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Saturday, May 26, 2012

98. Memorials

It was Memorial Day weekend and I looked forward to a peaceful time at the farm. My wife was off baling hay and I wandered into the back yard to enjoy the shade and a rum and tonic. As I rounded the giant fig tree, I stopped.

There, under a drooping catalpa tree sat C.W. in the form of a Prussian private of the World War I era. He sat tall and straight in a garden chair, his blond hair trembling in the breeze. He held a pointed helmet covered with heavy cloth. He saw me, drew in the late spring smells, and nodded.

Herr GroƟer Dope,” he said.

“C.W.,” I said. “What’s up?” I couldn’t wait to hear. “You making a movie?”

“I am your distant cousin Gustav,” he said. “From Bremen.”

“Gustav from Bremen?” I said, playing along.

“I appear briefly on your family tree,” he said. ‘Geb. 1900, Gest. 1918.’ No kinder.”

I had nothing better to do than pretend. “Died young?”

“In my bloom,” he said. “I had the misfortune to be the last soldier in our company killed in the Great War.”

“On the last day?”

“November 11th, at the 11th hour,” he said. He turned and looked quietly across the field and into the trees beyond. “Reminds me of the French countryside, before the bombs came down and the trenches went up.”

“Tough break,” I said. “Buying it on the last day.”

“A dubious honor,” he said. “But far from the saddest.”

“Oh?”

“No, there were worse. On the American side. Our armies had ceased warring two days earlier,” he said. “We settled in our bunkers along the Meuse River and thought we were safe. We had no casualties for two days straight.”

“What happened?”

“Your General Pershing didn’t follow the lead of the other commanders. He wished that my country would suffer as much as possible. So he kept attacking until the 11th hour.”

“After everyone else had stopped?”

“Charge after charge,” he said. “We had translators on loudspeakers yelling to them to stop. That the war was over.” He shook his head. “But they kept coming. The Americans suffered 3,500 casualties the last day.”

“Sad,” I said.

“Some were Schwarzen, from the Black 92nd Division,” he said. “We thought perhaps your side deemed them dispensable. But then a white soldier from the 313th Infantry, I learned later his name was Henry N. Gunther, came through the fog firing at us.”

“What did you do?”

“We had no choice,” he said. “He was the last on your side.”

“And on yours?”

“They sent me out to retrieve the body of a dead comrade,” he said. “A lone sniper from the American trenches took his revenge as the clock struck 11:00.”

I didn’t say anything, just imagined the scene.

“Know how many American generals died on that last day?” he asked.

“No, how many?”

“None,” he said. “Know how many colonels?” Without waiting, he answered, “None. Lieutenant Colonels?”

“None?” I guessed.

“Same for majors,” he said, his voice rising.

We sat in silence for a moment as he subdued his anger.

“I suppose …,” he said. “I suppose it was worth it.” He stopped and composed himself again. “After all, our sacrifice did, as they say, ‘end all wars.’”

I turned. “Are you making some sort of joke?” I said.

He moved toward me. I looked into his eyes and, as I did, they grew larger and became two black orbs, large and empty. Then I saw movement. My eyes remained transfixed as scenes moved across like gray horses passing through the mist.

I saw a hospital room in Manila filled with Japanese soldiers laughing and playing baseball, using infants as bats.

I saw a field of frozen soldiers at Stalingrad, their arms bent at grotesque angles and with questioning looks on their faces.

I saw Marines dead on the beach at Tarawa, a picture withheld from publication for fear it would spoil the public’s appetite for war.

I saw a line of skeletal faces peering through a fence at Dachau.

I saw a line of soldiers being calmly machine-gunned in the wasteland around the Chosin Reservoir.

I saw a group off teenagers hugging the jungle floor in terror as mortar rounds fell into them in a lonely piece of Hell near DaNang.

I saw a mob of young Iranian boys, holding plastic “keys to heaven” and screaming “Allah is great,” as they charged through a minefield to clear it for their soldiers.

I saw the murdered inhabitants of an entire village in Bosnia piled like cordwood, awaiting burial.


Hans Leip, a lonely German soldier,
wrote a romantic poem during WWI that
was destined to become a popular song that
would endure for decades, Lili Marleen
Enjoy! - C.W.
 I saw a father running for cover, carrying a young son who was soiling himself from fear as the bombs began dropping on Baghdad.

I saw an Afghan bride and her groom explode into a bloody mess, spraying their ghastly remains among their guests, as a drone-bomb exploded in their midst.

These went away and the eyes became blank again. He turned back toward the green fields of home.

“Please don’t tell me,” he said. “That my species is the one making the jokes.”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

97. Obituaries

C.W. looked so proud as he handed me the card. It read, “Awesome Obits Inc.” and included a slogan: “Don’t let your Dear Departed stink in print” followed by contact information.

“What do you think?” he asked.

I just looked at him, fixed up in a beige sport coat, pink silk shirt, blue and red bowtie, chinos, and what I suppose were Gucchis. He looked like a stockbroker on steroids.

“Is this some kind of joke?” I asked.

“Joke, hell,” he frowned and grabbed the card from my hand. “This could be my true calling.”

“Which is?”

“Writing obituaries for distraught families, you know,” he smiled. “The kind your species prints in the newspapers.”

“Would you like a martini?” I asked. “I think I need one.”

“No time,” he said. “Got to deliver product.”

“Product?”

“Sure,” he said. “The orders are coming in faster than I can write them.” He produced some folded sheets of paper from his coat pocket. “Want to hear some?”

I began to consider the question, but he interrupted.

“Listen.” He unfolded a sheet and began to read.

“Politicians should pay attention. There is going to be a real filibuster at the Primitive Believers Baptist Church on Monday as the congregation gathers to win our departed brother, John, “Quickstep” Martin his angel’s wings.” He stopped and looked at me.

I looked back.

“Pretty fine, eh?” he said, handing me another.

Stunned, I glanced at it.

“With a hearty ‘Hi-Ho Silver’ and ‘This should work,’ Bobby Ray ‘Duster Man’ Coogan departed this life Tuesday to be enshrined forever in the National Repository of Aeronautical Statistics. Memorial services will be held at Johnson’s Cotton Gin on Highway 21. BYOB.”

Another followed.

“Those wishing to confirm the demise of Eloise ‘No Bid’ Congleton should plan to attend a brief service at Runyan’s Funeral Home on Friday at 2:00 p.m. Prospective attendees should arrive early as a sizeable crowd is expected for that purpose, a fact which undoubtedly would have caused Eloise to utter her favorite observation, ‘bunch of morons.’”

Then another.

“There will be a new ‘kicker’ in the Celestial Line Dance tonight as our dear sister Margauritte Simpson dons the last new pair of hip-huggers she will ever need. Known to her adult friends as “Whupper” and her high school classmates as ‘C-Cup,’ she will forever be remembered by the Bad Bob’s Cowboy Dance Hall regulars as the one who introduced the ‘bottom roll’ into boot-scootin.’ St. Peter, you’d better have your ‘Tony Llamas on and your jeans pressed tight’ tonight cause the Holy City is going to be busty.”

“Busty?” I said.

“Let me see that,” he said, grabbing the sheet and examining it. “That should read ‘busy.’ I’m still editing some of these.” He scribbled a note.


Big Dope didn’t even want me
to include a photo of Margauritte’s
favorite outfit. - C.W.

“Do you really think the paper will print this stuff?”

“Sure,” he said. “Look at this one.”

I moved it into the light.

“Seventy-two alter boys, all shiny in their starched white robes, were lined up at the Pearly Gates as Fa…” I stopped.

“C.W.,” I yelled.

“What?” he said.

“Out!”


Sunday, May 13, 2012

96. Mothers

Sometimes I don’t know what to think about C.W. He knocks on the door this morning and when I look out, there stands the perfect image of my long departed mother. My first impulse was to go back to bed when she yelled, “Open this damned door right now, Jimmie Gayle. And don’t make me have to tell you again.”

What could I do? As I let her in, I said, “C.W., I don’t think this is very funny.”

“It’s Mother’s Day,” she said. “Or have you forgotten?”

“How could I forget with all the jewelry store ads on TV?”

“Are you going to ask me to sit down?”

“Sure,” I said. “Have a seat.”

I have to admit, he had done a good job of shift-shaping. It was my mother in her forties. The one who loved to fish and who would help me save up fifty cents to buy the latest Elvis Presley record. The one who tried to teach me to do the Charleston, laughed a lot, and knew one song each on the piano, the guitar, and the mouth harp.

She straightened her skirt and placed her hands on her lap. “I’ll tell you one thing,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“I wouldn’t have one of them cell phones if you was to give it to me.”

“Oh?”

“Some idiot plumb near ran over me on the way here and when she finally passed, she was yappin’ away.”

“It is a problem,” I said.

“Aint’ they go nothin’ better to do?”

”Apparently not.”

“Speakin’ of nothin’ better to do,” she said. “Are you working on mine and your daddy’s history?”

”A little each day.”

“You can get distracted,” she said. "I worry."

“I’m working on it.”

“You put the part in there about that old Bessie Shannon,” didn’t you?”

“Which part would that be?”

“The part where she told Miss Averitt that me and your daddy was so dumb it took two of us to drink a Cocola.”

She looked at something far away. ”She turned into a damned religious fanatic later on. I might have guessed.”

C.W. was good, I’ll have to admit. He had my mother pegged. She always maintained a healthy distrust of religious fanatics and anyone who didn’t like FDR.

“There’s something else I want in there,” she said.

“What would that be?”

“Remember when you got all down in the dumps over some girl you met in college and come cryin’ to me about it?”

“Vaguely”

“Well I want it told right. What I said was this. When I married your daddy, I wasn’t a bit in love with him. I married him for one reason─I knew he worked and if I married him I wouldn’t ever go hungry again.” She paused. “And I never did.”

“Is that it?”

“No,” she said. “Here is the important part. We got married and had it hard. Lord, we had it hard. We sharecropped and done whatever we could at first. Then we bought the grocery store and worked in it together night and day until I woke up one morning and realized that I worshipped the ground he walked on.”

The relationship your species has
with your mothers is one of
its more admirable traits. - C.W.
I pretended something was in my eye.

“I hope you feel that way about your wife,” she said.

“Oh, I do,” I said. “But she can be a pill sometimes, just like you.” I smiled.

“I got to go,’ she said. “Me and your daddy are going to see your Uncle Raymond and Aunt Lucille.”

With that, she was gone. I was left thinking of what an Ernest Hemingway character once said.

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Friday, May 11, 2012

95. Dissonance

Yesterday, I returned from a meeting to find C.W. in the middle of the living room floor with a complete circle of books and notes scattered around him. He had taken on the appearance of a young woman, apparently in the midst of studying some subject. I noticed a couple of Bibles among the reference material.


She looked up at me and smiled. “Mr. uh, Big Dope, I presume.”

“What’s up?”

“My teacher said that I could use your library to prepare my term paper.”

“What’s going on, C.W.?” I said.

“Research.”

“On what?”

“Cognitive dissonance. Are you familiar with the term?”

“Somewhat.”

“Well, I am confused, sir,” she said, maintaining the persona. Perhaps you can help me.”

Past experience has taught me it is useless to resist when C.W. is on his game. “Perhaps,” I said.

“Well,” she said, reaching for a sheet of paper filled with notes. “It says here that ‘cognitive dissonance’ describes the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs.”

“Yes, and?”

“I don’t’ find that your species evidences any discomfort at all accommodating two conflicting beliefs.”

I sat. This might be a long evening and my wife was expecting me to meet her somewhere. “And what makes you think that?”

She reached for one of the Bibles. “This Jesus,” she said. “Don’t your people worship him as an ideal?”

“So it is said.”

“Seems to me he was kind and thoughtful, and loved everyone except rich people, divorcees, bankers, and other preachers.”

“Pretty much so.”

“So, a great many of your citizens idealize him?”

So it is said.”

“But then they base their political beliefs on some of most mean-spirited people on your planet.” She paused. “I mean, are you familiar with this sheriff out in Arizona?”

“Somewhat.”

“Or this …,” she paused and referred to a note. “Grover Norquist?” She grabbed another note before I could answer. “Ever heard of Franklin Graham or Clarence …?”

“The list goes on,” I interrupted.

“Want to read something beautiful?” she said.

“Sure,” I said. I was glad to change the direction of the conversation and fully expected the Sermon on the Mount.”

“Here,” she said. She handed me a worn and crumpled page of photocopied material. I looked at it and saw our country’s Bill of Rights.

“I think you have something here,” I said.

“But why …?” she asked, “Has your species always maintained a subset of your fellow humans to which its protections didn’t apply?” She smiled as if she knew a secret.

“We have made mistakes,” I said. My voice dropped as I said it and I knew I sounded lame.

These kids sang me the most
beautiful rendition of
"Jesus Loves Me." - C.W.
“Have made?” she said, reaching for another sheet of photocopy.”

Even before she touched it, I could see the words “Amendment One” printed across the top.

“I have to go,” I said.

“Your mind seems to be playing ping-pong,” she said. “Enjoy the game.”

Monday, May 7, 2012

94. Traditions

C.W. followed us on a vacation to Cincinnati and almost caused a riot. I was furious. First, he promised not to come but came anyway. Second, he showed at the most inopportune time. Third, he went out of his way to bust my … well, let’s just say, to irritate me.

It was Derby Day in central Kentucky and while everyone was occupied, we chose to make the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with our friends, Rose and Wayne Pfirrman. Wayne and I served in the Vietnam "conflict" together and the two families swap visits each year.

It was our time and we had just finished a tour of the Woodford Reserve distillery. All was going well.

We slipped into the beautiful community of Versailles for lunch. All was still going well. We stopped at a restaurant called “The Grey Goose” and were enjoying Mint Juleps and the fellowship, not bothering a soul. Although the other patrons weren’t attending the big race, the ladies there donned the fancy hats that are traditional on Derby Day.

Then I heard a commotion, loud voices and swearing from the outdoor patio. My blood turned the temperature of a glacier.

In walked a classic redneck with an Arkansas Razorback Hog Hat perched on his head. I looked the other way but when he yelled “Hey Big Dope” across the room, I knew things were going to hell.

“Big, Dope,” he yelled again. “Have you seen all these weird hats women are wearing?”

Every head in the room snapped around. I bowed mine.

He walked over and when I looked up, I saw it was worse. In addition to the hog hat, he wore a sweater with the words “Free Bobby Petrino” emblazoned on the front.

My friend Wayne was enthralled. “Hey Rose,” he said. “Lookit. Here’s a real hog hat.”

She stabbed a morsel of food, stared hard into her plate, and didn’t say a word. My wife left for the Ladies Room.

“Ain’t it something?” C.W. said. “I figured if everyone else was going to wear a hat, I would too.”

When he pivoted to show it off, it got still worse. On the back of the sweater were the words, “KU sucks.”

“May I join you?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Sure,” Wayne said. “Where can I get me one of those hats?”

Before he could sit, though, a crowd began to gather around us. Fortunately, the manager intervened and told C.W. he had to leave.

“Why?”

“We have traditions here,” the man said. “We take them seriously and don’t appreciate it when people mock them.”

“Well, if that don’t take the crust off the okry,” C.W. said. “You let traditions spoil a feller’s fun?”

“Leave sir,” the manager said.

“Wanna buy this hat?” C.W. said, looking at Wayne.

“No he doesn’t,” I said. “I will see you back in Arkansas.”

He appeared genuinely hurt at this point. He turned and stared down the crowd. Then he headed for the door. 
My pals and I just wanted to watch the
Kentucky Derby. What's the big fuss about? - C.W.

Rose looked up. “What was his problem?” she asked.

Before I could answer, C.W. turned.

“Funny,” he said. “They didn’t like my outfit at Churchill Downs either.”