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Posts Tagged ‘Alabama’

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

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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.

locket

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.

QC-824

Photo credit: changingmydestiny.wordpress.com

 

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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

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Clock Quartz

A quartz time piece can tell me precisely how late I am to my next appointment. Photo Credit: http://www.clockworks.com

There hangs a clock on my kitchen wall that ticks each second off in crystalline precision. It is not the pendulous kind of clock that fascinated me when I was a child.   It is a thoroughly modern timepiece. Where once the distinguished name of a chronometer’s creator, a proud craftsman, was proclaimed, the name of him who had conceived and executed a device of great intricacy with rasp and skill, with turnings and dexterity, with jewel bearings and ingenuity, with ratchet and pawl, now an anonymous “quartz” is imprinted.

Nevertheless, I can now have time dispensed to me with the accuracy of the Atomic Clock in Boulder, Colorado, where unsuspecting Cesium atoms oscillate at their native frequency of over 9 trillion ticks per second while voyeur technologists watch and listen intently and sound a radio gong at the passing of each second. Now I can know with astonishing precision how late I am to an appointment or how little time I have left to do what I must and would do. But I do not better know how to spend my time now than before.

Only So Many Heatbeats

Graydon Larrabee, a colleague of my Texas Instruments days, dismissed all time invested in exercise as folly, thus: “You have only so many heart beats, I understand. You waste yours grunting and sweating; I will spend mine more pleasurably, here, beside the pool, drinking Margaritas and watching the sunset.” An interesting idea. But if by raising your heart rate to 120 for thirty minutes per day for five days of every week, you could lower your resting heart rate by five beats per minute for the remainder of your life, you would reduce the overall number of cardiac contractions by the equivalent of about five years over a normal life span. So exercise might extend your life by a half decade, if life were as simple as arithmetic. I am the beneficiary of a youth of active exertion so that my resting heart rate is often as low as 45 pulses per minute. Cardiologists call this condition “Bradycardia,” and sometimes show concern. Nevertheless, at that rate I should live to the age of 101. By this logic I reckon that if I can get my heart to stop all together I should expect to live forever.

Indeed, if I were to live to see eighty Februaries I should have expended about two and a half billion seconds, and my heart would have contracted just about as many times. And if I had taken a step with each heat beat, then my journey would be nearly a million miles, two round trips to the moon, or 38 times around the world. Such a trip should take us far from where we began. But as we circumperambulate the globe we may end very near to where we began. It all depends on where and when we stop and how we wander, like laps around a cinder track.

I half resent and half revel in those ticking clicks that are the sounds of seconds evaporating. It is inevitable that time be dispensed in such small and manageable doses. The ocean of time is so immense that we would drown is centuries and millennia if it were not dispensed to us in mouthfuls of seconds. Still seconds often seem to come so fast we invariably spill many of them, never to be recovered. Time wasted is time we will never taste again.

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown's office metering out them minutes of boredom waiting as his patience. Photo Credit: www.riotgamesmerch.com

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown’s office metering out the minutes of boredom waiting as his patient. Photo Credit: riotgamesmerch.com

My memory is clogged with clocks; the grandfather clock in Dr. Brown’s office. His clock ticked and ticked and ticked interminably, and we waited impatiently an eternity to receive shots or to endure his probing of my sore throat or for an examination of a perennial ear infection. Ma and Pa Moates, too, had a clock, a cuckoo clock that ticked frenetically and, on the hour, hoarsely crowed its wooden heart out. Then there was the mantle clock of my Mother’s sister, Ruth, whom we all called “Aunt Sister,” a name that now seems a strangely ambivalent appellation for a confusing relationship, but in customary use seemed so natural and easy to pronounce. In the culture of my home and family “Aunt Sister,” “Uncle Doc,” and “Miss Mary” were the gentle way of speaking that raised no eyebrows, though we had no “Uncle Bubba” until I married into the Rhodes’ family of Texas. But I digress. There were clocks everywhere ticking, ticking then.

Einstein was right: time is relative. But our sense of time obeys different laws than the clocks or the mechanics he worked out. Time drags its feet when we would hurry toward an event, leaving long parallel grooves on the ground. And time rushes ahead of us as we drawback from the future, it dragging us forward inexorably. In the South we often stop the clock’s pendulum all together when someone dies, just as we cover the mirrors. The clock has stopped for our loved ones to be sure. But perhaps it is good for us to take time out to grieve and to ponder life. Then we return to the frenetic pace of business as usual.

The variability of internal time may explain why I have always had trouble with rhythm. I find it impossible to keep a steady beat. I theorize and excuse my lack of “groove” as a congenital inability to properly subdivide time because of my bradycardia. “I don’t have a rhythm bone,” I insist. My musician son has a different explanation: “Dad, you’re too white, that’s all!”

Sometimes this temporal defect has been simply an embarrassment, but occasionally it has been a sad disability that caused me to shake my head and cluck at myself. I recall the Sergeant’s remark when I was in the Marine Corps, “Matheson (intentionally and precisely mispronouncing my name with a gratuitous “h”) would make an excellent guide if only he could march. He can’t keep a steady cadence.” Many times I have mocked myself by singing in a halting beat, “I’ve got…rhythm….I got music. I got my gal. How could ask for anything more?”

Still Running

I have always been racing the clock, it seems, challenged to keep up. Often this has been true figuratively, but in my teenage years it was most literal. I was a runner. My lanky legs made me ill-suited to short sprints. My lack of long-term stamina precluded any prowess at distance. But my stupidity made me a candidate for the middle distance. The willingness to subject oneself to agony is a prerequisite for such races. The taste for masochism is a distinct asset for the middle distance racer.   The half-mile, the 880 yard run, is the plebian cousin of the more cosmopolitan 800-meter “dash” of international competition. The 800 is a race devised by a sadist. I can hear him exclaiming at the moment of inspiration, rubbing his hands together, “I know! Let’s have these poor chaps run their hearts out for a quarter of a mile, but instead of letting them break the tape then, let’s have them slough out a second lap around the track. What bully fun!”

I always approached the race with anxiety and dread. I was like a skittish dog approaching its master, the one who always cuffed his ears in greeting, making him howl. “Butterflies” they delicately call the sensation of the anticipation of an unwelcome, painful event. My reaction felt more like hornets ominously swarming in my abdomen; at the next moment they may decide to sting in a deadly attack. Perhaps the psychological experience was necessary to prepare me physiologically for the next two minutes of exertion. I could feel the adrenaline pouring into my blood stream. In “fight or flight,” like a deer fleeing the hunter, I started at the sound of “Runners to your mark! . . . Ready!” then an eternal pause, and at last the starter’s pistol retort. It is no accident, I believe, that such races begin with the runners fleeing from the sound of a shot.

It most often begins well enough, in a civilized fashion. Each runner dashes straight down his assigned lane for the first fifty yards, vying for a slight advantage by the time he reaches the curve, enough advantage to justify his cutting off his nearest challenger at the turn when we all break to the inside. The clock ticks steadily then. Paces come four or five to the second and the grass at the side of the track blurs by. The other runners, arms pumping, are close; you can hear them breathing the first deep breaths they have taken since the start; and at the break they jostle each other. Once a runner only a half step ahead of me at the curve cut in and spiked the muscle above my right knee. A thin red stripe grew down my leg and bathed my black track shoes. I never got the rust color out of the laces although I washed them repeatedly. But Neet’s Foot oil restored the leather of my spiked shoes and kept then supple for years after I had hung them up for good.

The aptly named backstretch is coming, this is the place where we stretch our stride and let our feet eat up the yards. If someone else leads I mustn’t let them get out of reach; if I lead I must carefully measure my expenditure of heart beats, just enough to stay ahead, but not too many to squander myself before the finish. But I have only fifteen seconds more to strategize and to adjust before the first quarter mile is ending.   I see the white line signaling the mid-way point of the race and I hear my coach yelling “49, 50, 51, 52….” He is watching his stopwatch and calling out the seconds as they tick off. His voice is growing louder as I approach: “56, 57, 58, 59, 60…a bell rings as we begin the last lap. “Pretty fast pace,” I note silently as I make the turn. Then the seconds begin to sag like a Salvador Dali painting, hanging limp and long as I am lost in my own disoriented world as the second lap repeats the first. When will this race ever end? I am trapped in the commitment to the people in the stands, to my coach, to myself to run on and finish. Where are the other runners? I can hear them, I think. Are they struggling as am I?   When will they make their final move? When should I make my final kick?

Start Your Kick!

Here it comes, up ahead, the curve. “Now! Start your kick, Sam.” I lean forward slightly and push hard against the ground to spring forward. I accelerate and lean into the curve. It feels good, for a few seconds. Then as I come around the final curve, it hits me. As if a bear had suddenly jumped onto my back, I instantly gain three hundred pounds. The clock speeds up while my motion slows to a viscous pace. I strain to keep up with the world but it is receding. The crowd is roaring as the runners fan out across the lanes for the final eighty yards, but their voices are muted, far away. The only sounds I hear are the sounds of my labored breathing coming in a jagged three-four waltz rhythm, inhale for two beats; exhale explosively for one count. And my heart is beating in my ears like a clock, loud and insistent. I hear the footsteps of my rival, too, who is pulling up to my right. They sound somehow ominous. I dig deeper to run faster. The tape is across the track, and I focus on crossing it in just a few more ticks of the clock, a few more steps, a few more heart beats. The world turns red and my vision tunnels to a small circle centered on the finish. I fling up my arms and lunge across the line. “Did I finish first, second, last? No matter. I finished. What was my time? Good. I beat my personal best.”

The Finish

One of my high school team mates (Alvin Seale, left) makes his final kick to win the relay race in 1965. I still feel as if I am running, myself. Photo Credit: Sam Matteson

I marvel at what I once did not think possible: that one entity can be two contradictory things at once. Time runs simultaneously fast and slow. Time both sprints and ambles. My last race was only yesterday. It was fifty years ago. No, I am still running and wondering about the finish. I wonder if I will have enough to make it in good time. I hope God is running with me and with be there to catch me at the tape. It is taking all the strength that I can muster.

I am ambivalent about ticking clocks. At once they remind me of how inexorably the seconds evaporate, but at the same time, their tiny voices are speaking a reassuring rhythm of faithfulness.

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The Pines

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

The colors of autumn in Vermont where hundreds of Mattesons fill a graveyard, the citron medallions of Colorado’s aspen, the Emperor’s crimson of a Japanese maple in the garden, all make their claim on my admiration. But give me, instead, a pine tree, or—better—a whole woodlot of evergreen prickly posts smelling of balsam and pine-straw-needle mulch. This is the tree that is my brother, or at least a close cousin.

Our little house in the swamp was built of pine, each board branded SPIB for “Southern Pine Inspection Bureau.”   The studs I knew intimately from when they were installed like soldiers on guard duty, silent, attentive, their feet toe-nailed into the plate. Later they were hidden with camouflage of sheet rock and siding. They were out of sight then, but I knew they were there, standing still and silent, faithful like the trees they had been. I could see the floors, made of pine too, only sanded, varnished and polished to the shine of a yellow mirror where you could see your face when you hung your head over the edge of the bed. And I could smell them. Their balsam scent waffled to me like a balm of Gilead that always soothed my soul; it was the smell of home.

A Boy Should Have A Wood

I came naturally to this affection for the needled citizens of my life from rambles, aimless and free, in the “woods” as we called it. Every child should have his woods, though a “hundred acre wood” is a more immense space than most neighborhoods can afford. Some must do with a mere thicket like my son’s “Bamboo Forest,” fifty feet on a side. The important thing is that you can lose yourself in it and set free your imagination to swing abound without breaking out into the sight of everyday. But I had my woods that stretched from a few yards from behind our lot to the edge of the world, I supposed, since I never reached its far border.

There were other trees about to be sure: oak, and chinquapin, hickory, black walnut, sweet gum, wild cheery, and sassafras, of course, but mostly there were pine trees. They were of all sizes from infant bushes to a giant mama tree that challenged this boy to reach around her trunk with a complete hug. Many others challenged him, too, to climb. The wind would make each one sing, and the lyrics sounded like, “Come up, boy. Come up and brush your hair against a cloud.” So I accepted one invitation after another; often it was an easy climb with branches near the ground, better than Jack’s bean stalk ladder to the sky, but sometimes the only way up was to shinny: to grasp the body of the tree with its rough red-brown bark in a two-handed hug and place a dirty bare foot on each side pincering the trunk. Then push up and hang on with your arms until you can get another toehold. Up and up, each minute higher and more perilous. It can cost to climb a tree; I recall intense maternal scoldings for torn shirt pockets and rosin soiled shorts. I never fell like my brother once did, though I do bear scars on my chest and abdomen from breathless slips and bark-burn descents. Mostly, I ascended without fear or incident.

The View From Above Is Worth The Climb

You knew you had gone high enough, though, that you had reached the zenith, when she began to give way to your grasp, when your perch swayed with every breath of air and when the earth beneath seemed far away. When you are high in the crown of a piney wood, people, viewed from high above, become tiny and curious circles of flesh, and their cares shrink in significance, as well. On days when my cares press in, I sometimes go again to the needle nest and see me down below in a true out-of-trouble experience. All seems different when viewed from far above, even if only in the imagination.

I am partial to pine trees. Not just because they were kind to me and gave me a fragrant gymnastic diversion but also for what they still can teach us if we pay attention. Perhaps their patient steadfastness grows out of a difference of perspective. Life looks different when viewed from above. Often we can see no way out while we stumble about in the understory of brush and bramble. But from above a reason for hope is easier to see.

Sammy Gene's boyhood home in rare snow fall. Photo credit: family photo.

Sammy Gene’s boyhood home in rare snow fall ca. 1964. Photo credit: family photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And rain comes like tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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The Toys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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