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Posts Tagged ‘character’

Church house

Religion is a touchy subject. No doubt about that. People would always get excited whenever the topic of religious faith came up when I was a child; this was so even if everybody had at least one favorite, whether they admitted it or not, be it one of the “Bible Belt” orthodoxies, some version of a thoughtful or an unconscious inherited agnosticism or even an absent-minded hedonism. Religion and politics—I was taught early in my youth—are not fit for polite dinner conversation, although why I do not remember ever being told. They cause indigestion, I suppose. This state of affairs seemed particularly strange to me since, down South, religion is the basis of the third standard question with which we skewer our victims in the inquisition of new acquaintance. After “Where y’all from?” and “Who’s your folks?” the final poser comes: “What’s you church?”

Like a Nose Out of Joint

I have seen people sometimes get huffy when you bring up religion as if you had asked whether they were wearing polka dot boxers, or long johns, or no underwear at all. “None of your d*** business” they seemed to say, even if they were too polite to voice the words. I have wondered over the years what it was that riled folks so when the subject turned to the spiritual, especially since I suspected almost everybody had an opinion on the matter of God and the state of his immortal soul just like almost everybody has a nose. And like a nose, it was sometimes put out of joint by the slightest affront or the mildest provocation.  Of course, I am aware that wars have been fought for centuries over religion, and I have seen some fights for myself that were only slightly less bloody than the War of the Roses. “I have a problem with organized religion,” I have occasionally heard, which always prompted me to think “Would you find disorganized religion more palatable? I think that can be arranged.” Perhaps, I concluded at last, the off-putting comes from what we consciously or inadvertently communicate: an offensive sense of our “rightness” and of our “righteousness” and consequently a tacit indictment of the others’ implied waywardness and wicked apostasy, if not their blatant and obstinate stupidity.

Certainty Has Eluded Me

Yet, this sense of certainty always eluded me. Indeed, the more I learned and the more powerfully I felt the allure of my own convictions, the more I realized what one risks in such matters. Maybe that is why many of my friends and acquaintances, as well as strangers, grow uncomfortable when the subject raises itself. When you follow a path that tracks the edge of an abyss only dimly lit by an uncertain moonlight you might be forgiven a bit of skittishness. Perhaps a little compassion would prompt us think twice before lambasting a brother with a liturgy that seems a little strange at first.

I, too, am conflicted by thoughts of religion. On one hand, I think that we are all so terribly alike in our hunger for meaning and significance; we want to matter and to be valued. We are all like Monte, the homeless cyclist who accosted me one day, “Pardon me, Sir. Could you spare some change? I’m powerful hungry.”  We are all hungry for something. I am sure of that.

My hunger was no less real than that of my brother on the road, only mine was a hunger of the spirit not of the belly. I concluded that we are all alike: hungry homeless ones. Yet we are also remarkably unique in our particular journey. “But does it really matter?” I asked myself. I became convinced that the journey of the spirit is, indeed, important and that it does make a profound difference what we choose to guide our life, for we risk the squandering the only true treasure we have, our one precious life, if we misapprehend the way of things. So I came to appreciate the dispatches of the soul that stout-hearted explorers sent back from the frontier.

A Lesson from a Lepidoptera

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Moth-Photos.jpg

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/

Among the varieties of religious expressions I discerned two categories: the outer, public religion of the club and social institution and the inner, when-nobody-is-watching kind of spirituality. I contend that one cannot always know what is happening on the inside by appearances. One summer evening this truth was demonstrated to me when as a young teenager I arrived at the church house to attend the vespers worship. I was loitering with my friends in the vestibule laughing and joking when an itinerant moth that had been aimlessly circling the overhead light suddenly decided to explore the recesses of my ear. One wag later quipped that the moth must have seen the glare shining through my (hollow) head and flew toward the glow. Whatever the reason, I was instantly knocked off my feet. I was unconcerned about those around me, about what I had held in my hands that I had sent flying. All of my attention was totally captivated by the sensation of the creature wriggling in my head. I was horrified. My ear itched, hurt, and tickled at the same time. I pounded on my head. It was futile. Each motion only drove the frantic and benighted insect deeper into the darkness. When it reached my ear drum it began a deafening tarantula dance with it wings and six tiny legs.

The dignified adults who glanced toward the back of the sanctuary frowned. What was the commotion? “Sammy’s slain in the spirit!” They might have thought.   Then they might have cautioned, “Beware the evil influence of the charismatic.” I, however, was not in the least interested in theological proprieties at that moment. My conniption came not from religious ecstasy but rather arose from an entomological infestation. I flung myself down on a pew writhing in pain. Soon my father was looking down at me. “What’s the matter son?”

“I’ve got a moth in my ear.” He stifled a chuckled but got to work to try to help. He took me home immediately. First he attempted to kill the bug with peroxide. The panic-stricken Lepidopteran only fluttered against its constraints more vigorously in the oxygenated foam of the solution. Then, after some thought, my mechanic of a father found some baby oil that he used with better results. Then with a pair of eye-brow tweezers and an hour and a half of labor his big hands crushed the hapless bug and gently exorcized pieces of the moth-spirit. It was slain but not in the Spirit. The experience made me forever afterward anxious to be in the vicinity of circling moths. My ears will begin to itch, and I scratch or at least cover them without thinking. Like the spectacle of my moth-possession, however, few knew what else was really going on inside me; they were without power to read my heart from my face. They could not see the storms and the conflict raging inside. I wondered if there were others like me, outwardly smiling but inwardly raging, bluffing their way along as I, but just as afraid to admit their weakness to anyone.

Two Varieties of Religiosity

Thus, I saw that there were really at least two kinds of religions: the Sabbath morning dress up big church one, and the one I knew on the creek bank. For me the former was a desiccated prune salad of which old people routinely partook because it “kept them regular,” one that was recommended because it was good for your constitution even if it were entirely unpalatable. The latter, however, I discovered to be an exciting adventure like the taste of wild Scuppernongs hanging from a limb in the woods, unimaginably sweet when sucked warm with the still living juice in them, the skin tart, the seeds bitter, the whole bronze or green but never dull, dead, or lifeless.

As I have muddled through the years since, I have sought and found—more often than less—the living kind of faith. I now rarely say that I am a “religious person,” since the declaration smacks of the former rather than the latter persuasion. Instead, I now strive to self-identify as a “Christ-follower.” This is closer to the “Way” described in the New Testament than the secular expectation of “church people.” I am also persuaded that this is closer to the “old time religion” than conventional wisdom would allow.

A recent Pew survey suggests that the American people may be less “religious” than in times past. As I think on that statement, I wonder if it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might mean that we are just more honest about what we truly believe than heretofore. It just might also mean that we are tired of prunes. As an alternative, my experience compels me to ask, “Have you tried fruit fresh-plucked from the vine? I recommend it.”

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What's-in-Season_01(1).jpg

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What’s-in-Season_01(1).jpg

[My next post “All-day-dinner and Singing-on-the-Grounds” with examine the other side of the coin—our desperate need for community in a living faith]

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Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth Grade South Brookley School

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth grade South Brookley School ca. 1957

Childhood is an innocent space where we become who we are. I was not a beautiful child, but, on the other hand, I was not a cruel child, as children sometimes can be. I was not a difficult child in elementary school, either. At least that’s the way I remember it. I was eager, earnest and—some might call it—“experimental.” I tried out ideas, and at the beginning, I did not think through to the end what were the implications of my impulses and inspirations. But that’s the nature of a child who is innocent of consequence.

To be sure, there were times when I sat in Mrs. Becton’s office and then waited on the broad wooden steps after school for my mother to pick me up. Whatever her actual size, “Mizrez Becton” will always seem a figure six feet tall, dressed in a black suit with white lace trim, wearing heavy-heeled, high-heeled dress shoes that sounded on the pine board floors of South Brookley Elementary School the cadence of authority. In the evening, I still imagine, the black janitress would spread rose-colored cedar sawdust on the floor—as I often saw her do after school—to sweep up the footfalls of the Principal and teachers and the thousand stumbling scuffs of children and, too, the hundreds of ideas lying there unused that were tossed about but failed, this time, to stick. Mrs. Becton was in charge. Her gait and demeanor said so to me. She was the Principal teacher, but her kind eyes were not hidden behind her tortoise shell glasses.

The Great Bathroom Experiment

Grade school is a place to begin to find out where you fit, jostling against girls and boys your own age. The jostling, for me, did not stop even in the boy’s bathroom. I wondered why they called it “bathroom” since it contained no fixture anything like a bath except an immense urinal trough. It was the fourth grade when I discovered one of the wonderful properties of the equipment with which God had blessed Adam, a urinary tract that terminates in a marvelously directional nozzle. To my boyish delight, I could urinate well up the tiled wall behind the ceramic trench. When I revealed this discovery to some admiring comrades, they responded enthusiastically to my demonstration with their own attempts. Thus, began a short-lived tournament. Who could hit the highest point? That was the goal. Unfortunately, our glee was apparently too boisterous. I heard a “clump, clump, clump,” that I recognized all too well. Surely a lady would not come into the boy’s bathroom!

I was wrong. My explanation of our “experiment” did not appear to persuade the lady in the black dress. Whether she was amused or not, I cannot tell. Although my mother could not refrain her laugh, although she tried to hide it behind her hand, when she told me that she had had a telephone call from Mrs. Becton. My embarrassment was sufficient punishment, I think; I recall no other consequence except a deep redness in my face that returns even now when the competition comes to mind.

But I was truly not a mischievous child. Whenever I was accused of transgressing the bounds of propriety, I had an explanation that seemed sound and reasonable to me. Once I was called an exhibitionist. But, honestly, I was falsely accused. It was a conspiracy of events and my Mother’s infatuation with technology and fashion. Alabama, Mobile in particular, was hot in the spring—and unbearably humid in that un-air conditioned age. On a particular day I was dressed in a nylon paisley short-sleeved shirt and an old man’s cotton undershirt.

The Hateful Nylon

The air in the classroom hung hot and damp like still wet, poorly wrung clothes on a line. No breeze stirred in the classroom, even though all the sash windows were open to their full height. The nylon shirt clung to my skin. Nylon was the new “wonder” fabric; light and sleek like silk but affordable to everyone. I looked at the paisleys swimming randomly in blue over my stomach. I loathed paisleys. The forms that swarmed over me and seemed to devour my body were neither distinctly identifiable as animal or vegetable but were, instead, the creation of some deranged imagination designed to offend the masculine sensibilities of little boys who were forced to wear them by their mothers “without another word, young man.”

It was hot. I was hot. Somehow, the paisleys amplified the stiflingly humid warmth. Then the teacher left the room for an errand. I had an inspiration! Too many layers of clothing were the reason why I was dying of heat prostration. I did not hesitate. I unbuttoned by shirt and stripped it off. I began to remove my old man cotton undershirt, wet with sweat. I intended to redress with only the hated paisley shirt when my plans were thwarted. Just as the cotton shirt came up over my head, I saw through the weave, my teacher reappear.

“Sammy Gene Matt’son! What are you doing?”

“Just, trying to get cooler, Ma’am.”

“You go directly to the bathroom and put back on your clothes. Then, report to Mrs. Becton’s office.”

I have always hated paisleys.

The Secret Code of Reading

I came to reading late. It was second grade before I made sense of the black blocks they stacked in meaningless clumps and irregular rows like some inky vegetable crop that I did not like. I did not care for Dick and Jane, either, who seemed to want to do little more than run and see their dog, Spot. I was interested in National Geographic.   I “read” the pictures of far-off places and exotic adventures: a toddler sitting in a footprint; a monkey swinging from a branch; a raft floating on the ocean.

I was in the “second circle.” When I was forced to read aloud, I stammered and stuttered with fright and mortification at my ignorance. I did the best I could, but it was a paisley shirt to me. Mrs. Vera Pounds, however, would not let me be satisfied. I thought that she stopped teaching and began mettling when she called my mother. They decided that there would be no more National Geographic until I had learned to “read it proper.”

Presented with this ultimatum, I chose to make the most of it. To my surprise, I ultimately did break the code of the black blocks. I learned, too, that there was a person standing behind the picture telling his story in lacy black print that surrounded the photographs. The child was sitting in the fossilized foot print of a giant meat-eater in the track way in the Pulaski River in Texas; the monkey was one of a newly discovered species in Madagascar; the raft was the Kon Tiki and carried adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who proved by his voyage that Polynesia could have been peopled by ancient travelers from Ecuador.

I look at the school photograph of a child. “South Brookley, 1957” it reads. I am dressed in a polka dot knit shirt and a smile, my lips closed, my hair combed to the side. This is the same me that looks back in the mirror in a suit and tie, still smiling a closed lip smile, but with thinning hair combed straight back, now. I outgrew my paisley nylon shirt. Everyone does. We put off childish things. We become who we are. I look in the mirror and I see. I am wearing a paisley tie.

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: www.bows-n-ties.com

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: http://www.bows-n-ties.com

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A Great Name

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:
“Budapest tram 3” by Siemar – originally posted to Flickr as El 2. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

The motor coach cruised the French countryside through fields of dazzling yellow canola. I and about thirty other conferees from an internationals scientific conference were enjoying an excursion to the CRNS laboratory in Saclay. The young graduate student in the window seat turned to me and glanced at my name tag. His eyes widened slightly and he exclaimed, “Are you the Matteson?”

I laughed but inwardly was pleased at the recognition. In the relatively small community of scientists in my field of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, I was indeed the only “Matteson.” I, perhaps like many who strive to become distinguished in their disciplines, secretly craved recognition and the acquisition of a great name. I was happy to exult for a few moments in the wan glow of a qualified superlative: I was in fact, the Matteson who had dripped an arcane fact-drop into the vast ocean of knowledge. I was pleased that the ripples of that discovery had caught his attention. But all I had done was uncover a scientific detail that would take an hour to explain to a layman and who would, at last, be left scratching his head in puzzlement at its dubious significance.

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Over the years I had struggled with the desire to make something of myself which in the sciences consists of being the first to discover a phenomenon or to explain accurately a physical process. I had been trained well by my scientific mentor in my graduate student days to design and construct critical experiments. Dr. Powers had insisted that I become my most severe critic so that my work alone could answer any subsequent reviewer or reader. If anyone would read my published work, they could trust that the results were diligently obtained and the conclusions were trustworthy.

A Hungarian Sojourn

I recalled as we passed through the brilliant yellow kilometers how that years earlier for a few weeks in the summer and early autumn of 1978, I and my immediate colleagues were the sole trustees of the knowledge of the temperature dependence of a process called “ion mixing,” because we had completed a difficult but exciting experiment. I had been dispatched to Budapest by my post-doctoral mentors both to present the results at the biennial international conference and to remain in Hungary along with my family, consisting of a wife and three children, aged six, five, and four months.

After a few weeks of acculturation in Germany at the Max Planck Institut with my European collaborator and host, we had relocated to the east and set up housekeeping in an apartment in Buda the weekend before the conference. I stepped onto the Villamos, the electric tram, that ran to the city center. I was ready, clad in a dark suit and tie, my beard neatly trimmed but still full, my poster and the draft of my paper tucked securely in my brief case in my lap. As the tram neared the stop for the Institute for Science and Culture where the conference would be held, I pulled the cord that signaled my stop.

The dull yellow Villamos halted, the doors opened with a whoosh and I stepped down to the pavement, as inconspicuously as I could. I wanted to be mistaken for a Magyar, a Hungarian or at least a Német, a German from Munich, perhaps on holiday. An öregasszony clad in a black shawl, print dress and apron accosted me. From her crouched position, bent over with age, she looked up at me and began to berate me in Hungarian with a curled fist from which protruded an arthritic finger. Of course, I had no idea of what she was accusing me since my Hungarian consisted of only a few phrase book essentials, like please (kérem) and thank you (köszönöm). The pedestrians that coursed by on the busy street stared at the scene. When they looked at me, I only shrugged (as Hungarian-like as I could). Mercifully, the old granny moved off having relented briefly in her assault. She crossed the street while I headed in the opposite direction. I was relieved but felt guilty at my relief when I looked over my shoulder to see her addressing her harangue at another hapless man. “Not an auspicious beginning to my stay in Hungary,” I thought.

I was wrong. Fortunately, my work spoke for itself. Broken Hungarian was unnecessary. I was encouraged when one of the big names in the field acknowledged the significance of our results and also the typo of an erroneous minus sign in one of his published papers (that we had identified and he had previously corrected, but in an obscure errata). My post-doctoral mentors were pleased, as well, at the reception of the work. They were also delighted when their fears were put to rest at lunch that day. We dined with the Minister of Science for the nation of Hungary who was partially footing the bill for the exchange between the National Science Foundation of the US and his country. The future of the collaboration between Caltech, my academic home, and KFKI, the Hungarian National Institute for Physics hung upon his favorable impression. My Hungarian friend and host fidgeted with his white linen napkin as I told of my experiences over the weekend and my encounter with the old crone. I elaborated on my adventure at the meat market when I had held up five fingers and had tried to ask for öt szelet, five cutlets. The butcher, apparently very proud and protective of his Hungarian tongue, corrected my pronunciation. It seems I had learned to pronounce the difficult Hungarian short umlaut o from a southern Hungarian and those sounds offended his northern ears. I would later hear that I pronounced Hungarian words (since I did not actually speak Hungarian) with a Transdanubian, that is Austrian, accent. I do not think that it was a compliment.

The Butcher’s Friend

My host and my mentors all leaned back in their seats when the Minister remarked through his interpreter (although he spoke excellent English and understood every word I said as his immediate laughter revealed), ”It is clear who will be staying behind after the conference. He is the one who is making friends with the butcher.” We all laughed and relaxed a little. My mentors beamed at me, sensing the approval of this powerful man, when the his excellency patted me on the shoulder and said, ”You remind me of my son. I hope that you will have a productive and pleasant stay in our country.”  Then he lifted his glass for a toast to the collaboration.

It was indeed a grand adventure. Decades later I still remember those days with fondness and gratitude. That scientific paper (tudományos könyv) ultimately appeared in the scientific literature and has been cited many times. By it I began to achieve my childhood dream of becoming an explorer, not of geographical spaces, but of intellectual ones. Over the years, too, I have struggled with pride, wondering if it were unworthy to desire a great name. Then, I recently hear a sermon about Father Abraham and his call that liberated my heart at last.

Abram, as he was first called, heard the Almighty saying, “Go to a land that I will show you. . . . And I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Oh, how I identified with this call! I went to a far land when we sojourned in Hungary, where we dwelled as aliens and strangers. It was there I began to acquire a “great name,” at least among the small community to which I belonged. And the point of this “fame?” I learned finally to become a blessing. Ultimately as a professor, I was able to encourage thousands of students. One of my graduate assistants once even gave me a button that read, “Almost famous,” not quite world renown but important enough to a few. I pray that I have been and will continue to be a blessing to those who trail after me, that I will indeed be “The Matteson” who showed the way and the one that demonstrates that a great name can be earned even by a child sprung from the mud of the swamp of his youth.

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya Lisa (6), and nővére Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya (Mother) Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya (daughter) Lisa (6), and nővére (sister) Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

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John Smyth, ca. 1608 Puritan Separatist and founder Baptist Church Amsterdam Photo credit: Wikipedia

John Smyth, ca. 1608 Puritan Separatist and founder Baptist Church Amsterdam Photo credit: Wikipedia

The world is filled with words, many of which I do not understand. In my European travels both made possible and necessitated by my career as a physicist in the international science community, I often found myself trying to be at least functional even though I definitely was illiterate in the local language and dialect. In one case, in particular, however, I experienced a strange sensation, something like that which the first century Jewish celebrants of Pentecost must have known in the New Testament when they heard the disciples speak, yet understood in their own language.

I was visiting Amsterdam on the weekend before the conference would begin in Eindhoven, up the train track and inland a little over a hundred kilometers. I had a Sunday free and decided that it would be fun to worship at a Baptist church in Amsterdam, since in 1608 John Smyth led a group of English Separatists to the tolerant nation of Holland and out of the reach of the oppression of King James I. I would later visit Bakkerstraat (Baker’s Street) where in the 1600s sat the Bake House where the Mennonite Congregation worshiped and shared their building with the English Separatists. There they also labored, baking hardtack for the sailors of the Dutch East India Company. It was there also that the first Baptist Church in history was founded according to many accounts. I resolved not to allow the chance to escape. Here was a rare opportunity to worship in the birthplace of the Separatist sect which my first American ancestor Henry Matteson would join in Rhode Island less than fifty years later. I felt a personal connection somehow to the history of the place.

A Problem

However, I encountered a big problem when I looked up “Kerken Baptisten” or searched for “Doopgezinde” (i.e. Baptist) in the telephone book in a vain attempt to find a Baptist Church. Apparently there were no “dunker” churches left in the great city of Amsterdam. Yet, as I surmised from the context and a quick check of my pocket dictionary, there was a listing for a “Tabitha,” a home for seniors managed by Dutch Baptists. I had found my opportunity! I deciphered the Dutch script to understand that there was a service at 10:00 am. A few trams stops later I arrived at the tall building and, directed by a sign in the lobby, I proceeded to the “lift” (pronounced “leeft”) and pushed the button for “vloer 10” (floor ten). When I arrived I smiled my most Dutch smile, and repeated the greeting that I had often heard: “Goedemorgen,” trying to sound as Low Country as I could even though it probably came out sounding much more like the German that I had studied in my undergraduate days. I accepted with a functional, if slightly stiff “Dank U,” the song sheet of hymns and choruses. I studied carefully the cipher on the page. I recognized every third word or so a cognate of an English word (even if slightly mangled in the spelling) and another third could have been German. I was relieved when I realized the first hymn, Een Vaste Burcht is Onze God, was Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The service began and I sang lustily along with my Dutch brothers and sisters, pronouncing phonetically the words printed on the page as closely as I could with my slightly defective understanding of Dutch diction. Frequently the English word appeared on the page in synchrony with my inward recitation of the hymn.

What an epiphany! How must it have been to have heard alien words and sounds yet understood them inwardly as one’s own tongue? It was a glorious experience. It was if I were transported back to Jerusalem of the first century and that miraculous Pentecost. But then came the sermon. There were no subtitles, nor prepared text to follow. The spell seemed broken.

The Sermon

The kind-faced pastor took the podium and began speaking. He mentioned “Paul en Silas in Philippi.” Of course it sounded to my ears as if he said “Pah-oul en See-lahss een Feelepee.” Fortunately, I had heard the story. In fact, it was one of my favorites. I settled in to absorb what I could by letting his beautiful musical words flow over me. But he kept using a word that jarred me with its unfamiliarity. He continually said something that sounded like “Khaht.” It is hard to transliterate because the first sound was a deep clearing of the throat unheard of in English. I was distracted for many minutes thinking about what this word could be. Then I remembered seeing the sign that inevitably hung above a bicycle chained to the sign post, “geen rad plaatsen”pronounced “kheen rad plahtzen” and meaning “to be placing a wheel (that is bicycle) [here is] forbidden!”

“Ah-ha! The G in Dutch is that strange guttural sound I hear. And the final d sounds like a t to my ears. So the preacher is speaking of the central character in every Bible story: G-o-d, God,” I shouted inside. “God of course you, domkop!” That is when I began to understand his point. For the last five minutes of the sermon I struggled to put into comprehensible Dutch what I had received: “In problems God is there.” Just as when Paul and Silas saw no way out while they were imprisoned, they sang praise to God anyway. What a blessed message for the elders around me who daily faced hardship and problems. I, at last, decided that I had a sentence that I could share with my “Pentecostal” Pastor to let him know that I had been blessed by his efforts, even if I could not follow every word.

The Final Word

After the service, standing at the door, he smiled and shook hands with all the congregation as they departed to enjoy the post-service coffee and petit-fours. My turn came and he shook my hand enthusiastically as if we were long separated brothers. I touched my chest and said, “Ik been Amerikaans.” He nodded. Then I shared my well-rehearsed line, “In problemen God is er.” I was careful to pronounce the divine appellation as correctly as I could.

The Pastor replied in words that every Christian understands, whether in the Netherlands or the Bayou or the Alps—words I shall never forget. He looked me in the eye and declared with a stout voice: “Amen! Amen! Hallelujah!”

To which I replied then as I still do, “Amen, indeed!”

Bakkerstraat, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. On the short alley in the early 1600s stood the Bake House where the first Baptist Church was formed by John Smyth. Photo credit: Google maps

Bakkerstraat, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. On the short alley in the early 1600s stood the Bake House where the first Baptist Church was formed by John Smyth. Photo credit: Google maps

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Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene's favorite TV Star in the 1950's. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene’s favorite TV Star in the 1950’s. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D,, via Wikimedia Commons

I was born in the century when the world shrank. Television came to my home in 1954 with Howdy Doody and Edward R. Murrow, Milton Berle and the Hit Parade. Through the magic window that flickered in black and white lines, I glimpsed a wider world than I had ever known existed before. I was a faithful acolyte of the new broadcasting cult. I learned by heart the times and names of all the offerings of our one television station, channel 10, WALA, an NBC affiliate, launched only the year before. I could recite the schedule flawlessly from the test pattern at six a.m. to the closing mediation of “High Fight” at midnight even if I were not permitted to sit transfixed before the screen all day, as I surely I would have done had I had been allowed.

A Faithful Peanut Gallery Member

How I admired my fellow member of the “peanut gallery,” my schoolyard chum, Johnny Simms! He possessed a phenomenal and encyclopedic knowledge of automobiles. He even could identify them with his eyes closed as they passed by the playground on Cedar Point Road, correctly identifying the make and model, year and specifications of all the roadsters and coupes and sedans by their sound alone. But I countered in my way and held my own in the schoolyard cluck, preen and strut. I recall my pride as he and I reclined against the warm trunk of a vehicle one day during recess at South Brookley Elementary School, our heels locked into the rear bumper, our backsides comfortably and impertinently resting on the sloping deck of somebody’s incidental automobile, as I recited to him the offerings of the evening’s broadcasting or answered scheduling questions. He was properly impressed at my unique and hard-won knowledge. Ours became a cycle of mutual, reciprocal admiration, even if founded on dubious distinctions.

Although I was acquainted with all the evanescent events of the air, I had my particular preferences. Until the age of nine, of all the snowy programs that danced in half-hour increments before my eyes, my favorite was “The Howdy Doody Show.” I waited patiently to hear the question, “What time is it, kids?” and then to answer along with Bob Smith’s voice, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!” and to sing along with the theme song that inevitably followed. His was a world of wonder and adventure. This wooden-headed red-haired freckled cowboy marionette with his assorted stringless side kicks—Buffalo Bob, wise and kind, Clarabelle Hornblow, who never spoke but honked “her” answers and was lethally armed with a seltzer bottle canon, Chief Thunderthud, the initiator of the interjection “Kawabonga!” and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Tim Tremble, Bison Bill, and other occasional visitors —took me and millions of other children to a world of technological fascination and slapstick comedy. His perennially smiling and forty-eight freckled face (one dot for every star in the flag) became an icon of the energy and hopefulness of mid-century America—and its naiveté. He showed up not only on Saturday morning but also other places, even in the test pattern that began the broadcast day for NBC. His smile encouraged us; the worst of history, it said and we hoped, was behind us, both for us and for the rest of the world, a world of which I was only dimly aware.

A Skip Across the Carribean

It began to dawn on me like a Saturday morning that the world was wider and more complicated than I imagined when I chanced to hear a familiar tune as I cranked the tuning knob of our Motorola around the channels passing the number 4; a crackling voice that sounded familiar sang out “Hola, cabritos! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody!” I stopped and stared through the electronic snow as a dark-haired puppet, my very own “Howdy,” cavorted on the screen. But he was speaking Spanish! A rare atmospheric phenomenon had occurred and the television signal had skipped across the Gulf of Mexico and reflected from the ionosphere beaming over the curve of the earth from Havana, Cuba to Mobile, Alabama. He was speaking Spanish, so I concluded that my wooden friend must be in Mexico, just like the extended family of my human friend, Johnny Hernandez from Birdville, the only person I knew who spoke “the Español.” I watched until the sound grew too scratchy and the broadcast image too indistinct to make out, but the sights and sounds in my imagination never faded. I had seen, for the first time, over the fence of the horizon to a place where children like me laughed at silliness and seltzer shots yet sang in Latin-nuanced voices, “Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! . . .”

It was 1956. It was the year I also first heard of the Russians—and of the Hungarians. Halloween was coming with candy and scary fun, but something more menacing than jack-o-lanterns and goblins intruded into my living room without invitation with broadcasted images of the Hungarian revolt. I saw newsreels of frightened families fleeing through the snow with suitcases in hand. I stared as teenage boys, Budapest youths, only six or seven years older than I, flung rocks and brickbats in anger and frustration at the inexorable Russian heavy armor. One image burned into my visual cortex of such a scene: there in the foreground a young man, uniformed in a sweater that could have been mine and armed with stones alone, opposed a tank painted with a red star with hammer and sickle beside. Behind it was a semicircular colonnade with bronze statues. It was a drama that frustrated me. I was a child and was impotent, yet I was outraged. Here was a nation enslaved but struggling in futile obstinacy alone as I stood by wringing my hands. “The Hungarian Revolt” they call it. It never had a chance to grow into a full-blown revolution. It was over in less than two weeks. America, the savior of Europe, could do nothing.   We were as powerless as children to intervene. But we had seen of what Communism was capable. We had seen what oppression looked like. And we feared that it was possible to happen on Government Street if “they” were to wrest the power from our leaders’ hands by guile or by force.

I gave up on Howdy Doody. I turned instead to Mister Wizard and to Continental Classroom, especially after Sputnik frightened and fascinated me when it tracked overhead the next year. Year by year more of the world filtered into our living room than ever before. Strange-sounding names like “Budapest” and “Debrecen” were replaced with different but equally strange names like “Saigon” and “Da Nang” and “Hue.” I grew to young adulthood seeing with electrons well over the horizon, even though the line of my eyesight was ever blocked by a swampland forest screen, even though my travels as a youth were bounded by waters and my parents’ lives: the Atlantic, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi.

Irány Magyarország Welcome to Hungary

At last I left the swamp and at long last visited Europe for a time with my wife and my own children. We made Budapest our home for three months while I worked as a guest researcher at the national laboratory. The People’s Republic of Hungary was still “socialist,” in 1978 but its leaders had warmed to tacit capitalistic partnerships between individual enterprise and governmental investment.   A thawing breeze blew in from the West in the “Cold” of the war of ideals. The National Science Foundation had seized the opportunity to nudge the scientists of the two nations closer together. But the old hated images came again when we crossed the border with Austria: Hedgesshalom with machine-gun-wielding gray soldiers and suspicious, jealous eyes; the word, “Tilos!,” “Forbidden!” everywhere.   We soon learned that a cartoon of a camera with a line slashing across it meant: “to be taking pictures— tilos,” or more practically there was a post of Russian soldiers around the corner.

I was apprehensive, but I did develop a deep affection for many of Buda and of Pest, even if the saying “one must have sharp elbows to be Hungarian” is true. I had met them in empathy as a child and, now, I appreciated them for the kindness and generosity of true friendship. Riding one day in the auto of my host, Dr. Joszef Gyulai, I was trying to memorize the way from our apartment on Eagle’s Hill to the Zoo at Vidam Tér for a hoped-for Saturday excursion with my young family. Down the boulevard we sped when he pointed out a shop front that he identified as a puppet theater where he had such fun with his daughter Sophie. I thought again, of course, of the televised marionette that danced for me as a child. I thought also of my own puppet Howdy Doody that my parents had purchased for me and that I had loved nearly to pieces. I wondered where Mother had put it.

A Flash of Recognition

Suddenly, I shuttered in a frisson of recognition as I do now while I recount it to you. I glanced ahead to Husok Tér, Heroes’ Plaza. I recognized the colonnade. I had been here before. It was more than déja vu.   I had actually viewed this very scene, from this very spot, but vicariously from my living room in Alabama, twenty-two years before. How the scene had changed; how I had changed; how the world had changed! Gone were the tanks and brick throwing teens. Gone was the cold light of October displayed in stark black and white. It was early September and the sun was shining on the last of the Austrian and German tourists of the season. The scene was washed in golden light and a warm glow. The world had shrunk, indeed, and had revolved as well.

We now belong to a neighborhood where we can stand at the fence of a backyard thousands of miles, half a world, away and see with electronic eyes what triumphs and tragedies are unfolding in Darfur, or Syria, or Sudan, or Rwanda, or Beijing, or Budapest.

I see “migrants” fleeing for their lives from the insanity of war in Syria, and I am witness to a great atrocity. And if we see what is happening next door, I wondered then are we—no, I—not accountable? If we are witnesses, then we must be part of the scene, as well. And if I am part of the event, then am I not culpable? Can I now so easily turn aside to slapstick comedies or “reality TV” or simply change the channel and ignore it all? Do I justly think, “CNN is just good TV”? Can I do this and remain part of humanity? I wonder.

I was born in the time when the world shrank, and then, sadly, I discovered that I had other neighbors, people who were like me whom I had overlooked. The Cyclopic box with a glowing singular eye has brought them into view, my fellows with invisible strings who are not made of freckled wood and who do not always have reason to smile perennially.

The iconic Chain Bridge from the Buda tunnel. Note the popular Russian vehicle the Lada in the foreground. This was the spring of Glosnost. Photo credit: S. Matteson 1978

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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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A Reply to Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

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

On Hearing Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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