Peter Walked On The Water

My preacher said on Sunday that people tend to focus on the negative. They are drawn to it, he said.

I’m surely more cynical than I used to be and something of a know-it-all anyway, but every now and then a preacher will still deliver an idea that I’m willing to take home and think about.

Our interim pastor there at the First Baptist Church — Pastor Chuck Hampton, a Shannon native —  continued his message with a rhetorical question that he believed accentuated his point. He asked us — his congregation — what was the first thing we thought of when we thought of the Apostle Peter. The rhetorical answer Pastor Chuck thought would be a “given” was that Peter denied Jesus Christ three times outside the Sanhedrin Council, before the cock crowed. And I think he was about 90% correct with his expectation. Most of us did think of just that moment.  We went straight to the negative, without passing GO, just as our preacher predicted we would.

In fact, I thought very specifically of James Farentino‘s portrayal of Peter in “Jesus of Nazareth,” the 1977 television miniseries, which was a pretty good depiction of the gospel story.  Being an impressionable 12 year old when I originally saw that classic made-for-TV extravaganza, it’s still Farentino’s image that illustrates Peter’s denial moment in my mind.

But Pastor Chuck pivoted in his message saying that Peter, despite our knee-jerk thoughts about him, was “the most courageous disciple.”  He pointed out that it was Peter who drew his sword in the Garden of Gesthemene against the Roman soldiers who were there to arrest Jesus.  Peter was clearly willing to die for Jesus.  He continued along that line for the balance of the sermon.  I think the larger message Pastor Chuck was trying to bring home was that we need to be on our guard so as not to always focus on the negative.

That’s certainly a good message to take from a church service any Sunday.  But it’s not exactly the one I left with.

Pastor Chuck got me thinking about Peter, the man. The disciple that Jesus himself nicknamed “The Rock” did fail, and he did so over and over. But he succeeded far more, and he did that over and over, too.

Peter denied Christ, without question.  But he had the opportunity to do so because he was there. Other “disciples” weren’t there.

I remembered that Peter and John ran to the tomb on that first Easter morning. That’s always stuck out to me.  A grown man. He took off and ran when he heard the women’s tale of the empty tomb — in excitement, in crazy hope, probably in dread of what he might find, too. John, in his gospel, says he beat Peter there, out-raced him.  They were real human beings, like us. Peter, in particular, was a man of action. I like that a lot.

Peter walked on the water one stormy night, before he sank. We all remember that he sank. But just think, he stepped out of the boat and did something miraculous. Peter was bold and courageous and faithful. Yep, he got scared and sank.  But Peter walked on the water. He actually did that. Just let that sink in. No pun intended.

“That’s the real deal right there,” Pastor Chuck might say.

Believe. Try. Keep going. Keep doing. Like ol’ Peter did.

That’s a message worth taking home.

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Nice, Neat Packages

I’ve been told that I like to wrap things up in nice, neat packages.

In fact, this observation, made by a friend of mine, went farther than “like.” I was told that, invariably, I am internally compelled to tie the endings of my stories to their beginnings.

That I can not under any circumstance leave a loose end, even when I might want to.

That, whether it is my conscious intent or not, I will always put my ideas into boxes, rows and columns of a metaphorical spreadsheet, and eventually sum them up, on the bottom row, right-hand box.

That I might be considered “creative” but that my brand of creativity has concrete boundaries from which my psyche simply will not let me break free.

That my mental quirk — absolutely requiring summation and resolution — extends beyond my writing, also manifesting itself in my other endeavors and activities.

I was finally insulted with the ultimate insult that any creative person can receive — I was called “analytical.”

I paused and carefully considered this defamation … as I am a very introspective person.

And yes, I do know that there are four incomplete sentences in this story already. But they sound the way I want them to sound when you read them out loud, so I want to keep them like they are. I do admit it bothers me though — greatly.

I think my friend could be right.

While eating at a Waffle House the other day, I caught myself picking up the straw wrappers of others at my table and carefully rolling them up. I then inserted the tiny paper balls into a used coffee creamer mini-cup and folded the little foil lid back in place. I stacked up the empty creamer cups, nesting them inside one another, and moved them to the edge of the table in hopes that the next time the server passed by she would remove them. Maybe that’s not normal.

Waffle House servers have this routine when you are first seated where they lay out a single napkin on the table and then place your knife and fork on that napkin. I admit that I intently watch this process take place each time I eat there. I admit that I don’t want my knife or fork to touch the table. I don’t want either of them to get off the square of paper. Is that wrong?

Sometimes little ideas of mine get big. I’ll want to do something, to create something, but immediately I see all the holes. Undeterred, I keep going, stretching out in multiple directions until I address the shortcomings, those loose ends, and I usually end up finding some system or procedure or sentence that makes the gadgets and schemes and stories I’ve come up with run smoothly.

I’m an engineer by trade. I try not to leave any issue unaddressed. I admit that gets exhausting sometimes.

I guess I crave order. I want to fix everything. I want to make things work out. Make them right.

Everything.

Rationally, I realize that’s impossible.

So … the question at hand is this: can Clark Richey, the analytical writer of this column and the roller-up of other people’s straw paper at Waffle Houses across the south — me — leave a column with an open ending? Without resolution? Without a moral to the story neatly typed out? Can he make himself do that?

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Critical Care

I’ve been in ICU for a week.

Actually, that’s not true. My father has been in the Critical Care Unit at the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo for a week. I’ve been around, in and out.

They don’t call it ICU anymore.

All walks of life pass through the doors here. Men, women, young and old, rich and poor, every race, every religion — inevitably they will all sit in these patchwork blue, possibly-vinyl recliners that line the walls of the large second floor CCU waiting area, just to the right when you come off the elevators.

The observable differences between human beings are striking.  Physically, of course, they vary greatly. If it’s not politically incorrect to say — a lot of them are fat. I hear it said on CNN that that fact may be at its worst in our beloved Mississippi. We do like food.

My mother poignantly chimed in as I sat with her awaiting our next visit with my father.

“We’re first in the nation in that. We’re number one in fatness.”

She began googling, “I wonder who’s second. I bet it’s Arkansas.”

It was Alabama.

Still, some people are like frail little birds, even in Mississippi.  I am entranced by these small people. Their very existence is foreign to me.  I imagine that they could almost be swallowed up, or flattened in a hallway accident, by the big‘uns, like most of my family.  Our bunch consistently falls into the large category, including me.  It’s just a matter of how many X’s will accompany the L in the label of our sweat pants.

People are loud and abrasive.

My mother says, “A lot of people just aren’t aware of other people.”

I guess that could be it. But I’d say, less tactfully than my mother, that a lot of people just don’t care about other people. That could be it, too.

Many people — most — do care, however. That’s crystal clear to anyone willing to open their eyes in the CCU break room.  In there, people who wouldn’t normally even sit together drink coffee and pray and talk, side by side.

After a time, a relatively short one, they share, and they watch out for each other. They give their Chick-Fil-A gift cards to each other. They stack up food on a counter for everyone, every neighbor. Maybe Mississippians are fat because we are the most compassionate state. Maybe we’re first in compassion.

When someone dies, almost everyone cries.

At some point in life, we all come here, exactly here to the CCU in Tupelo or some place like it somewhere else. We’re in the back or we’re in the blue chairs because someone we love is in the back.

People are different. But they are more the same than different. They have love in them, for someone. Even the fat ones. Even the loud ones.

“Come on, let’s go down to the food court,” my mama said.

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Treasure Hunt

You can view life in a lot of different ways.

Over the course of mine, I’ve imagined it variously as a puzzle to be solved, a race to be run, and a competition to be won.  Sometimes when the weight of the world presses down, life can seem like a sentence to be served.  But, as is the case with most things, there’s the counterpoint.  On occasional rare and care-free times, life can also seem like a party to be enjoyed.  Jerry Seinfeld called that “Even Steven,” I believe.

Lately, my paradigm of life has been this: “Life is a treasure hunt.”

Perhaps, it’s because I’m getting older – I’ve got four grandsons these days – but I’m finding more and more pleasure in uncovering some bit of knowledge or lost artifact that links the tangible goings-on of today with fading memories of yesterdays from long ago.  It’s darn near time travel if you ask me.

My mother pulled out a small, brown cannister the other day and handed it to me.

“You might want that,” she said.  “That was Mama Gardner’s snuff tin.”

Immediately, my mind went back to sometime in the mid-1970’s when my grandfather Mort Gardner and I would eat lunch with his mother, Lois Gardner, at her home on East Main just east of where I now live.  We’d break from our day of pumping gas and fixing truck flats at his Sinclair Service Station on the southeast corner of Water Street and Highway 45 and enjoy home-cooked vegetables and cornbread mid-day with “Mama Gardner” and my Papa’s siblings.  They all spoke of my great-grandmother’s snuff-dipping in hushed tones, somewhat masking their mischievous glee at telling a secret and the nervous embarrassment that their own mama still unrepentantly dipped snuff … whenever she wanted.  I immediately remembered that.

“Your Mimi poked those holes in the bottom,” my mother said.  “Mimi” was Delia Mae Gardner, my grandmother.  I flipped the tin over and sure enough there were holes pierced inward through the bottom of the snuff tin.

“She used it to cut out biscuits,” my mother added.

I’ll need a separate story someday to discuss my grandmother’s cooking.  It was 90% of her existence for the duration of time that I knew her, about four decades.  It was the way she showed her family that she loved them.  And she loved them a lot.

“I’ve cut out biscuits with it, too, but mostly I just kept as a keepsake, because it was Mimi’s,” my mother said and slid the tin over to me.

“You should take it.  Now you know what it is.”

Lately, I’ve been digging around in the historical collections of Simon Spight and Claude Gentry, which we house in the Tom’s Drug Store building on Main Street in preparation for future presentation.  And in that effort, friends of mine and I have uncovered and rediscovered snuff tin after snuff tin – well, no tins literally, not yet.  But I wouldn’t bet that more of those little metal cylinders themselves won’t ultimately be unearthed from the mountainous walls of papers, pictures, pots and presently unidentifiable items we’ve been crawling through.

From the Simon Spight Historic Collection We’ve found some western books and posters that we’ve have put on display at Six Shooter Studios just down the street – some from Gentry, some from Spight.  We’ve pulled out Simon’s scale model of Baldwyn’s downtown, circa 1935, and we are going to restore it very soon.  It’s an impressive four-foot by eight-foot model, handcrafted and painted by Spight himself.  It needs to be seen.

We even found an old 1943 Baldwyn football schedule. My friend Simon had written on it “For Clark.”  I smiled at that discovery, and I heard him speak the written words, in his unforgettable deep voice, in my mind.

So much stuff.  I’ll tell you more about it in future weeks.

I left Mama Gardner’s snuff tin with my mother.  Yes, I know what it is now, but I also know my time with that little treasure can come later.  It’s got a good home for now.

Yep, life is a treasure hunt these days.  Life is good.

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Music & Optimism

It looks like winter is just about over on Main Street.

And with the birds chirping in the morning, and the people pulling out their short pants, and the flowers and ideas daily stretching from bud to bloom, a substantial layer of optimism has taken its annual place alongside the pollen of the spring air in our little Mississippi town.

Things are happening.

The 4th Annual County Line Music Festival is approaching at a rapid pace.  Our #2 local festival (after October’s Okeelala) will complete its solar cycle on April 21st and sprawl across downtown from The Claude Gentry Theatre to the Azalea Court Main Stage.

There will be a first-time music video film festival going on at the theater starting at 2 pm.  We already have entries from Mississippi filmmakers in Jackson, West Point, Clarksdale and Clinton, expecting plenty more.  Couched around those original works will be three or four classic movies about music – think Elvis, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles – showing at 10 am, 12 pm and 4 pm.

An independent film called “The Gift” will also play during the day.  This critically-acclaimed short was shot on location in Tupelo in 2015 by Scottish filmmakers Gabriel Robertson and Ken Petrie (and co-stars local actress Amye Gousset).  You can take a guess as to what musical figure it might be based on.  Tupelo … know anyone from there?

Even our own Six Shooter Studios will get into the act as we release Marietta-native Chance Stanley’s debut video “Crosstie Town” to close-out the theater day.

Down on the Azalea Court Main Stage, the festivities will start bright and early at 9 am.  Baldwyn High School’s marching band will open the day with the national anthem, followed immediately by a stage full of talented and unique musical talents from across Mississippi. Ronnie Caldwell & JoJo Jefferies, The Sean Austin Band, Rust Bucket Roadies, TomFoolery, The Paul Tate Trio, Chance Stanley & The Michael Brothers, Of Warriors & Poets, Mark “Muleman” Massey & grammy-winner Billy Earheart, AND the 1st Baptist Church children’s choir will all entertain, from 9 to 5-ish.

Baldwyn’s Eric Nanney of the band Twenty Mile will host the Main Stage, and when he’s not doing that he’ll run down the street and help Paden Bell at County Line Music with their annual Singer-Songwriter competition, another huge part of the day’s events.

And the coupe de grace, for me at least, will be the All-Day Karaoke Contest at Tom’s Drug Store.  Yes, that Tom’s Drug Store.  The one with the big neon sign.  Bimbo Griffin, Stuart Cockrell, and I have been working on restoring that historic icon for, I think, 80 years now.  And finally – good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise – I’m actually going to let the public come inside.  The answer to whether or not patrons will truly have an option of drinking a milkshake or buying a hamburger made there that fateful day remains somewhat murky.  We’ll see.  But I know we can sell you a Coke, and you can sing your heart out with Scott Bratton and his karaoke machine, and you can look around at some of the neat things on display, graciously passed down to us by local historians Simon Spight and Claude Gentry.

Mixed in with all of this are a bunch of new businesses from one end of Main Street to the other that weren’t there last year.  Nothing but good in that.

So … spring has sprung, I guess.

I asked Eric Nanney if I could get in his singer-songwriter contest – I play guitar and fiddle around with music myself – and he said “sure.”  He said, “Just brush up a couple of the songs you’ve written and come on down.  We’ll have you a spot.”

I actually hadn’t written anything yet – I just figured I could do that sometime before April  21.  Maybe on the walk over.  Maybe I don’t have too good of a chance of winning, but I’m optimistic.

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Men At Work

When I turned in last Saturday night, I didn’t move for seven hours or so, not a twitch.  The positions of my head, my hands and my feet – when my eyes finally, grudgingly, greeted the morning sun early Sunday – were exactly the same as they had been when my consciousness had closed on the previous week the night before.

I contend that sleep that comes as the result of collapsing from total exhaustion is the best kind.  I don’t experience that kind of sleep very often.  And acknowledging such a fact here carries with it a twinge of shame for me, maybe more than a twinge.

I’ve been blessed throughout the greater part of my adult life to have been able to work mostly with my head.  Some might say, pejoratively, that I work more with my mouth than with my head, but that’s splitting hairs.  The fact is – unless the AC is on the fritz – shuffling through papers, making drawings, signing checks, writing stories, talking on the phone, calculating stuff, dreaming, scheming, and telling other people what to do while sitting in a chair do not make a person sweat.  But hard work, real work, often does.

IMG_8552I spent the day at Marietta Wood Supply on Friday.  A crew of talented people and I were filming a music video out there.  Thirty or so other guys – from the ages of my sons through and beyond my own age (that’s 53) – were out in the elements with us, steadily milling green lumber from massive logs brought in on truck after truck.  The day for the sawmill crew started in the crisp cold of seven o’clock in the morning and finished in the heat of the day about three.  The men, mostly of East Prentiss County stock, variously drove lifts and pickers, operated the conveyors and saws, bundled and sorted the finished boards, and stacked lumber with their hands, all day.

Our crew of eight, including director of photography J.B. Lawrence from Clinton and musical talent Chance Stanley, a Marietta native, worked at the sawmill most of the day on Friday.  I was on my feet directing our part of the whole circus –  achieving that elusive balance of keeping everyone happy, sufficiently accomplishing the task at hand, and, most importantly, giving those around me the distinct impression that I knew what I was doing, whether I did or not (ok, so maybe I do work with my mouth as much as my head) – from 5 am until 8 pm.  And then I did that again at a different location on Saturday.  And then I collapsed in sleep and didn’t move for seven hours.

Now this morning, I’m writing, not sweating.  But I know there are some good men at Craig Pharr’s sawmill in east Prentiss County that are driving lifts and pickers, operating conveyors and saws, bundling and sorting finished boards, and stacking lumber with their hands, all day.  They’re working – hard work, real work – producing lumber, so I could build a garden shed or a work bench if I wanted to, so talented people of a completely different type can make fine and beautiful furniture, and so that all their own families are provided for.

They’ll probably sweat.

Chance Stanley’s song, the one we produced the music video for, is called “Crosstie Town.”  It’s about the routine of hard work at a small-town sawmill.  The men at Marietta Wood Supply were the inspiration for it.  I can see why.

I hope they sleep good every night.

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Life Is Fragile

I didn’t know Tim Burke.  Not really.

Tim showed up at the Dixie Theater in Ripley two Sundays ago to audition for a theatrical production I’m directing over there this spring called “The Peacemakers: A Western.”  He filled the doorway that led into the 200-seat auditorium with a mountainous, six-foot-two, 260-pound frame, and before Tim had ever said a word, I said to myself, “well, we’ve got us one cowboy for sure.”

He was the first guy at the theater that Sunday.  He beat me there by ten minutes and sat waiting for our 2 pm start time.  I knew Tim’s “stat line” of height and weight because he included both those pieces of information inside the 3-page resume of his theatrical experience, which he handed me, tucked neatly behind his audition sign-up form.  I didn’t know Tim Burke, but it sure looked like I was about to.

Dixie Theater.jpgWe asked Tim to read three parts two Sundays ago – Gates, a tough Texas sheriff; Porter, his loyal deputy; and McKee, the town boss. He did well on all three, and we exchanged phone numbers.  I told him I’d be in touch.  Two days later I messaged Tim and told him he had a role for sure, but we hadn’t quite settled on which one.  I asked him if he’d come back the following Sunday and read a fourth character – the villain Van Belanger.  He was more than willing.  We started a texting conversation, and Tim suggested that I could learn more about his capabilities in theater if I would read the resume he had given me.  I already had.

Tim was born in 1958, and he had started his involvement in theater when he was about 30.  He had acted, directed, and crewed everywhere from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Memphis, Tennessee.  He had a couple film credits to boot.

One thing I learned in a hurry was that Tim was a talker, and his favorite topic, at least where I was concerned, was theater.  Over the next week we exchanged more than 90 messages.  Tim helped find a couple actors to come read for roles we hadn’t filled.  He told me about his experiences in acting and directing.  He told me he was moving to Belden.  He wanted to make sure that he didn’t have any F-bombs or GD’s to say in any of the roles for which he was being considered.  He mentioned his church.  He mentioned that he and his wife were thinking of taking a little trip as a Valentine’s treat to each other.  He mentioned his friends who might be interested in helping with our show.  He told me he’d picked up the ability to duplicate many accents because of all his time in the military.  He told me more than that, over 90 messages worth.

Tim came that next Sunday and read for the villain.  It’s the role any tough-guy actor would want – a black-hearted hired gun with ice-water in his veins with scene after scene ripe to be stolen.  But when it was all said and done a day later, we cast Tim as the loyal deputy Porter, the more demanding and vital role, and Tim, the seasoned actor who had nailed that character above all others in audition, gracefully accepted, his enthusiasm intact.  He took a script home and read it three times.  I know that, because he texted me and told me he had.  Maybe I was beginning to know a little bit about Tim Burke.

Tim sent me a message at 12:24 pm on Tuesday, February 20.  He told me he was, more or less, a method actor, and he had a couple questions for me.  Involved in something else at the time – something which now for the life of me I can’t bring to mind – I didn’t immediately text back.

Around 5 pm on Tuesday, February 20, while checking a trailer behind his vehicle along the side of the road near Cotton Plant, Mississippi, Tim Burke was struck when two vehicles on Highway 15 and County Road 81 wrecked and crashed.  Tim died at the scene.

His friend Rick Robbins commented, “Tim Burke was a good man, a friend of mine and a theater lover like me, and he’ll be sorely missed by his family and all who knew him.”

I didn’t know Tim Burke – not really – but I think I would have liked to.

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