13936425071947, the year of my birth; in the left, a jack knife with one of the grips missing—lost playing mumbly peg, and two bent rusting nails, one square, one round.  I lay the contents of my pocket memory on the sill beneath the window that never has opened before and I see a Mount Rushmore-ian figure.  I see his towering head with its craggy nose and high domed brow.

I did not think of his beginning until he died.  He seemed always to have been there, an ancient sun baked creature speaking slowly, wisely, steadily even as his calloused carpenter’s hands oscillated tremulously with “the palsy.”  He smelled of cigarettes—“I’d walk a mile for a Camel”—an exotic, dark tobacco aroma that hung on his clothes like an invisible mantle of virility.  And there was also that faint, strange sweet yeasty smell that was both the comfort and the curse of another Noah after the legendary flood.

 

Pa Moates

Theodore Noah Webster Moates ca.June 1969  Panama City Florida Photo credit: the author, his grandson

Pa was one of the oldest human beings that I knew as a child, though I doubted even then that he had been acquainted with the ark builder, even though my grandfather was builder too. I suspected they had more in common than I could understand, but I realize now that I did not really know him well, despite our times of tales on the screened porch, tales of the days before paved roads in Florida, when the Moates family traveled by buckboard wagon two days to visit Aunt Sadie.  I can see the pair of white sandy tracks of the trail when Pa speaks.  He smiles when he recounts how in a sudden thunderstorm they find shelter in an abandoned smokehouse—all that remained of a farm stead build before the war—the War Between the States, that is.  Settling back in his aluminum lawn chair, my grandfather paints a dark and mysterious still life study with his drawled words, a picture of close, black restless sleep in the ancient building, smelling of age and decay and hams.  Suddenly he leans forward, grabs my hand, and blurts out: “I snapped to when I felt something awful wet and hairy slam in my face.”

“What was it?” I demand breathlessly.

“Well, I couldn’t rightly say.” He is stalling. “Until the next flash of light’n showed up some wild goats go a-runnin’ out the door that was a-bangin’ in the wind.  They was as sceerd as we was, I reckon.”

We both laugh—I in my child’s high rattle, he in his deep rumble that sounds like the breakers of the gulf that slam against the shore.  Pa’s chuckle is powerful like thunder itself that makes you shake, laughing or not, in spite of yourself.

Amazing Camellias!

I see him now walking after the rain among his camellia bushes, and I remember the mischief in his eye.  Pa had found a mail order catalog that advertised growth hormone.  With a vial of the magic elixir he treats each bud of every plant in his garden.  He even secretly applies it one twilight evening to the camellias of his friend and neighbor, as well, across the sandy street.  Weeks later she brags to Pa about how green is her thumb.  Pa only chuckles mysteriously and never lets slip the truth of his evening rounds.  Now it makes me smile that for fifty years she never figured out what she had done that miraculous year to make such beautiful and grand blossoms.

There is so much that I do not know or have forgot.  I feel it all slipping away like the sand of a castle on the beach as the surf flings foaming salt water higher on the shore when the tide moves in.  I can cling to the few grains that volunteered on the back of my hand, but why did I not grab up whole handfuls and stuff them into my pockets?  But that I had been wiser than the child I was!  Pa, I am now a grandfather myself.  Now I wish I could know you; now perhaps I could understand.  But all I have is remembrances and faded photographs.

I can no more relive the past than I can return the rain to the sky.  I can only treasure the memories I hold in my pocket and, on occasional rainy days and in rare quiet moments take them out and amble among them.  This I will do and Pa, you will be remembered and loved again.

Beach

Beach after the rain, before night. Empty. Photo credit: the author

mesmer3

 

 

“This young woman is in urgent need of the assistance of Franz Anton Mesmer!”
–Franz Anton Mesmer

 

 

 

 

“I doubt that this will end well,” Sammy thought but did not say. Silently the high school mesmerist instructed himself: “It is essential that you project a confident demeanor to your subject,” reciting the admonition he had read in the paperback book where he had learned the essentials of hypnotism. The members of his high school choir crowded the hotel room near the All-State festival site and now leaned in, curious, to see Sammy put their classmate “under.”

In his hotel session, Sam began by following faithfully the patter he had learned off by heart. He had already used it successfully several times before with various subjects, to his surprise and delight. How amazing it was he concluded—to think that he, a naïve teen, could exert such control over another’s mind! But more than power drew him to this art; what a novel exploit into a dark world it presented! Sam felt the utter joy he imagined he shared with the first man to receive fire from the hand of Prometheus.

“Linda, fix your vision on this charm,” he had suggested as he held up the glinting bangle in a darkened room. And just as he had done before with other subjects, he continued in a practiced calm and confident voice, “You are getting sleepy. Your eye lids are growing heavy. Sooooo, heavy. You can hardly keep them open. It’s okay to let them close.” Linda had complied. “Relax. Just relax. Now imagine you see the charm. Do you see it, Linda?”

“Yes,” the slight brunette replied.

“Good. Imagine that it is moving away from you. Concentrate on the charm as it moves slowly away. See the charm and listen only to the sound of my voice, only to the sound of my voice, as it moves away into the darkness. You can see it shining and you can hear my voice. That is all you can see and hear,” Sam recited in his most reassuring intonation.

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Aunt Mary Benefited

Sammy remembered even now, how—at his mother’s insistence—he had “put Aunt Mary under.” The strange request came because of Mary’s terrible headache pain, and because of his mother’s desperation and kindness. She was aware, as well, of her son’s psychological adventures and, although wary and cautionary, she exhibited an indulgent tolerance of his latest exploration. The ritual proceeded flawlessly with his aunt. She progressed rapidly through the several stages of hypnosis. At last, the young hypnotist suggested that she relax, beginning with her toes then progressing upward. When he commanded her scalp to relax, his eyes widened in astonishment. He looked at his mother’s face. She saw it too. Her mouth was open in amazement. The hair on Mary’s head seemed to become a thing alive, crawling backward as the muscles in her scalp did indeed unclench, relieving the immediate cause of her tension headache.

After a minute of relaxation and post hypnotic suggestion that she would awaken refreshed as from a good nap, feeling no pain, her headache gone, Sam began the count down. “I will count backward. As I do, you will begin to wake up and you will awaken refreshed and alert. Three, you are beginning to awaken. Two, you are becoming aware of the world around you. One, you are waking up.” He snapped his fingers. “You are fully awake. . . . Aunt Mary, How do you feel?” he inquired.

“I feel fine. My headache’s gone! A good nap always makes you feel better,” she replied with a smile.

“That went well,” Sam thought to himself.

“Thank you, Sammy, dear,” his grateful aunt continued.

“You’re very welcome. Glad I could help,” the proud teenager pronounced. Inwardly, however, he shuddered with the excitement of a power to help another, a power that he had never known before, that also mingled with a concealed trepidation of what evil that power was capable of wreaking.

Back in the hotel room, Linda had passed the usual tests of the stages of suggestion: relaxation, obedience to simple suggestions, flinch suppression when pricked with a sharp pin. But she had not done well in the enhanced memory test that was the object of Sam’s experiment. Ever the would-be scientist, he concluded that at least in some people hypnotic suggestion does not enhance memory skills.

Post Hypnotic Suggestions?

Sam momentarily considered giving a post-hypnotic suggestion to Linda, has he had done several times before. Once to amuse her friends he had suggested to Jan, a subject with a distinctive and infectious laugh, that when someone used the word “peanuts” in conversation she would find it the most hilarious thing she had ever heard and she would laugh until she cried. But when she heard the word “popcorn,” she would feel such sadness that it would also make her cry. Sam decided that he must have an escape word, lest the emotional yo-yo go on forever. “When you hear the word ‘crackerjacks’ the post hypnotic suggestion will terminate, and you will return to normal. These words will be just words. Do you understand? If you understand, nod your head.” Jan obeyed.

When Sam had counted down. “Three, two, one. You’re awake!” Jan had complied. The small group of observers quizzed her about her experience. She had no awareness that she had been hypnotized. When someone mentioned the word “peanuts” she became “tickled” as she called it. Laughing uproariously, even to the point of embarrassment. She could not restrain her mirth, until another person pronounced the word “popcorn,” at which Jan’s demeanor instantly transformed to the mask of tragedy and she began to weep. The group of friends played with her emotions, jerking her back and forth from joy to sadness and back again, a few more times before Sam took pity on an exhausted Jan and used the terminal safe word. Sam began to doubt inwardly that it was a good thing to have such power in his inexpert hands, although it was a heady emotion to experience. Perhaps he was uneasy partly because of a lingering feeling of guilt for the abuse to which he had subjected Jan.

But Linda presented a very different scenario. She had not responded to his call to wake up after his count down. She had remained still, her eyes closed.

“What do I do, now?” Sam asked himself. “Don’t panic,” he counseled himself. He resolved to try again.

“Linda! I am going to count backward from ten this time. At each stage you will become more and more awake.” Then he began the count down. The room was hot with the breath of twenty teenagers. Their faces formed a horizon that made Sammy feel trapped. Many looked on concerned. Some wore curious looks. A few smiled broadly. Sam could feel each second ticking by as he labored to bring this catatonic mind back to reality.

When he reached zero this second time and snapped his fingers, Linda remained unmoved, her eyes closed. She did not wake up! Sam’s heart pounded in his chest. “What if she never awakens?” he thought. Instead, he improvised, “Take her back to her room and put her on her bed. She will awake in a few hours naturally.”

At this, Linda opened her eyes wide and looked into Sammy’s stunned face. She winked and laughed out loud. Her grinning confederates among the onlookers immediately bent double in glee. Everyone in the room finally realized that the sometime mesmerist had been pranked. Everybody laughed in relief, including Sammy, the mark.

A Narrow Escape?

Despite his embarrassment, Sammy did not feel humiliated. He laughed along with everyone else at his pretension and he forgave his clever classmates’ good natured con of a fake somnambulist. Instead, his anxiety was lifted and replaced with a vague but definite sense of relief. He had secretly feared his infatuation with his newly acquired hypnotic skills. Sammy imagined himself like a child playing with a box of matches who inadvertently sets fire to his neighbor’s house. The hoax only heightened this terror that Sammy had hidden beneath a mask of bravado and faked sophistication. Ultimately, he decided to suspend his experiments in the wilderness of the mind, since he felt that he had escaped a disaster, but might not be so fortunate next time. He resolved never to forget what happened, however, even if he would puzzle—forever—over all that it meant and what calamities he might have been spared.

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Photo credit: changingmydestiny.wordpress.com

 

True Believer

St Nick

St. Nikolas of Myra, the prototype of Santa Claus is revered throughout the world. Photo credit: the author.

I am, at times and by spells, a true believer. From my earliest memories until the age of eight I was indeed a true believer. Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I trusted implicitly, without question, what I was told—especially by my elders and by older children. As a child, I believed devoutly in Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the North Pole workshop. Fortunately, I rarely heard tales of witches and goblins or trolls in my bedtime stories, or I would assuredly have been terrified by an absolute faith in those horrific fantasies, as well.

I began first to appropriate the Clausian mythology almost osmotically. The grand elf appeared soon after Thanksgiving in all the shops and stores of the city. He—or his surrogate as I learned when I inquired—even held court in the big department store downtown in Mobile, Alabama. I accepted as believable the explanations of the only-approximately-polar attire of Gayfer Department Store Santas: shoe covers to simulate boots and false cotton whiskers. Santa’s “helpers” were in abundant attendance, too, characters who supposedly reported their conversations to the jolly elf, His Great Redness, himself. I found it an inescapable and seductive prospect that my deepest desires could be granted by a benevolent, generous old elf in a red suit if I but let him in on my secret wish by whatever means available. Thus, I was compelled to believe. Just to be sure he got the message, I also wrote to him in block letters on a Big Chief pad of blue-lined paper addressed to “Mr. S. Claus, North Pole.” I told of my longing for an impossibly expensive bicycle. So trusting of his intent and benevolence was I that it did not occur to me that his clandestine nightly visit should have been slightly threatening. That he annually persisted in his recidivistic practice of committing a class-C-misdemeanor of global breaking and entering on the evening of 24 December was of no concern at all.

The Gospel According to Clement Moore

I found “The Night Before Christmas” a wondrously compelling tale, which my faithful father and mother read to me, my sister, and my brother every Christmas Eve. Flying reindeer! Imagine the sight! Reindeer, themselves, were exotic enough for a swamp-rat like me to comprehend, but flying reindeer? I had seen flying squirrels and flying bats as well as millions of birds on the wing. But I had never seen a Lapland reindeer at all and certainly not a flying one. But who was I to question the veracity of such accounts of air-borne sleighs, accounts that were documented in sacred print and attested to by radio reports of his progress across the globe? Had I not even once received a telegram from the North Pole encouraging my “nice-ness”?

I was just a child of eight. I was discovering daily other wonders previously unknown to me that were being revealed to my wondering eyes in books and in the tales my science teacher told. I was learning that my imagination did not limit the range of what is Reality. Thus, I chose to hope and suspended any doubt. To doubt might make it impossible to acquire the bike that I so wanted. And thus I waited. I suppressed my guilt at my mercenary faith.

Christmas 1955 was approaching. I was growing anxious. How would Santa fit my bike into his small sled or down a chimney? How did he enter our house that had no chimney? And would he be able to find me when we were visiting at my Aunt Vivian and Uncle “Doc’s” house in Columbus, Georgia?

“No doubts!” I reminded myself, but I fretted anyway. When I shared my concerns at supper the week before Christmas, my parents remarked that surely Santa could find me since he kept up with such things routinely, and anyway, perhaps he might bring a special gift as a special pre-Christmas delivery before we left on the trip. The next night again we sat at supper.

Before dessert my parents stopped, looked at each other. “Did you hear that? I thought I heard sleigh bells.” Mother declared.

Dad suggested, “Sammy, why don’t you go look in the living room, and tell us what you find?”

I complied and was overjoyed to discover a bicycle, shiny and new, sitting in the middle of the floor. No tag or bow was necessary; I knew for whom it was, and I knew who had brought it—a surreptitious, hasty reindeer aviator.

After several minutes of exaltation, I rushed outside to tell Pete and Dean Cooper, my boyhood neighbors and pals, of the miraculous appearing of my great gift. They were likewise pleased for me, as real friends should be. They even assisted me in searching for reindeer prints in the dirt. I found several suspicious marks that were evidence enough that I had been, indeed, visited minutes before by Saint Nick himself and by his flying herd.

Xmas Reading

Part of every Christmas eve at the author’s house was a review of The Night Before Christmas. Sammy, Dad, Cindy Lou, and Baby Dale absorb the gripping poem ca. 1954. Photo credit: Matteson family snapshot scanned by Cindy (Matteson) King.

But I secretly wondered. I had heard the smug pronouncements of the second-grade Santa-agnostics. I half-worried that I was the victim of a conspiracy, a hoax, a grand deception. But I kept quiet about my growing doubt as we traveled to Columbus, Georgia for a family Christmas.

I looked on Aunt Vivian and Uncle Doc as aristocrats. Uncle Doc Jordan—“Jur-den” as it was pronounced in the proper vernacular of western Georgia—was a respected urologist. He always wore a bow tie that, amazingly, was not a clip-on, but rather the real thing. He reminded me of the many illustrations of Saint Nicolas that I had seen: short, silver haired, balding and a little stout, with “smoke circling his head like a wreath.” Only “Doc” was somewhat strange; he smoked cigarettes held in a Dunhill black lacquer cigarette holder that with his glasses evoked the mystique of FDR. Uncle Doc spoke earthily with a gravelly drawl but always in a charming and sophisticated manner. Once he examined his sister-in-law Ruth, who was suffering from a bladder ailment. He gleefully reported to the family that he had found a Green Stamp adhering to her derriere, probably due to a wayward saving stamp that had fallen into her dresser drawer. “Sister, do you always give Green Stamps to your customers?” He snickered as he recounted his question to the adults. I did not fully comprehend his meaning at the time. He only gave me a sly wink and a nod.

Aunt Vivian was a giant woman who towered over her physician husband. They had met professionally years before when she worked as an LVN, but now she managed their large household and two rowdy boys. Hers was an elegant table that often baffled me. I tasted politely the strangely pale spread that they called “butter.” “Give me my yellow oleo margarine-butter, thank you!” I thought but did not say. There were also casseroles concocted of exotic substances like egg plant that looked like no egg or plant that I had ever seen before and that my child’s palate did not appreciate. But the dark golden candied yams with white punctuations of melted marshmallow I devoured. I wondered between bites if the strange and fancy foods that their dark skinned cook prepared and passed to their gray haired maid in her starched gray uniform, who served it on silver trays, was what made my aunt and uncle seem so sophisticated.

The Jordans lived in a large multi-story red brick house that accommodated all of the assembled family for the holiday. I was assigned a guest bed situated at the top of the grand staircase that led up from the living room out of sight of the festive room but only barely out of earshot. Christmas Eve finally came and the other children and I were at last dispatched to bed. But sleep did not come soon to me. I worried that if I lost my saintly faith the magic of Christmas Eve would vanish as well. Simultaneously, I wanted to see for myself the mystic elf materialize in the room below, but dreaded the unthinkable truth. Late in the evening the house grew quiet except for suspicious noises that drifted up from below. I struggled not to listen too closely, wondering if it were Santa or some other individual “making Christmas.” I had seen unusual lumps under a quilt in the trunk of our car when my father had put in the suitcases earlier. I ached with doubt, not wanting my myth to die, but not willing to live ignorant and foolish, a child forever.

In the early morning as the sun slipped through the crack in the blinds and poked me in the eye. I awoke. I lay in bed awake. I did not give in to the compulsion to run downstairs until I heard my name being called, “Sammy! It’s Christmas!” Sammy required no second call. The living room was beautiful. Everywhere there were brightly packaged gifts for everyone. I recognized some of the wrapping paper from trips to the market. “Did Mrs. Claus shop at Delchamps too?” I secretly wondered. The cookies and milk that we had left for Santa were gone. A note lay in their place. It read, “THANKS, SANTA,” written in a hand that reminded me of my mother’s block script. Like too much sugar in a cold glass of iced tea, my doubts crystallized and precipitated into apostasy with this last teaspoon of evidence.

A Fall from Santa’s Grace

Sometime during Christmas Day I silently decided that I would not believe any more, despite the risks. Santa Claus dissolved in my mind. The myth died in me. I did not speak of it, but I slipped into unbelief. I returned to Mobile less a child of wonder than when I had departed.

At sixteen, those same feelings of unease returned. I began to question whether the stories that I had heard in church and during weekly squirming hours at Sunday School—tales that the adults and older children around me loved and believed so devoutly—were only childish myths like stories of the great polar benefactor, too. How does one know the truth, if indeed there is a Truth?

The same aching faith-storms I knew in my long Georgia-Christmas night rose up again in my mind as viciously as the meteorological gales that lashed Bayfront Road. I began to think about what I had heard and to review and examine what I thought I knew. I learned from credible historians that Jesus was indeed real; he was not a made-up character, a mere excuse for Christmas retail. The records of his life, the Gospels, while controversial in their origins, were not invented in the middle ages nor was the Bible “written by Shakespeare” as one ignorant and arrogant self-styled atheist high school acquaintance claimed, even if the English translation I was reading was filled with a hundred pages of “thee” and “thou” and “Yea! Verily . . .”

I learned that Saint Nicholas was also a person, a bishop of third century Asia Minor, who had such a generous heart that he did many deeds of kindness in secret. His bones can still be visited in the village of Bari in southern Italy. Yet, how had a real person, one who acted in real time and space been so transformed into a mythical elf? Even more troubling was the thought that, perhaps over two millennia, the real Rabbi Jeshua had been corrupted into a Christ myth. I had to know. I dug deeper, fearfully at first. I began to consider the major religions of the world. I examined the major philosophies of the ages. I thought about the evidence for and against the proposition of God and of the Christian God, in particular. In my search I was helped by conversations with my wise and kind pastor, Brother Mahlon Thomason. (We in the 1950s South always called our pastor and deacons, “Brother” in a reverential tone.) He never seemed to be shocked at any proposition that I brought to his attention, nor did he ever tell me I was wrong. Rather he simply asked me questions that often began, “Have you considered . . . ?” I felt safe to talk to him about what was troubling me. I began to feel that I need not fear to examine my doubts or to face the truth, whatever it was.

A Transforming Story

In my deliberations—the deliberations of a jury of one—I became convinced that I could get a sense of who this Joshua (another transliteration of the common first century name Jesus) really was. I concluded that he is and had been a transforming personality to everyone who met him, in person, or in the witness of the New Testament, down through the centuries. Even Nicholas of Myrna, the original Saint Nick, was changed when he met the Christ of the Bible. His character had been transformed by his faith and he was never the same afterward. I, too, had met God in my own experience, not just as a myth or in a story, but in my own life and I had been existentially changed forever by that encounter. The track of my life took a turn when at age nine I committed what I was and would become to him. While the storm of doubt and self-questioning raged, I had an anchor: I did not just know about God; I felt that I actually knew God Himself. I had never really met Santa Claus, even though impersonators had tried to delude me with tangible fakes. Conversely, I really knew this very God by intangible, but nevertheless real encounters. What I concluded was that there was evidence, and that it made sense. I became a believer again, not a believer in a fairy tale told to a child, but rather a convinced mature believer who is persuaded by evidence and reasonable argument. In the decades that followed, even as I pursued my calling as a natural scientist, that persuasion became even more compelling. The physical universe appeared to me to be ancient but not eternal. No means was found by which it could have created itself. Moreover, mankind was not inevitable on this planet. That we are, indeed as is all we encounter, a wonder, a providential grace. The more I learned, the more beautiful I found the universe to be. Indeed, it is good. And what of the human condition? I saw the image of God imprinted in me as well as in each person I met. Yet we are ever striving souls that struggle to have our own way, preternaturally estranged from that glorious promise, potentially holy but more often horrific.

Now, I see all of creation in the light of the story of a loving God rescuing His wayward children through a redeeming Christ. The heavens are indeed telling the glory of God, the story of a real event that occurred in history and of a life that was lived in the first century of this current era. That story proclaimed that there is hope for humanity, but only in redemption.

It is a truism that not all we think we see is real. We sometimes find what we are looking for, despite the evidence to the contrary. Thus, I have been on my guard to critique my persuasions since my youth. Conversely, not all we cannot see is unreal. In the end the evidence of what is actual must decide the issue for us. We must only have the courage to look at the facts as squarely as we can and take what we find for what it is. Then we must risk all that we are—or that we have—to live by that knowledge and walk about in that light. Then and only then—my experience prompts me to believe—have we the right of claiming ourselves honestly to be true believers.

Rainbow

Does knowing that the beauty of the rainbow arises proximally from the dispersive refraction of sunlight through droplets of water reduce any of its glory or obscure its ultimate meaning? Photo credit: the author.

 

Fat Tuesday

Marti Gras masks

Marti Gras frightened Sammy Gene beyond all reason. Masks are de rigeur for the carnival. Photo Credit: Emily Naser-Hall @ http://www.axs.com

Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, (February 9 this year) used to scare the begeebers out of me. This disconcerting emotion has been more than a small embarrassment to me ever since I was a street urchin in Mobile, the American birthplace of the annual pre-Lenten bacchanalia. New Orleans claims center stage for debauchery in the public imagination but the even more venerable festival of banality that surged into the streets of Mobile with its ancient mystic pedigree always wagged its own seductive finger in my direction with an inveigling invitation to small sins and temporarily half-wicked pleasures, and this frightened me unreasonably.

As a child these excesses ran only to clandestine candy before dinner. The masked revelers on Government Street in their Bourbon-inspired generosity strew the crowds along the curbs with salt-water taffy, butterscotch and moon pies, unsteadily sowing seeds of venality. There was, I was sure, some reason that the passengers on the floats that glided down the Mobile streets were masked. Why they were disguised I was not certain, but I was suspicious in any case.   Nevertheless it was only candy they were dispensing, but, on the other hand, it was sufficient to rob a child of his modest appetite for his vegetables and for his common life.   Who wants green beans when such sweet delights are an option? Who will be satisfied with everyday when offered long nights of green and purple and gold-spangled parties and balls? Who can resist the temptations to excess when the oh-so-tasty comes unbidden with no apparent cost? Halloween and Mardi Gras share both the same subtly diabolical mystery and the enticing lure of candy.   This Lolla-of-the-floats, who always got what she wanted, wanted me, and so made me feel uneasy, even somehow threatened.

The Symbols of Life

Life is full of symbols. Many of them are exceedingly powerful. Mardi Gras was a basket full of symbolism. The masks hid the public identity of the otherwise respectable citizens of Mobile society to avoid the consequences of societal opprobrium for shattered decorum and uninhibited insobriety. I wondered if the mask, paradoxically, revealed the true face of the men and women in the spangled costumes. Something about the secret societies, the “Crewes” that paraded and produced lavish balls where guests were admitted by invitation only and only when properly attired; then as now, gowns must reach the floor, and tuxedos are de rigeur. And masks, one must wear a mask, for identities are hidden this week.

There seems something slightly irrational to me about the idea that before one enters into a month and ten days of asceticism leading up to Easter, a period designed to cleanse the soul, one must pollute it well with all that one will forego during the fast. I was troubled, even though it all seemed like harmless silliness that Joe Cain, reputed to be the origin of the term, “Raising Cain,” began in 1866; then he appropriated the alter ego of Chief Slacabamorinico and led the revival of the parades of the mystic societies that the Cowbellion de Ranken Society had begun but left off when the South was subjugated in “the War.” The allure of the mystics never abated from their origin in 1703 until the present, even if the parades were intermittent that ran down Church Street and back up Government, lit by the torches they called Les Flambeaux, flares that were carried by dark bearers hired for the occasion. Mother and Dad tried to assure that our experience was wholesome, but they ever feared that we would be lost in the crowds or injured in the crush at the curb. Mother’s apprehensions were confirmed one night when Dale, my brother, was separated from the family for a few anxious minutes.

The flaring light, the loud bands that both delighted with brassy music and shook your stomach with the pounding of the bass drum, and the mad crush of children and adults screaming “Throw me something!” worked a voodoo that was at once intoxicating and revolting. And unspoken, too, there danced the specter of alcoholism that had plagued the men of Mother’s family for generations. Drunkenness was an unpleasant sight that was blatantly and unrepentantly on display to our innocent eyes even if the maskers were unidentified.

Serious Folly

Of the scores of parading societies that trooped down the street in Mardi Gras, the Knights of Revelry most impressed me. Annually the floats would change with a new theme to inspire their creation, but just as each Crewe displayed one immutable society float, KoR presented their Jester-and-Death tableau. The symbol of their society was a broken column reminiscent of the hundreds that stood before defunct and abandoned plantation houses that were strewn across reconstruction Alabama.   Around the ruined graciousness of the neo-colonial column danced two figures. A pied jester, known to all as “Folly,” armed only with a golden inflated pig’s bladder sparred with a skeleton carrying a formidable scythe; they identified him as “Death.” In all of the scenes that passed by me, Folly always seemed to have the upper hand. How this symbol spoke to me of Mobile and Mardi Gras! Her citizens have faced and continue to endure destruction and disappointment time and again from wars and hurricane, from societal upheaval and cultural conflict, and from economic or personal reversals, but something in the Mobilian character has made us laugh at our loss and continue to celebrate life, even taunting Death. Twain, while not a Southerner himself, might have approved since he is reputed to have said, “Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.”

Marti Gras flambeaux

Flambeaux illuminated the night time parades when Sammy was a child in Mobile as they still do today in New Orleans. Photo credit: anerdsguidetoneworleans.wordpress.com

Beyond the Flambeaux

I did regard the comic life-size emblem with respect. Nevertheless, the image haunted me. For a time, I dreamed of the harlequin who danced with its pig’s bladder. In my dream I lay safe beneath the house and peered out into a frightening world obscured in darkness, save for the jester illuminated in the flaring light of the Flambeaux. When he danced far away I looked on only with curiosity, but when he drew near, my heart raced with anxiousness and desperation. Freud said that sometimes a dream is only a dream, but I sense I understand what my psyche was telling me. Folly may be alluring but there is, indeed, reason to be on my guard. Neither Death nor Life is as playful as he or she is portrayed in a Mardi Gras parade. This disturbs me still. Whenever I look again upon the revelry, I worry what else lurks in the dark beyond the light of the Flambeaux. Ash Wednesday follows hard on every Fat Tuesday.

Marti Gras Folly

Folly leads the Knights of Revelry Photo credit: blog.al.com

Happy Solar Circuit!

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A spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way: M101 Photo credit: ESA & NASA PIs Kuntz, Bresolin,, Trauger, Mould and Chu et al.

The ball has dropped on a new year. January 1 marked the day we completed our latest orbit about the sun as we wished each other “Happy New Year.” Of course, there was a time when the calendar did not begin there. It was Julius Caesar, who in 46 BC moved New Year’s Day backward three months from the vernal (spring time) equinox in March to its current place in the calendar. Two years later Julius was assassinated (probably not for his calendric activities, however). Some still begin the year on the vernal “equinox” (meaning “equal night” [and day]), one of the two times each year that the sun appears to rise precisely in the east and the night and day light are equally 12 hours long. This year the vernal equinox is March 19.

In fact, other cultures use other calendars. One other innovation of Julius Caesar was to add—in fourth year—a leap day to the formerly final month of the year, February, to correct for the approximately six hours the year exceeds 365. Unfortunately the Julian system overcorrected by about 3/400 of a day each year. In 1582 Pope Gregory (actually a conference of calendar geeks, like this author) devised a method to account for this over correction. At their suggestion he revised the Julian calendar so that every century that should be (under the system of Caesar) a leap year is, instead, a regular year, unless the year is divisible by 400, thus eliminating the extra three days in four hundred years. Problem solved! He also reset the year by removing ten days from the calendar.

Happy Old New Year

But, one consequence of this innovation is a gradually increasing disparity between the two calendars. Thus, January 1 (on the old calendar), the so called “Old New Year” that is still used by the Orthodox Christian Church, that rejects the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope, falls on the modern (Gregorian) calendar, today January 14, 2016. So, I say “Happy Old New Year!”

In an attempt to overcome my Eurocentric bias I have looked into the calendars of other cultures that start their year on other days, rather than January 1, and have found that they are often associated with celestial events. For example, the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is associated with the autumnal (fall) equinox and the new moon. This year the Jewish New Year occurs on the evening of October 2, 2016. The Islamic New Year also uses the moon for its cadence, beginning the next day, October 3, 2016.

But as I contemplated my sixty-ninth circuit about the sun, I was tempted to say, “Here we go again!” Then I realized that our solar system is also orbiting the galactic center where lurks a massive black hole. This “Galactic Year” (the time to make one galactic circuit) is estimated to be a little less than a quarter of a billion years. Therefore, in the 4.54 billion years since the formation of the earth, the solar system has made approximately twenty circuits. So, the earth is nearing three galactic weeks of age!

Never the Same River

On the other hand, the solar system is orbiting at a velocity of about 143 miles per second! We, riders on the earth, are corkscrewing through space at an astonishing speed. That fact implies that since last January 1, 2015 we have moved about four and half billion miles. In a very real way the old adages applies to us, the one that advises, “You never step into the same river twice.” As we pass through the year, orbiting our local star, the seasons changing with the angle of the sun in the sky, I now realize that we are not in the same place we were twelve months ago. We are very far removed, in fact. Each minute that passes we hurtle a distance equal to the diameter of the earth.

What is more, I am not the same person I was then, either, nor are you. Our experiences and memories have changed us even though (contrary to popular mythology) my brain cells are the same ones I had last year. My brain has merely been slightly rewired by my thoughts and memories. On the other hand, my same heart has beaten approximately 32 million times but my blood cells have indeed been replaced several times. At the atomic level, moreover, only 2% of the atoms of my body remain from the body I inhabited a year ago. Thus, I am indeed, not the man I was, although I look much the same. I have been renovated at my core.

From these reflections I take away two profound truths. Firstly, as a different person than I was a year ago–but yet a doppelganger of myself–I am not the prisoner of my past. I can chose a different direction as I move forward even if I begin at the spot where I find myself. Two dear friends shared a photo of an artist’s installation they encountered on their hike up the Aggenstein in Bavaria, Germany. It has become an icon of this principle to me. The object is an open door on the path. The future is, indeed, an open door. We can choose to pass through it or turn away. In the photograph we see the paths that record the choices of many feet. I will be looking for those open doors that I encounter in the year ahead. I was reminded of Jesus words, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” (Rev 3:8) What a wonderful possibility! Open doors abound.

The second take away truth I see is the old and possibly clichéd realization that one will only pass this way once. Every moment is unique. We are speeding through space at a breakneck speed. Humanity has never been here before. Thus, I must savor every moment like a meal that I will enjoy only once, although the memory will linger forever. Every thought, every breath, every interaction changes me and I change everything I touch, as well.

So as we go round again for the first time, may we enjoy the view from the track and leave our own traces on high mountain paths we have never trod before.

So I wish you a Very Happy Solar Circuit. How good to cross paths this time around.

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Open Door Aggenstein Bavaria, Germany, the icon of possibility that lies before us. Photo credit Chris Littler

Viennese Advent

Straw Stars cropped

Straw Christmas Star Ornaments, purchased at the Wien Kriskindlmart in Vienna, Austria in 1978 by the Matteson family. Photo Credit; Sam Matteson

Sitting beside my son of thirty-seven years, I bit into the grilled bratwurst and was instantly transported to Vienna, carried there in the same way that Proust was prompted to recall his youth while tasting a Madeleine and tea in Remembrance of Things Past. The salty and smoky taste of the sausage coupled with the tang of the spiced mustard filled me with a sense of inexplicable joy. To me this is the undeniable flavor of the advent season.

A little less than thirty-seven sevens before, a time when I looked very like my child does today, my family and I had completed our sojourn in Budapest, Hungary. The gray days of late November in Communist-era Hungary added an oppressive air to the already gray cityscape. We were well treated by our hosts, who earned our life-long friendship by their kindness, but we longed to return home to the United States, more and more as the months dragged by. At last, the day arrived for our scheduled departure. The day before I had shipped the majority of our clothing to Munich by train.

I experienced firsthand the frustrations of navigating a rigid bureaucratic state that day. Only dollars would be accepted for international shipments I learned after standing in a long queue. The station shipping department could not accept traveler’s checks even if in dollar denominations. That was the job of the bank. At the bank in the station I stood in yet another line to have the checks cashed with a 3% fee, of course. The bank would only dispense the cash in Hungarian Forints, however. “But I need the cash in dollars,” I complained. I was directed to yet another line at the monetary exchange where for a high fee and a highly unfavorable but centrally determined exchange rate, I ultimately obtained the requisite cash to pay for the shipment. After nearly three hours of exasperation this task was accomplished.

I had heard the Hungarian quip that if you see a queue protruding from a shop you should get in the line. There was bound to be something good at the end of it. I also heard that a certain Gabor had been in a line so long that he said to the lady behind him that we was going to go to the ministry of commerce to complain. He left, only to return a few minutes later and reenter the queue with the explanation, “The line at the complaint department is even longer than this line. Mit tudok tenni?” The latter was a phrase meaning “What can I do?” that we heard often both as an offer of help and as a cry of resignation frequently rendered with a shrug. I understood the feeling well and experientially after my time in the shipping department.

 We Had a Plan

On the morning of our departure, we mapped out a plan and then proceeded to execute it. We cleaned the apartment, collected our three children, and packed all the remainder of our belongings into the Simca sedan we had purchased from a friend in Germany a few months before. It was a decent if modest conveyance, even if the floor board was rusting out from too many Bavarian winters and their salt. It would not have passed the TUV the next year, I fear. Since we had no garage, we had left the white car parked out front of the apartment building where it gradually had turned gray, as it acquired a thick coating of Budapest grime. I was concerned once when I came out to the car one morning a few weeks earlier to find a word drawn by a small finger in the dust on the rear window. It read, “PISZKOS.” I asked my host the meaning of this graffiti, to which he replied, “It’s dirty.”

I responded, “It’s okay, Peter, you can tell me what it means, I am a big boy.”

He then laughed and continued, “No! The word is not vulgar. It means, ‘I am dirty,’ you know like ‘Wash me!’ in the US. The school kids on your block were just giving you some advice.” Unfortunately our time was up before I could learn enough Hungarian to have the car washed so we traveled in a piszkos autó.

Our first stop the morning of our departure was to check out with the local police at their neighborhood rendőrőrs (guard house) as required by law for resident aliens such as we. For months we had been aliens all the while I had been a visiting researcher in an exchange between the United States National Science Foundation and the corresponding entity in the Magyar Koztarsasag (Hungarian Republic, what Hungarian call their nation).

Next we motored through the crowded streets of the capital city, dodging honking Ladas and Vilamos electric trams as well as thousands of pedestrians. We pulled up to the Intourist office and returned our keys to the manager and signed more paperwork.We now were officially homeless. We had also expended almost all of our Hungarian currency and dollars, since we were prohibited from “exporting” currency from the country. Thus, we were nearly penniless. We hoped to replenish our cash reserves by cashing a personal check at the AmEx office in the Austrian capital. This was in the days before international banking and the convenience of widely accepted US credit cards in Europe.

One Last Stop

The Ministry of Culture was our final stop before embarking up Bécsi utca (Vienna Road) for the 250 km (150 mile) trip to Vienna and the approximately three hours of driving (plus one hour at the border station at Hesgeshalom). We were, we had been told, to return our “staying permits” and reclaim our US passports at the ministry offices. Thus, as properly documented aliens we could depart by vehicle. When I was able, after several minutes of futile inquiry, to reach an English speaking official, I was told that the request was supposed to have been made two weeks prior to our departure, a fact nobody had informed us of.

I told the assistant that that was unfortunate, indeed, since we had been informed otherwise and that we now had no apartment, no money, and must drive to Vienna before the American Express Office closed so that we could find accommodations for the night. The image of Carolyn sitting with our three children in the echoing hallway is seared into my memory. I gave my long-suffering wife a hasty brief of our situation, then added “If little Peter [our six month old] starts to cry don’t try too hard to pacify him. You don’t have to pinch him or anything, but the more annoying we are, the more motivated they will be to get us on our way.” Anyway even a communist bureaucrat cannot be unmoved by a crying infant, I reasoned. Whether, our desperate measures were the reason or not, we will never know, but the passports eventually materialized hours later and we were on our way, but well after noon. All that lay between us and Vienna were two hundred fifty kilometers and a heavily armed border.

In the days of preparation before funds were exhausted, snacks and juice had been purchased for the trip at the local fruit stand and at the government-run ABC market at the train station. These victuals fortified us as we sped through town past empty shop windows. I noticed an irony: finally a shop was displaying clothes pins for sale that had been unavailable for the nearly four months of our visit. As we headed out the Vienna Road, I also recalled a story my host had told me. István and Gabor were chatting.

“That is a beautiful coat you have on Gabor. Where did you buy it?” István asked.

Bécsi utca, the Vienna Road.”

“I was out that way yesterday. I saw no coats like that for sale.”

“Ah!” said Gabor, “”You went to the wrong end.”

We were on our way to the other end, now. But the clock was ticking. Would we make it by 1700 hours?  That time, 5:00 p.m., was when we though the American Express Office would close. If we arrived too late. what then? My mind reeled at the potentially awful scenarios.

To Be Taking Picture, Forbidden!

Photo TilosAt the border, the cars lined up waiting to be searched, for what I was never certain. The scene was intimidating. Gray flannel clad soldiers carrying machine guns paced before the barbwire-topped fences. Nearly an hour passed as we incrementally crept forward. We have no photographs of Hegeshalom, by all accounts a lovely village. On the highway were posted signs of cameras with a forbidden slash symbol that we had seen before near Soviet military posts. We learned that this Hungarian phrase Fényképezni Tilos means the taking of pictures forbidden! We complied as quickly and courteously as we could with the instruction to completely unpack the car, then repack it when none of our suspected contraband or our hidden defectors were uncovered.

Vienna, At Last

We roared into the Stadt Mitte of Vienna a few minutes after 5:00 p.m. and ran as fast as a couple, two toddlers, and an infant can move to the AmEx office. They were open! Until 1800 hours, thankfully. We cashed a check, learned of where we could book accommodation, and what was happening in the city center that evening. Across the cobble stone square we made reservations for that night at one of the most luxurious hotels of our entire European adventure. All the Mattesons were exhausted by our headlong flight from Eastern Europe and the adults decided that it was foolhardy to ask the children to submit to sitting in a civilized restaurant in our condition.  We strolled the Wien Kriskindlmart (Vienna’s Christ Child Market), a wonderland of glittering lights and Christmas festival foods that runs daily during advent. We marveled at the opulence of objects in the shop windows of Austria’s jeweled city. The lights and the tree shed a soft and welcoming glow across our path. Hot tea and cocoa warmed us. Pretzels, strudel, and cookies satisfied our hunger. Indeed, it was for us Wiener Adventszauber (Viennese Advent Magic). Among the ornate and expensive items we found more humble but equally delightful ones. We selected traditional straw stars that even at this Christmastide adorn our tree. I found my grilled bratwurst and senf (spicy German-style mustard), and it tasted of joy, the joy of freedom, the joy of knowing that we had completed something significant in our lives, and the joy of a faith affirmed that though the way may be hard, by God’s grace we can triumph over hardship. This I feel again every time I taste once more my Viennese Advent. May your advent be filled with joy also.

Vienna Christ Kildl Mart

Vienna Rathaus Kriskindlmart 1978 Photo credit: Sam Matteson