America the Beautiful

I’ve driven across twelve of our fifty states during the past two weeks, covering between three and four thousand miles.  Frankly, I lost track of the mileage number where my odometer started, but I do know that hard-driving miles were logged in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Mississippi — unique and interesting places, every last one.

D1B4995E-4712-4B06-BAB9-3FB0F194C805Wheeling along in my Dodge Charger — a vehicle made for such an excursion, by the way — I’ve had countless hours to ponder the mysteries of the universe.  I offer a few observations.

It’s a free country. That’s not just some tag-on phrase to use to emphasize a preceding statement. A man, if he is of a mind to and has the gas money, can go from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, California, and stop along the way to look at every concrete dinosaur and every college football stadium he might ever want to see. That’s freedom.

588D58AB-DED8-46E3-82AA-1232AC256216Kansas is a sea of grass, a vast ocean. One afternoon near Salina, I wondered if my outlook on life would be the same if I’d grown up out here at this portal to Oz, looking at 360-degrees of endless, grassy horizon day after day instead of the dark, engulfing woods of North Mississippi. Would I be more fearful and cautious if I were raised where the distance to the nearest help from any accident was so great?  Or would I be more conscientious and prepared having always been able to see approaching storms or animals for miles before they reached me, with time to strategize?  It’s hard to say.

People can adapt to almost any environment. Without doubt, that can be said.

North of about Dyersburg, Tennessee, people stop being like me/us. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of personal perspective.

B04AF927-83F8-4E50-9542-85410A2B90F1I think people in South Georgia are closest in kind to those in Northeast Mississippi. They’re hospitable and friendly in ways we recognize as hospitable and friendly. The late southern humorist Lewis Grizzard, a favorite of mine, was from there — born in Fort Benning, moved to Atlanta. That figures. I see life a lot like he wrote it.

When I was in Texas, I remembered — from mountains of past genealogical research —  that many Mississippians and other southerners flooded to the Lonestar State following the Civil War, escaping reconstruction.  In fact, a host of famous western gunmen came straight out of the South.   Natural selection left Mississippi with the stubborn crowd, I’d say, while the more adventurous (or the more proud or the more wanted or the more violent) “got the heck out of Dodge.”  Well, actually they got into Dodge, the real one in Kansas.  And they made that little cattle town a rough and tumble place for a spell, along with Abilene and Amarillo and Tombstone.

There’s still a tough, hard brand of human being, of common ancestry, scattered across those western states.   But while we may share the same great-great granddaddy, the western folk seem a bit more edgy to me. I guess that’s a feeling that could fall into the category of “paranoia derived from unfamiliar surroundings,” but I’m not entirely certain of that.  I am certain that I felt a little skittish at more than a couple of gas stations along the way over the last couple weeks.

FC3AC8BB-CDC4-4DFB-B769-CA8E5542A00BI thought about a favorite movie of mine — Lonesome Dove — as I traversed between Ogallah, Kansas, and Limon, Colorado.  I considered what true pioneers the people that inspired Larry McMurtry’s characters must have been. On my trip — by air-conditioned car on paved interstate highways — I worried a bit when my gas gauge got down to around 75 miles to “E.”  The stretches between signs of civilization were very long across those open plains. Yet amazingly, amazing Americans did drive cattle across there, two thousand miles on foot and horseback, from Texas to Montana. And they did it without a cell phone or internet access. Not some fictional character, but real life men — men of vision.  I’m envious of those pioneers … and I sincerely admire them at the same time.

The last part of my two-week expedition involved me and my youngest son Maddux helping my second-oldest Gabe return home from Fort Carson, Colorado.  Gabe served four years in the U.S. Army and received his honorable discharge.  I’m very proud of him, proud that he served his country.

Long drives offer time to think, time to consider where we are and what we are, as individuals and as a nation.

A final observation:  America’s a fine country, full of awe and wonder.

Go out and see it sometime.

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Yes, You’re On

“Is this on?”

He/she tapped on the mic and looked quizzically over the crowd/congregation/audience/student assembly.

“Is this on?”  It’s a universal question delivered by almost every public speaker or singer who’s ever gotten up and addressed a microphone.  I’ve noticed it, time and again – along with a vast array of other quirky and insecure human behaviors.  I love to watch people. And to listen to them.

Tap – tap – blow.  “Do y’all hear me all right?”

Please, for the love of heaven, just start talking/singing/speaking in tongues and let the sound guys work it out.

I’m sure I’ve done it, too.  I know I have. I’ve tapped on mics, shuffled papers, shuffled my feet, stared at my feet, stared at the words of a song on a piece of paper, said “uh,” “um,” and cleared my throat ad infinitum … a million times.  I try not to. I try to be smooth.

But frankly, we human beings just aren’t naturally smooth.  In fact, I am certain that I’ve told a story, the same one, to the same guy dozens of times. In my defense, however, if there’s a story that particularly connects me to someone, and I have limited other encounters with said person, the tale which we have in common between us just hovers between my frontal lobe and the back of my eyes, flashing like a neon sign, until I am compelled to tell it again — out loud.   Sure, he knows he’s heard it before.  I know I’ve told it before. That’s just the way it is. We smile and pat each other on the back nonetheless, as though we have spontaneously originated some new thought. We chuckle. We smile. It’s the same old repeated dance — we clearly know we’ve walked this path before, beyond any doubt whatsoever — but it’s our dance. And we like it, so we keep on doing it.

When we human beings go to a restaurant and someone comes in that we know — after we’ve been seated, after we’ve ordered — we might say something in this vein:  “Boy, I’m sure glad to see you.  I was needing somebody to come in who had some money so they could get mine.”

Ever heard that or a near version of it?  If not, listen closer. I hear it every single day.  It’s generally answered with “I was just thinking the same thing about you.”  And the participating parties smile and chuckle and pat each other on the back.

People are just quirky and insecure and predictable.  They seek inclusion and acceptance with small-talk rituals. People need people or at least they sure think they do. Bless their hearts.

And what else do we do?

Well, we rarely lead with what we truly mean to say.

Most things we do we do out of a sense of obligation.

We consistently drive over the speed limit … as though it’s merely a suggestion.

We’re timid when we should be bold, and we’re bold when we should be timid.

We talk about ballgames and the weather and long-lost cousins at funerals to mask our grief or to cover our lack of anything meaningful to say to the grieving.

We give to the needy to feel better about ourselves.

But we will occasionally stop what we are doing — something we might call “important” — to help a kid we don’t know put a chain back on a bicycle.

As bad as we don’t want to, we’ll go talk to a friend at a time of their trouble. When we’d rather run and hide and excuse ourselves by feigning busy-ness.

We recognize beauty in nature and in human creation, and we appreciate it.

We like kind people.

We’re not all bad. Sometimes we reach out and up.  We strive and achieve and live altruistically for brief moments, even when our animal natures would have us do the opposite.  I thank God that He gave us just a little spark of divine, a reflection, a flicker, somewhere in that whole created-in-His-image thing to help us do that. Quirky, insecure, predictable human beings that we are.

Tap – tap – blow.

Yes, we hear you fine.  Go ahead.

You’re on.

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The Gorilla Girl’s Relative Importance

“Come inside!  See her change before your very eyes!  The strange and beautiful girl becomes a terrifying ape!  Discovered in the wilds of darkest Africa, see her transform.  See the hair grow!  See the muscles swell, behind iron bars, placed there for your protection. Come!  See!  The Gorilla Girl!  If you dare.”

That’s what the carnival barker for the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show boomed, through his crackling microphone, just outside her tent.  A mystified kid of 14 and his friend stood slack-jawed on the east side of the midway.  An exchange of nervous glances and false bravado swirled in crescendo, culminating with the purchase of tickets to see this spectacle.  Our sweaty hands handed over our last crumpled dollars, and we huddled inside the square canvas enclosure with a dozen other lost souls.  How could such a shocking miracle of nature have come all the way to Tupelo, Mississippi, in September of 1978?

They are building an office building today near the spot where my friend and I stood spellbound by the Gorilla Girl forty years ago.  Four stories, they say.  The first of a matching pair planned for the ever-expanding Fairpark area of Tupelo, perfectly designed with its future mate to fit neatly into the aesthetically-pleasing architecture already in existence.  It’s a beautiful place.

At the south end of the fair’s midway, the “Himalaya,” twenty or so linked cars on a circular track, loudly blared rock music on a loop, coaxing passers-by into that high energy attraction.  Centrifugal force drove any passenger who sat to the inside of the ride outward into the passenger who sat at the edge.  It was crushing and irresistible and undoubtedly unsafe.  I remember how my arms felt straining to hold the lap bar in a futile effort not to drive the air from my friend who had mistakenly sat on the outside.  Once the ride started, it was too late.  And then it went backwards.

There’s now a statue of Elvis Presley, Tupelo’s most notable son, at the center of Fairpark.  Elvis was already a national phenomenon when he came to the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in 1956.  He was the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and his September trip to the fair that year was historic, an electric homecoming by a poor Tupelo boy who’d gone out into the world and made it big.  Those who were there on that day still remember it.  And they still talk about it.

Today, because of the perpetual love and adoration of Elvis, that one moment in September of ‘56 overwhelms all other moments in the history of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.  That’s an injustice, I think, to all those other years, decade after decade, that impacted impressionable Mississippians like me.  In 1978, my friend and I had not one thought of Elvis in our heads when those drum beats started inside that dark tent and a scantily-clad, long-haired girl writhed inside a cage in apparent pain.  Our hearts did beat fast though, probably even faster than the girls who squealed at The King twenty-two years earlier.

My mother took me on the “Zipper” when I was about five.  It was always set up near the south end of the fair, too, just northwest of the Himalaya.   The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Scrambler, the Octopus – they were all in that general area.  I assumed my mother was a mature adult when she put me on the Zipper, a vertical track of enclosed bench seats that went both up and down and rotated head over heels.  It’s hard to explain the motion.  It was like turning flips on a trampoline while on a Ferris wheel.  I was five.  She was twenty-five and today would be immediately arrested for child endangerment.  The thing had a “safety” restraint, which fit my mother nicely but allowed me considerable freedom of movement.  I’d say … sort of like a loose sock in a clothes dryer.  That’s about right.  She did try to catch me every cycle or so.  We never rode a Zipper again.

She changed.  The Gorilla Girl.  In dim lighting behind iron bars, a girl became an ape.  And we freaked out.  We didn’t talk tough.  We exhibited zero swagger.  When the gorilla grabbed the cage door and ripped it off its hinges, my friend I poured out of the tent back into the midway of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show with the other dozen lost souls, like one homogeneous liquid, through every flap available, under tent walls.  We squirted out.  The drum beat had stopped, and the barker had screamed at the ape in a terrifying voice, “Get back! Get back! Get back!”  We heard it somewhere far, far behind us.

They are building a beautiful pair of office buildings in Fairpark today, near the statue of Elvis.  I’m sure they will be wonderful.  Almost as wonderful as the Zipper, almost as wonderful as the Himalaya, almost as wonderful as the Gorilla Girl.

Almost.

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Parents Should Eat Free

There is apparently no age limit when parents become unable to embarrass their children – no age limit for the child, and none for the parent.

I continue to find material for publication on this particular subject, appearing in both the role of child and parent.  This week, however, I’ve decided to give my usual target – my dear sweet mother – a break and instead focus on my ability to embarrass my own kids.  Any parent knows, it’s not really that hard to do.  Kids from 10 to 50 are precisely attuned to anything their parents might do or say that could bring even a speck of negative or questioning attention upon the child.

IMG_7895

Despite a few stray tales to the contrary, I consider myself a sane, mature and put-together guy.  I take pride in the fact that I’ve managed to navigate this earth, avoiding a decent percentage of disasters, to the age of 53.  My peer group, for the most part, seems to count on me as a person of some knowledge and discernment.  And then there’s my crowning achievement – four sons, mostly raised, who’ve all turned out pretty good.

Up until this past week, I had begun to think that I was over the “embarrassment” hump as a parent, and that I could now safely interact with the world around me while in the presence of any of my sons, aged 27 down to 15.  But then Maddux – the 15-year-old – and I decided to go to O’Charley’s for a steak, and I discovered that I was, indeed, still atop the hump.

We sat down on a Wednesday night and ordered our favorite O’Charley’s fare – two 7 oz., garlic butter filets.  Maddux tacked on an appetizer of chips and queso dip and expedited our waitress to deliver him some homemade rolls to the table … pronto!  He then rocked back in his booth seat, flipped out his phone and started explaining to me how much better LeBron James was than Larry Bird.  This generational assault by my progeny on one of my beloved sports heroes set me squirming in my seat, and that’s when I felt it.  Or the better description, I didn’t feel it.  My wallet.

“Maddux, we’ve got a little problem,” I said to the lad across from me, who was by now working on his second yeast roll.

“Yeah?”

And the server, hopping to please, spun our queso dip onto the table and asked if there’d be anything else.

“No thank you, not at this time,” I replied.  My voice might have cracked just a little.

As soon as she was out of earshot, I broke the news.  “I forgot my wallet.”

Before Maddux could verbalize a response from behind his now saucer-like eyes, I reached for a most improbable straw.

“How much money do you have?” I asked of my 15-year-old.

IMG_7375We both stared at each other for what seemed like a minute.  He knew the $20 or so he might scrape from behind his learner’s permit wasn’t going to cover two 7 oz., garlic-butter filets and a side of queso dip, and I knew it would take me about 45 minutes to drive home and back with funds enough to cover this now regrettable outing.

I crunched a chip from the queso basket.

“Well, don’t eat the chips!” Maddux screamed over at me.

“You don’t think they’re just gonna scoop these up and serve them to someone else, do you?!” was my flustered comeback.  Emotions were high.

I took a deep breath and said “I’ll fix it.”

I made my way from our table to the hostess stand and there explained my dilemma to two lovely young ladies who represented the face of O’Charley’s, assigned as they were to the greeting and seating of all customers.  Apparently however, they were mannequins, because upon hearing my tale of woe, they just stared at me, saying nothing at all.  Not a peep.

IMG_7970Fortunately, I was overheard by the bartender.  And thankfully, this cocktail-serving Yoda of Barnes Crossing gathered up a manager, and they together explained that I could re-order the food that we had just ordered at our table online, “to-go.”

Problem solved.  All was well!  Because of course, I had my phone, and I could accomplish this new strategy from the very booth in which we sat.  Birds chirped under a rainbow somewhere in the distance.

However, since I didn’t have my wallet, I also didn’t have a credit card.

So, Maddux had to call my mother, and after only 10 minutes of strolling room to room and rummaging through a half-dozen purses while chatting to us on various unrelated subjects, she ultimately produced a valid credit card that was indeed usuable by O’Charley’s Online.  And she saved our day, big time.

Maddux exhaled, finally.  So did I.  We would have hugged if there hadn’t been a table between us.

And thus, my heroic Mom finally gets a well-deserved break from the embarrassing tales of her exploits often spun by her sincerely grateful and loving son.  Thanks, Mom.

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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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