March 14, 2017: In Defense of Ben

I consider myself a liberal about some things and a moderate about others, but although I’ve been conservative in my time I doubt that anybody would mistake me for one now.Still, I like to think that I can appreciate any proposition across the spectrum so long as it’s supported by logic, reason, and historical examples. Thus I have to admit to being in a quandary about Dr. Ben Carson right now. He’s a talented neurosurgeon, but about as qualified to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development as Grizzly Bear Betsy DeVos is equipped to run the Department of Education. That, in itself, is no slur on the man personally. Just because you’re good at one or two things doesn’t mean you can be master of all trades. Sir Isaac Newton’s work revolutionized the study of physics, but he wrote theological works so off-the-wall that neither Churchmen nor freethinkers could approve of them. Similarly Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest philosophical writers this continent has ever produced, penned the horrible sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and harbored ideas about Bible prophecy that were as bat-dropping crazy as anything you hear from television evangelists right now. Edwards hypothesized that the world would end in 1866, which probably seemed like good sense during the worst days of the Civil War.

Oh, well. Back to the present. Ben Carson has indeed mouthed some egregious nonsense, but I can’t help thinking that his latest controversial comment—allegedly equating slaves brought to America in chains during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to voluntary immigrants—has been completely misconstrued by those with axes to grind and looking for any chance to find fault with him. True, Carson’s choice of words was extremely poor. But I’ve listened to his speech and read the transcript of it too, and to me the passage in question comes off as a bitterly ironic remark that he spoke tongue-in-cheek, nothing more. I’d tell him he should have chosen his words more carefully, and move on. But no: now he’s being vilified by both black and liberal white pundits not only as a poor speaker, but as some sort of traitor to his own people. I think this is such a personal issue with me because I’ve had my own words twisted so many, many times in my growing-up years, with the absolute worst possible construct applied to them. Few things seem to me to be more unfair, even for politicians.

Now, having your words played with isn’t always unpleasant, or even wrong. One of my more vivid youthful memories is of hoeing the garden with Dad, whom I’d outdistanced in a race to the ends of our respective rows, and commenting, “I guess this shows that I’m a good hoer.” No one who knew my father would expect him to ignore a thoughtless remark like that—and he didn’t. I turned beet-red at his reply, but I simply had to take his laughter in stride: open mouth, insert foot.

Not so with another relative, whose identity I won’t divulge. With a bone-deep victim mentality I didn’t even realize existed until years later, this individual could and did twist the most innocent, innocuous remarks into personal attacks worthy of furious responses that lasted anywhere from hours to weeks—a tendency that the relative seldom if ever revealed to anyone outside the family. The mood simply and abruptly changed with the arrival of visitors and then returned like a summer thunderhead when they left, often with criticisms of the visitors added to the original complaint. Talk about putting the “func” in “dysfunctional!” But that’s the reason I bristle when I hear somebody’s words being twisted purposefully and disproportionately, even if I completely disagree with the individual being quoted. I’ve been there, had that done, and still quill up like a porcupine and back into a corner if I sense it’s happening to me again.

But I’m a survivor, not a victim, and so I try to focus on the more lighthearted things I’ve seen, like the old preacher so aggrieved about women keeping wigs at home in their bureau drawers that he proclaimed during a sermon that “women these days got more hair in their drawers than they do on their heads!” (True story.) If you thought about what he said you could discern what he meant, but that didn’t stop the entire congregation that Sunday from completely breaking up laughing. All too seldom, though, is a misconstruction funny. My advice: ease up on Carson and save your outrage for the genuine dangers we have going right now.


March 17, 2017: Bitter Twitter and Cruel Duels

I miss Chuck Q. Farley this week. He comprehends this sort of thing quicker than I do, but he’s still spooked from that mail last week, and afraid to participate so soon in another column. So I guess I’ve just got to wing it. Trouble is, when I start looking for sense in things sometimes I have a lot of difficulty finding it—particularly all the contemporary hubbub about the President’s messages on Twitter. For at least the first half of our country’s history, back when Americans were all properly religious and things were supposed generally to be better all around, no self-respecting politician would have considered the equivalent of a modern-day Tweet to be the end of a dispute—rather, merely the beginning. You see, in those days the so-called code duello was still legal in Southern states.

The historic equivalent of an aggressive Tweet—which back then could only have been publicized as a paid newspaper ad or on a handbill—would have been considered merely as a “posting” to provoke an adversary to a duel, also known as an affair of honor,with swords or smooth-bore single-shot pistols. A man thus denounced was expected to issue a challenge to the “poster” in order to avenge his impugned honor, or else be labeled a coward. Then the posting offender was given the choice of weapons, both parties chose “seconds” or assistants, the duel was set up, and unless the seconds could talk the principals out of the whole business or either or both parties missed or fired into the air, the conclusion of the entire mess was somebody’s wounding or death. Thomas Jefferson’s first Vice President, Aaron Burr, settled things this way with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton over, among other issues, Burr’s suspicious relationship with a foreign government (Holland back then, not Russia, but Spain later in Burr’s life). Andrew Jackson fought in more than a hundred duels and was said to have kept thirty-seven smooth-bore pistols at the ready in case he should need them.His varied contests ranged from the actual killing of one man, Charles Dickenson, in 1806, to his serving as second to a fellow duelist who shot some poor guy right in the seat of the pants a few years later. And a good many of Kentucky’s best-known statesmen, including Henry Clay, Richard Menefee, and William Goebel, were no strangers to the field of honor, if thus it can truly be called, either.

Perhaps the most famous Kentuckian ever challenged to a duel, however, was ashamed of the episode ever afterward. A youthful prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln initiated the quarrel through a series of juvenile, sophomoric editorial letters (not unlike modern-day Tweets, just more than 140 characters long) that he composed along with a young Lexington-born lady then known as Mary Todd against Whig politician James Shields. When challenged by Shields and asked his choice of weapon, Lincoln picked the biggest cavalry sabers he could find, figuring perhaps correctly that Shields could outshoot him and knowing that his height gave him the advantage in a swordfight with his smaller adversary. But the two duelists allowed themselves to be talked out of the contest by their seconds and other bystanders, ostensibly salvaging the honor of both, and during his term as President, when Lincoln was asked by an Army officer if it were true that he had once participated in a duel he replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship you will never mention it again.” Oh, well. What must one expect from these big-Federal-Government liberal types, after all, who tyrannically managed to ram the outlawing of dueling, and so many other practices equally time- and tradition-honored and pleasant, through the legislatures of every state that had once approved of them?…

But if the Courts would only reconsider the matter, dueling just might once again prove useful in both State and Federal politics. It certainly has the potential. For one thing, the code duello’s revival would definitely improve folks’ manners on Twitter, and maybe Facebook too. It couldn’t hurt to hope that politeness might return to political discourse as well, though the renewed courtesies would be pretty much like those of Huck Finn’s father, reformable only by a shotgun. The firearms industry, robbed by the change in Presidential administrations of its chief advertising gimmick, the threat of Government confiscation of firearms, could prosper once again by crafting elegant dueling pistols. And best of all, the practice could prove to be a GREAT solution to the problem of term limits. Petition your Congressman today! Or challenge him…

February 28, 2017: Fan Mail

Sorry I’m a bit off my game today, but I spent late last night and early this morning trying to calm down Chuck Q. Farley. He rushed to my house past midnight in a panic because… well, just listen in on our conversation.

“Drackler!” he shouted as he banged on my door, “the President’s done found out what I said about him back at New Year’s and he’s mad at me! I got a letter back from him! He hates me!”

I let him in as soon as I recognized his voice, and I tried to comfort him as I scanned the note. “Aw, Chuck Q., there’s no need to worry,” I said. “You seen any Secret Service people around?”

“If they air, they’re hid good,” he responded, glancing around nervously.

“Well, the return address on this is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, sure enough, but the postmark’s local to here. I don’t think the President writes with any pen name like ‘Buck Q. Fuddy’ the way this person does. He’d rather Tweet. Besides, the letter and envelope are written in pencil! I’m jealous, though. I’ve not gotten one letter of fan mail yet, and here’s your first.” I clapped his shoulder and grinned at him.

He blinked. “FAN mail? Can’t you see how bad he’s a-tryin’ to make me feel?”

“How can you tell it’s a he? Somebody, male or female, just made up this name as a play on yours to hide his—or her—own. This isn’t from the President. Likely it’s just somebody around here that’s been encouraged to be rude by his way of talking on Tweets and in speeches and who’s trying to mimic him for some reason.”

Chuck Q. shook his head. “Ever’ word he can think up to try and make me feel about two inches tall,” he sighed. “Castin’ all them aspirations on me! All them stupid names! Just because he thinks I don’t agree with what he believes. Or she, I know. But you coulda warned me about the risk of such as this,” he added with a reproachful look at me.

“Well, Chuck Q., newspapers feel like no publicity is bad publicity. They’ll let almost anything go in an opinion piece as long as it doesn’t violate State and Federal law. And personally, I think your ideas about the makeup and undertakers weren’t half bad. Maybe it’s just the way you—and I—stated ‘em. But this,” I continued, re-scanning the letter, “the most charitable way I can look at it is the writer could be tryin’ to sound like a drill instructor. A drill instructor always worries that his recruits might go to battle after basic training and get killed because he didn’t teach them how to do something right. So these harsh words, even in the best light they could have been spoken, are based on fear and insecurity, drill instructor or not.”

“How you figure?” he asked.

“Unless two people completely lose their tempers and start calling each other names out of rage, any time an adult uses this kind of demeaning talk to another adult it means that the first adult is trying to cover up a mighty powerful insecurity. I think that’s why so many people around here put such hope in the President. Times are changing and they’re insecure and scared. They’re religious, but their faith seems to have gotten just like that song about the Vietnam vet: ‘One minute I’d kneel down and pray and the next I’d stand and curse.’ Anyhow, hearing the President talk smack like that makes them feel good about themselves somehow, and so they ape him.”

“Well, I like the way the President talks, myself!”

“Sure, till this letter came and you got talked to that way yourself. When the shoe’s on the other foot it’s different.Try to forget this stupid thing, but if you can’t help thinking about all the mean names the writer called you, just keep in mind how many nights a week he—or she—maybe lying awake till dawn dreading something. Or maybe dreading nothing, which is actually scarier.”

Chuck Q. looked at me. “Awful preacherly talk for somebody that ain’t preachin’ no more,” he grumbled. “You sure you shouldn’t go back at it?”

“Chuck Q., I think the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is hogwash, and I’ve seen too much out of too many people ever to believe ‘Name It and Claim It’ again. No way for me to succeed, feeling like that. But don’t worry. We’ll just try to survive whatever comes, I guess like cockroaches and Keith Richards always manage to do.”

February 21, 2017: My Baptism Under Fire

Believe it or not, after Sweet Tater read my Valentine’s Day story she actually suggested the topic for today’s column. This, even though my recounting of it and similar tales have made so many of her family get up and leave the dinner table only moments after they’d asked me what I’d done the past week. But I suppose it’s an occasion every healthcare worker remembers: my personal baptism under fire, that is to say, the very first time I was ever… well, regurgitated upon. So today I’ll defer to Sweet Tater’s judgment, and bring the story back from recollection’s vaults.

It happened in the early eighties, after the May primaries one year because the county in which I was working had not long before “gone wet.” A small honky-tonk had gone into business a couple of miles down the road, allowing people who lived in the community—and several from many miles outside it—to indulge publicly in all the excesses they had enjoyed in private during the county’s “dry” days. I won’t recount the place’s name, but it sounded something suspiciously close to the title of a bordello. But at any rate, a bunch of young nurses enjoying a weekend off decided to go a-honky-tonkin’ at the dive, and on that circumstance hung the entire chain of events that ultimately led to me. Apparently they found a drunk in the place’s parking lot that had fallen face-down in the gravel and possibly aspirated her gastric contents, and they themselves were buzzed enough to think it’d be just a wonderful frolic to load her up in their car and transport her to the hospital as a “Code Blue.”

I first heard about the incoming Code by a phone call from the ER, and initially I thought everything was deadly serious. But at that time, the hospital I worked in was being remodeled, so all ER traffic had to come directly by my workplace and I actually became aware of the patient’s arrival before most of the ER staff did. The drunken nurses’ attempts to unload the patient and put her on a gurney sounded, literally, like a bunch of giggling teenagers trying to “trim” a shoat (let them that readeth understand that’n), and the pig was justifiably complaining about the entire deal. I shook my head, grabbed my tray, and followed the parade down the hall. One could almost get a secondary high on the alcohol fumes, but that’s eastern Kentucky for you. Too many people drink, not to enjoy the taste of a beverage, but to get as drunk as they can as fast as they can.

The sober, on-duty ER caregivers took over as the happy young lovelies tittered and traipsed back out to their car to find more fun somewhere else, and since there weren’t enough nurses on duty to immobilize the patient and administer suction at the same time, guess who, with a strong back and a weak mind, got stuck with holding her down. The patient, whose eyes rolled wildly and whose arms were covered from shoulders to wrists with those old homemade do-it-yourself stickpin-and-shoe-polish tattoos so many people used to sport, was simultaneously fighting everyone close enough to slap, and trying to bat the suction apparatus away from her mouth so she could achieve the same result by running her own fingers down her throat.

“Here, John,” the senior nurse on duty, who was probably just as irked at her younger colleagues as I was, commanded. “Hold this bedpan close to her face while I turn up the vacuum on the suction.” I complied, stepping closer and grabbing the pan as she attended to the valve. All it took was that split second.

The patient never even hit the bedpan. The substance in question flew right across it in a deadly arc. At that moment I was baptized and confirmed as a True Veteran Healthcare Worker.

And so our dramatic liquor-inspired Code Blue was successful. By the time I’d run to the lab, wadded up my stinking, soiled white coat, hurled it into a corner and stalked back to the ER, the patient had evidently gotten rid of everything that was bothering her and was signing herself out against medical advice. I don’t recall ever seeing her again after that, so maybe that crazy, haywire excuse for an emergency put her on the strait and narrow. The honky-tonk finally closed down, and we’ve all grown up a little since then, even those hard-partying young nurses. But there are certain events you just don’t forget and, unfortunately, for me this is one of them.

February 14, 2017: When Love Conquered All… or at Least Something

Anybody that reads my column knows that I enjoy telling tales from work, though confidentiality issues make me be cautious what I relate. But I have another reason for caution, because to be honest, my job is distasteful. I deal regularly—no pun intended—with several messy, malodorous substances that, though we all share them biologically, nobody really cares to talk about except those of us who have had to work with them so much that we’ve lost our squeamishness. Only the strong of stomach would be brave enough to sit down to a meal with a bunch of Med Techs talking about their professional experiences, and before I learned better I could make everybody around a Sunday dinner table put down their flatware and either leave the table or glare at me,simply because I’d answered the question: “So, John, what did you do this week?”

Anyway, Valentine’s Day always makes me recall an incident on the job that could have been tragic but instead kept itself pretty much within the parameters of comedy. There’s often a fine line between the two extremes, and I just hope the aftermath went as well. Early in a year more than three decades ago I was called to the Emergency Room to draw a blood alcohol level on one combatant in a fight, a female who had tussled with her boyfriend or spouse and was sporting a sizable pump knot on her head. I’m not sure how badly the male had fared, or in fact if he was even conscious, but when I entered the Emergency Room the woman was in the process of giving the doctor on duty some of the most evocative and sincere blue-hot profanity I have ever heard. I was young and intimidated—this was even before I first met Chuck Q. Farley—but I had a job to do and so when the physician emerged from behind the curtain with a disgusted look and a head shake I rode into the breach, ready to be cussed altogether as viciously as the doctor had been.

Long story short, for some reason, perhaps because she was so inebriated, the woman thought I was handsome. She never said one ill word to me when I introduced myself, and seemed perfectly willing to cooperate when I asked to draw a sample of her blood. So far, so good, but as I bent down and began to search for a vein in the bend of her right arm something began to crawl upward through my hair, too big for cooties. It was her free hand. She was running the fingers of her left hand through my hair, and evidently enjoying it greatly. I was disquieted, to say the least, but I kept trying to remind myself: female nurses have to put up with this kind of crap not only from male drunks, but some sober guys as well. If they have to deal with it, I guess I can too since it’s likely this is the only time it’ll ever happen to me. But my patient was by no means done yet. With both of us hidden behind a bed curtain and half a dozen nurses plus the ER doctor outside listening in, she began to moan.

“Oh, baby, baby, baby, PLEASE don’t hurt me, babyyyy,” she cooed over and over again, interspersing the plea with additional little incoherent squeals as I kept trying to find that durned vein under possibly the most difficult circumstances I have ever attempted a venipuncture. The scalp treatment and the moaning were bad enough on their own, and things only got worse as the ER staff began to listen in as well, and laugh in response to the sounds. Finally my nervous hands managed to draw just enough blood for the test. I withdrew the needle, applied a gauze prep, and raised my head—just as she lifted hers off the gurney, aiming for a kiss. I turned my head and she caught me on the left jaw, right in the beard. My eyes must have bucked like a deer in the headlights. “Stop!” I begged. “You tryin’ to lose me my job, or what?” I scooped up my supplies and fled the place like a scalded cat, to the catcalls and applause of my ER coworkers.

Since that freaky little incident I’ve learned that the bizarre and crazy are simply parts of life, especially hospital life. Every February 14, though, I think about it—and wonder what further craziness might occur before the year ends. All things considered, just stay tuned.

February 7, 2017: That Old-Time Religion

Not long ago I told you about “A Forgotten Anniversary,” the most infamous journalistic hoax of its day. This week I’d like to feature a genuine forgotten anniversary, with no hoax: the month, 137 years ago, that what’s now commonly called “Old-Time Religion” came to our section of Appalachia and has remained ever since. This isn’t to say that our ancestors didn’t worship prior to that time. They certainly did, intently. But before 1880 there was an entire vocabulary of religious terms, now so common across the Bible Belt that many people think of them as having been established by the very Apostles, but which then hadn’t even been heard in Kentucky, much less quoted. George Owen Barnes, the so-called Mountain Evangelist, changed all that, and we’ve not been the same since.

Barnes was a Kentuckian himself, from Stanford in Lincoln County south of Lexington and until 1872, a Presbyterian minister. But during his travels after leaving his denomination he spent time in Chicago and fell in with Dwight Lyman Moody, founder of the Moody Bible Institute. Moody himself had made a prior evangelistic trip to Great Britain and been heavily influenced by an obscure British sect called the Plymouth Brethren, which used a unique form of Bible interpretation and religious terminology and which Moody brought back to America with him. He adopted and used the terms “Great Tribulation” (in capitals), “Rapture” (likewise capitalized, along with its three variants, “Pre-Tribulation,” “Mid-Tribulation,” and “Post-Tribulation,” the latter word often shortened to “Trib”), “Great White Throne Judgment” (as opposed to “the Judgment Seat of Christ,” whatever either may mean), and “the plan of salvation” and “personal Savior” in addition to commandeering the sect’s “Seven Dispensation” view of humanity. Thus armed, Moody attempted to evangelize the entire country anew. The dogma pretty much requires shaking out the Bible’s text as if the individual verses were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then trying to wedge them back together to accommodate the doctrines, but it remains integral to modern evangelicalism though it often requires the interpretations of D. L. Moody himself and the Bible commentators and publishers Cyrus Scofield and Charles Ryrie to make any sense. Anyway: after Barnes embraced Moody’s positions he secured financial backing from John G. Owsley, a fellow Lincoln Countian who’d struck it rich in Chicago, and back to Kentucky he went to preach Moody’s gospel.

Barnes and his evangelistic crew began exhorting in Lexington in late 1879, slowly traveled eastward, and finally reached the Big Sandy Valley in early February 1880. A hurricane could hardly have caused more tumult. Up and down Levisa Fork the Barnes troupe went that month, staging faith-healing as well as soul-saving, making converts by the hundreds, and even winning support from local ministers. Barnes even managed to found the Pike County community of Elkhorn City, which he originally called “Camp Praise-the-Lord” but which was shortened to “Praise” before the coal companies co-opted the land. He thus introduced Pentecostalism and so-called Holiness to eastern Kentucky even before those movements had adopted formal names, making the area ripe for the proselytizing of the Anderson, Indiana and Cleveland, Tennessee variants of the Church of God, both of which were organized only a few years after Barnes left Kentucky, as well as later and smaller denominations and independent Pentecostal and Holiness churches.

Sadly, Barnes didn’t keep a good reputation within the evangelical community. At least his errors were of poor judgment rather than malicious intent. Soon after the big Kentucky revival Barnes and his family joined up with John Alexander Dowie, the self-proclaimed “Prophet Elijah” and founder of the so-called Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Besides opposing all forms of medical treatment in favor of faith healing, Dowie preached that the earth was both flat and at the center of the universe, and he dressed himself in a bizarre getup based on the biblical description of Aaron’s priestly garments in Exodus. About three years before Barnes’ death in 1908, Dowie was deposed from leadership in his church for financial impropriety and another charismatic preacher replaced him. Barnes outlived Dowie, but it’s likely that the Mountain Evangelist died still believing in “the Prophet’s” flat, universe-centered earth and that all medical treatments besides faith healing were sinful.

George Owen Barnes’ eastern Kentucky crusade was probably the high point of his ministry. The belief system of our area certainly changed dramatically because of it. But Barnes’ story likewise makes it obvious that it’s still better to read Scripture through our own eyes rather than his and the sources that he depended on—and come to our own conclusions, wherever reason may lead us.

January 31, 2017: Groundhogs, Germans, & Grandfathers

We’ve practically made it through January now, and have only a short time of winter to look forward to—that is, if the groundhog doesn’t see its shadow on February 2. Here’s another holiday that had its origins in pagan times, marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the beginning of spring and known originally known among the Celts as Imbolc. The Church renamed the day Candlemas as the occasion for the clergy to bless and distribute candles to their parishioners to help them through the remaining dark of winter, just as it made Christmas out of Saturnalia and Yule. (Christmas is, after all an abbreviation for “Christ Mass” just like Candlemas is for “Candle Mass.” Thus, if you want to keep Christ in Christmas you should be equally enthusiastic about keeping the Mass in it, too. Just sayin’.) But at any rate, the first version of the Candlemas/Groundhog Day myth held that, if the weather was fair and sunny on Candlemas Day, six more weeks of harsh weather could be expected. If it was cloudy and cold, the winter weather would break sooner. As our ancestors once could say by rote: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight; if Candlemas bring clouds and rain, winter will not come again.”

And again just like Christmas and Halloween, after the Reformation the celebration became secularized. The Germans first introduced an animal to the proceedings. Longstanding German tradition held that the perfect gauge for the weather on Candlemas Day was the badger. If it cast a shadow on February 2, a six-week cold, wet spell was assured afterward. German immigrants, not being able to find as many badgers in America as they had in the old country, simply appropriated the groundhog (“grundsow” in their language, though I prefer the old Appalachian term I heard growing up, “whistle pig”), which was about that season waking up from hibernation, as the best replacement available. Thus if the groundhog saw its shadow and ducked back into its hole… well, you know the rest. And so we have our contemporary holiday, still celebrated with more enthusiasm among the children of “Dutch” immigrants, especially around eastern Pennsylvania, than anywhere else.

How much, and how many, of our holidays do we acknowledge, knowing down deep that we can’t, and shouldn’t, take seriously most of what is claimed about them? Maybe the weight of our genes and genetics, along with longstanding custom, is enough to keep holidays alive, though renamed and reworked for meaning, all the way from the days of our ancient nature-worshiping pagan ancestors to modern times. Though I have a mild interest in the prediction of the country’s most famous groundhog, Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, from year to year, I can pretty much take the day or leave it. That said, though, I celebrate my own private holiday in February, one I wish I were able to share fully with my friends and neighbors. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that, however.

I’ve mentioned that my mother’s father lived in our house when I was growing up. His eyesight was terribly poor even at the time I was born, and though he gave me me a great deal of good advice both about school work and chicken raising,probably by the time I was eight years old he was completely blind. But I will never forget what he always found occasion to say in the month of February, even after his eyesight was gone: from the time of his earliest memories until the last, eighty-eighth, year of his life, he’d never seen a February pass without at least one evening of hearing the tree frogs, or spring peepers, sing. And so on that one first, in some years only, warm February day—no matter how cold a winter had been, he’d say, February always managed to borrow a bit from March—he’d sit on our front porch with me, enjoying the peep and chatter of the little tree frogs down along the creek bank and all through the trees around us. Let March 20 or 21 be the first day of spring, let the groundhog be right or wrong: for me, the tree-frog music of that February dusk, sitting in the porch swing with an old man I loved deeply, for me was the true marker of a new spring.

Rest in peace, Grandpa. A day never goes by without me thinking of something you taught me. The music of the tree frogs that I first shared alongside you lives on for another year, and one more renewal of life.

January 24, 2017: Fake News & the Fillmore Bathtub

We’ve heard a lot lately about fake news, and I suspect that before long we’ll be hearing, and hearing about, a lot more. Sadly, dishonest journalism is actually a time-honored American institution. Thus far anyway, newspapers and other media outlets in the United States have been censored by the Government only during periods of outright war, and so for most of our history—during peacetime at least—the only way anyone could piece together a complete picture on any controversial subject was to buy and read three or four newspapers of varying political slants. After the end of World War II the Federal Communications Commission attempted to impose some reason and balance on the journalistic process by introducing and enforcing the so-called Fairness Doctrine, requiring media outlets to give print and air time to differing opinions about political controversies, and for as long as it lasted the Fairness Doctrine worked well. The FCC abolished it in the mid-eighties due to conservative pressure and Congress then attempted to codify its precepts as law, but Ronald Reagan vetoed the effort. Since then, journalism has gradually devolved to the Wild West Show that we know today, all in the name of Free Speech. If everyone had the presence of mind to check several newspapers and networks before trying to form an opinion of his or her own, things might not be so bad, but the prevailing ethic nowadays seems to be simply to believe whatever you want to; it’s all legitimate.

In times like these we would do well to keep in mind the greatest literary hoax ever perpetrated in the history of American journalism: “A Neglected Anniversary,” newspaper writer H. L. Mencken’s spurious history of the bathtub, published initially within the heavy censorship confines of World War I. Mencken’s essay first appeared in a New York City paper on December 28, 1917,claiming that the first American bathtub had been installed in a home in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1842 by a man who had traveled widely in Europe and had acquired the habit of regular bathing there. The event was supposed to have sparked widespread argument against bathing, with politicians claiming that the bathtub was a decadent European invention that had no place in republican America and physicians warning that washing might give a careless bather all manner of fatal diseases. In early 1851 the bathtub’s cause was supposed to have been saved, however, by the thirteenth President of the United States. Millard Fillmore—and what better name for a bathtub supporter than that?—visited Cincinnati, took a bath in the historic pioneer tub, and then had one installed in the White House. After Fillmore’s brave and progressive example, regular tub bathing caught on in the United States.

Not even Mencken himself could have anticipated the readiness with which the public swallowed his cock-and-bull story. It was printed, reprinted, quoted, and taken for law and Gospel by virtually everyone who read or heard of it. Within a few years’ time it had even worked its way into legitimate history books, no one seemingly ever pausing to consider how utterly ridiculous the tale really was. Eight years after Mencken first published the piece he confessed his hoax and claimed that it had only been a joke, but it’s suspected that he wrote it for a more serious purpose: to see just how far he could go in making the American public believe and perpetuate a baldfaced lie. And since the story continued to circulate for decades even after his retraction, and is in fact still quoted by some sources as truth, it’s hard to say whether he was more amused, or more disgusted, by the results of his experiment.

H. L. Mencken was such anoutspoken, pessimistic critic of human nature that he made a lot of enemies, particularly in the Bible Belt. The Arkansas legislature actually once passed a resolution to pray for his soul, although the legislators introduced themeasure only after they learned that they couldn’t force the Federal Government to deport him to Germany. His crimes? Such literary gems as this, written during Warren G. Harding’s Presidential campaign in 1920:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

I suppose that, if this were ever to happen, we must hope that the leader in question should at least have a smarter daughter and son-in-law.


January 17, 2017: Politics, Pastoring, and Peanuts

“Well, Drackler, you made a nice column two weeks ago from my political idears. Real good work there,” Chuck Q. Farley grumbled the next time we talked on the phone.

“It all made for a good story, Chuck Q.,” I answered. “Politics makes the world go round, and if you and I can make people think even a little bit, we’re doing our job.”

He humphed. “Atter that Twitter danger, I’ve quit foolin’ with politics. From now on I’m just gonna watch church programs and stay away from the news!”

“Well, if you can catch the address for that TV Miracle Water, send away for some and share it with me. But TV or not, you’ve always got to think politics in church too. The preachers and deacons do, anyway. Especially the pastor. And sometimes, everybody.”

“Why you say that? You study Political Science along with all them other sciences you took, Drackler?” he asked.

“Never had a Political Science course in my life. I learned politics the hard way, right behind a pulpit.”

He clicked his tongue. “That’s right. You was once a preacher. Well, then, tell me why they has to be politics and politicians in church! If I’m gonna help you any more with that column, Drackler, I’ve gotta know somethin’ about what you think.”

“True enough,” I admitted, and deliberated a moment. “Tell you what, Chuck Q. Once there was a fellow named Socrates who answered questions WITH questions, but he still got his points across. Years ago a really good teacher, rest her soul, showed me how to do it too. So let me try to answer you like Socrates. First question: how important is it in your religion to love your enemies, return good for evil, pray for those who mistreat you, turn the other cheek to somebody that hits you, that kind of thing?”

“Why, that’s ever’thing that matters!” he shot back. “Well, doctrine, too, I guess…”

“Let’s just let doctrine take care of itself for the time being. Second question: if all those things I mentioned are so important to your religion, where do you find that you have to use them the most? With ‘sinner’ people, or when you deal with your fellow church members?”

He pondered the query a moment, and grew solemn. “I never thought of it like that,” he finally replied. “I’m gonna have to study on that one…”

“Well, study on this, too,” I responded. “Third question: don’t you think anybody having to lead a bunch that acts like that had better learn his politics fast, or else he’ll have to soak ‘em up through the knots he’ll get on his head?”

Chuck Q. was silent. “Drackler, is that how come you quit preachin’ and pastorin’?” he eventually asked quietly. “It wasn’t no woman, like with so many?”

“No, no woman,” I answered with a sigh, “though I halfway expected somebody would start up a rumor like that, even so.” The phone was silent as I pondered. Had I already said too much, or not enough? There was no way for me to tell. Could anyone who hadn’t actually been there truly understand mere words? I owed Chuck Q. some response, though, and so I took a deep breath and began to speak.

“Once I had a church member in the hospital, and I went to see him,” I said. “We had a good visit, but he had a bowl of peanuts on his side table, and as we talked I’d reach over and grab a few peanuts and eat ‘em. And finally I noticed that I’d absentmindedly eaten his entire bowl of peanuts.

“That really embarrassed me, so I apologized to him for eating all his peanuts and I promised him I’d go buy him some more right then. But he just looked at me with a great big gummy smile—poor old fellow didn’t have a tooth in his head, you see—and he said to me, ‘Brother John, it’s okay. All I could do was lick the chocolate off them things, so you was welcome to the rest.’

“It never was the same after that,” I concluded.

There was another moment of dead air on the phone, and then a snort. “Aw, shoot, Drackler,” Chuck Q. complained, “You had me a-goin’ there a minute. Shame on you! I nearly swallered that one whole! And now you’ve done gone and took my appetite too,” he added reproachfully.

“Sorry, Chuck Q.,” I answered, “let’s just call that tale a parable. But if you had swallowed it whole, at least I hadn’t licked off the chocolate first!”

January 10, 2017: Hear the Royal Proclamation

Governor Bevin has proclaimed 2017 to be “The Year of the Bible” in Kentucky, although he did the same thing in December 2015 for the year 2016 and few Kentuckians took notice of it for more than a week. The announcement pretty much coincided, also for the second year in a row, with the so-called Kentucky 120 United Bible Reading Marathon, an event staged by a group called the Kentucky Prayer Focus and which involves volunteers statewide taking turns reading Scripture aloud until they orally complete the entire sixty-six books. I’m unsure what this is supposed to accomplish. Do the Governor and the Kentucky Prayer Focus think that this yearly ceremonial reading serves as some sort of annual gesture or invocation for God’s blessing on the state? And if they do, wouldn’t simple, silent prayers to that effect do more good? After all, Jesus of Nazareth once reasoned that God preferred private prayers spoken quietly from inside one’s closet, and he gave a name to those who prayed out loud at the street corners for no other reason than that they wanted to be seen and heard: hypocrites. A little hypocrisy never stopped a politician—or the occasional football player—from making a grand gesture, though.

Still, even if it’s politics as usual, I guess Bevin’s and Kentucky’s Year of the Bible is harmless enough. It’s certainly preferable to what the State Legislature once did, proclaiming April 1986 as Jimmy Swaggart Month only a few months before the famous evangelist got caught with his britches down the first time. The real tragedy, I think, is that both The Year of the Bible and the Kentucky 120 United Bible Reading Marathon only emphasize what’s already obvious: the Bible is the most-bought and most-praised, yet least-read and most-misread volume ever compiled in the history of the world. Saddest of all to me is how completely it’s neglected within the United States as one of the very pillars, alongside Shakespeare’s plays, of modern English language and literature. An entire generation, probably more than one, has grown up never having learned about the source of many common expressions they’ve heard all their lives: “the blind leading the blind,” “forbidden fruit,” “a little bird told me,” “a leopard can’t change its spots,” “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and a host of others originating in Scripture—including even the old song about the bones being connected together. And there’s seemingly no way of fixing the problem, either within our present public school system or the quasi-religious setup which Governor Bevin and his cronies seem to want to replace it with.

All too often it’s the case that the more observant you are religiously, the more heaven and earth hangs on doctrine and the more you quarrel over dogmatic questions. If the Bible were studied in elementary, middle, and high school in an academic fashion, like most other ancient writings are when they are studied at all, soon enough you’d have irate parents complaining that the course work somehow didn’t give proper respect to a book that they regard as holy. Around here at least they’d likely perceive any comparison and contrast of the good old King James Version with later translations, or even the Hebrew and Koine Greek of the original writings, as introducing doubt and heresy to their children. And the same principle applies even if the Bible were taught from a doctrinal perspective, because there’s so blasted much dogmatic disagreement. Immerse, pour, or sprinkle? Confession, penance, and absolution, or the “priesthood of all believers”? Musical instruments or just voices? Can you backslide, or are you heaven-bought and heaven-bound no matter what you do or say? Purgatory or simply split hell wide open? You can find justification for all in Scripture. Back when Christianity was newly recognized as the Roman Empire’s state religion, there were street fights and actual killings in several cities over a dispute about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth—and ironically, in the Koine Greek then spoken throughout the Empire, the difference amounted to no more than one letter in one word. With a historical record like that, maybe we ought to regard religion like Chuck Q. Farley respects both work and his mother: so much that he’s never struck either one of them a lick in his entire life. Actually this may be exactly how Governor Bevin and most other politicians do respect religion. But it’s not really a satisfactory solution, either.

The Year of the Bible? I’ll never live to see the real thing. But I keep wishing.