The Importance of Self-Education

When I was a senior in high school our school newspaper sponsor, our English teacher, assigned me the job of editing the various articles that would be posted in the local town newspaper.  I’m pretty sure I got the job because I was the best speller.  We posted little ‘what’s been happening’ paragraphs by each grade’s representative reporter and occasionally published poetry.  One introverted girl who rarely spoke offered a pretty decent poem once that I thought would be excellent with just a change to a couple of words.

When I suggested it, though, she blew up.  You would have thought I suggested sacrificing her first born child on Satan’s altar!  It was my first negative reaction to my editing, and I decided if she wanted an inferior version of her work, then so be it.

Later, when I submitted some of my fiction for critique by editors and agents, I understood her reaction.  My writing is my baby!  Nobody knows my story – or poetry – or anything else – like I do.  Nobody can improve my deathless prose (and rhyme)!  Of course, none of it sold.

Then at work, I was assigned to teach some of the worst training material I had ever been forced to use.  I complained so much that of course, they then assigned me to revise it.  Trust me, there is nothing like technical writing for educating a writer.  I was paid to write it and therefore was forced to do it the way my supervisors wanted it, or be able to successfully argue that my way was better.  Since my supervisors generally had college degrees in education, they tended to win more often than I did, until I got some real experience and self-confidence under my belt.

It was very humbling to realize how much I didn’t know about the technical aspects of writing.  I never got to go to college and graduated from a very small rural school that was unable to provide much of an education.  During my first session of revising the training material, I was totally unprepared for the supervisors’ total dismissal of it and their orders to rewrite it.

I was astonished to discover they wanted me to return and write more training material, but one supervisor told my team bluntly that even though we weren’t perfect, the others who wrote essays for their applications were even worse, and read a few anonymous essays to prove it.  Over the years, my technical knowledge combined with my improved writing skills gained me the name recognition necessary to be allowed to unofficially edit many of the technical procedures we used in our jobs. When I sent in a needed correction to a section because it was either incorrect or made no sense as written, it was accepted without argument.  Many times, it was the way it was written that was the problem.

As a teacher of adults learning new complex procedures for dealing with our job, I quickly discovered that a huge problem was the technical language used.  The instructors, including me,  were experienced and used to the terms and acronyms used on the job.   Since I encouraged questions from the students, not to mention being able to read their expressions, I realized that learning a new language had to be the first step in every training session for new employees.

Once I retired, I didn’t worry about teaching new terms and acronyms to bewildered students or trying to simplify complex procedures into a step by step list that could be easily followed.  I was relieved, thinking that finally, FINALLY, I would have the time to concentrate on my fiction and see about finally getting published.  I began reading various professional writing blogs to see what was selling, by whom, and why.

It didn’t take long before my forehead began wrinkling just like my former students. What were all these terms these writers were using?  Sure, I could look them up in a dictionary, but they didn’t make any sense in the context they were used in the article I was reading.  Nuts.  I had to go back to the basics and learn THEIR language.  Why bother?  Because one very old saying still holds true: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

If you want to write without worrying about being paid for your efforts, you can do it however you wish.  If you want someone to give you money for it, it has to please them. If they ask you about it and you don’t understand the question, it’s up to you to learn the language they are using.  Very few professionals in the publishing business have the time or interest to educate an amateur for free.  They don’t have to.  Writers, even incredibly talented writers, are a dime a dozen.  Sure, some editors probably bitterly regret passing up J. K. Rowling, but life happens.

Don’t think that self-publishing offers a way around that problem.  I have a Kindle, and about 1500 ebooks so far, to go with my print library of several thousand soft and hardbacks.  With ebooks especially buyers can return the book if they don’t like it soon after they buy it.  Most can be previewed and if they are badly written the books may never be bought.

I once bought a book that started out sounding terrific, then evolved into such excruciatingly bad prose, I gave up on the rest of the book.  I was furious.  The book was only about a dollar, but I was angry because the promise of an interesting plot, fascinating characters, and plenty of action was ruined by poor grammar, worse spelling, and ridiculous punctuation.  The only time I have seen worse writing is work by writers who don’t believe in using capitalization, paragraph breaks, or punctuation at all.

I don’t want people criticizing my work for poor writing, so I am learning to write like the authors of books I like to read.  I hope someday to have my work praised by well-known professionals, and if I have to learn their language to understand their criticism, to be able to answer their questions about my work, and to discuss my work in order to improve it, I’ll do it.  I have the Internet.  I may live out in a rural area and still not have transportation and money to get to college classes, but I can still educate myself.  I must, if I want to engage in the conversations I want to, with professional writers and editors and publishers. It’s my responsibility to find a way to make my dreams come true.

 

Talk To Me!

Communication is important, especially between large numbers of people all coming together for the same reason.  No, I’m not talking about protest marches or football games.  I’m talking about something much more important: pot-luck meals.  Don’t think that’s a big deal?  You must not have ever been to one.

If you’ve never come across the term, it means everybody attending brings some kind of food.  It is also referred to as a covered-dish meal, probably because not that long ago, you had to keep the food covered against insects and dirt until the meal started.

Family or friend pot-luck dinners are one thing.  You generally call around, checking to see what everybody is bringing, and the hostess usually makes sure there will be enough meat and side dishes and desserts.  But when the occasion becomes bigger, communication is even more important.

Church pot-lucks, for example.  All you have to do is go to one where the meat runs out before the line of eaters is finished to realize somebody should have been in charge of coordinating what everybody brought and figuring how many would be there.  The latter is sometimes impossible to predict, but at least there was a chance that somebody would be aware that there were only a couple of meat dishes and way too many side dishes.

These past few weeks I have been at functions that brought home the importance of communication.  In our area, the usual ritual is to have a meal after a funeral or memorial service, so that family and friends could gather and share their grief and love for the departed one.  Friends always took care of planning the meal, because the family had their hands full with grief and trying to deal with arrangements for the funeral or memorial service.

I have been to many of these meals since I am friends with many in our rural area and small towns.  Some of them are small with mostly family attending, but a couple have been enormous with a huge number of relatives and even more friends.  At one of the largest, the deceased’s employer had offered to cater the meal, and the family paid a young woman to meet the caterers and arrange the food at the community center where the meal would be held, while the mourners were finishing up the funeral at the graveside nearby.

Not everybody knew this, including me.   I personally brought several foods, meat and a couple of side dishes, I think.  I got there early, forgoing the graveside service, figuring I could help with the meal since the ladies who usually dealt with it were family members of the deceased and were at the graveside service.  I discovered the young woman arranging everything in the kitchen, which had two doors and a long counter, with two or three long tables for added surface space.

This immediately told me two things: one, she didn’t know how meals worked in our community center, and two, she had not seen how many mourners had been at the funeral.  I had and knew her arrangement was not going to work.  She was surprised and balked a little when I advised her the drinks and desserts needed to go in the main dining hall on larger tables.  She began to believe me when more ladies began showing up with more food, and the counter began being covered.  She had not even set out the meal the caterers had brought yet, keeping it warm in the oven and cool in the refrigerator.

She was astonished and a little dismayed when we finally had everything set up, with three long tables covered with desserts, two long tables covered with tea and coffee and a cooler on the floor full of ice and another full of canned drinks, and a kitchen with a long counter and two long tables all crowded with food.  “Won’t this be too much food?” she worried.  No, it wasn’t.  By the time the family and friends made their way through the line past all the food, the large amount of food the caterers provided and the extra food the friends of the family brought had dwindled to a few desserts.  If the friends of the family had not brought their dishes, only half the mourners would have had anything to eat.  NOT knowing about the catered food saved that meal.

Last week, another meal after a memorial service occurred.  The widow had asked the ladies of her church, which included me, to take care of arranging for food and drink for the family and friends later at a different community center.  One of the most experienced ladies here contacted all the usual members who donated food for these meals and figured whether we needed more or less of one food or another.  It was going to be simple, with only water to drink and sandwiches and soup and desserts for the food.  The only sticking point was how much would be needed since the family had many friends not from our area who would be attending.

The ladies of the church all brought our food, and the lady in charge made sure it got to the community center and got it set up with a few other women.  Few from our church and local area could attend the meal since it was almost an hour away and it was a weeknight with everybody needing to work the next day.  It was mostly the ladies who were retired who went to the community center to help out.  We got the sandwiches and soup set out and worried if there would be enough after seeing how many mourners had been at the memorial service.

We didn’t need to worry.  Apparently, the widow had not told their other friends that her church was handling the meal.  One man walked in with several large pizzas.  One came in with an enormous pan of barbecued sausages.  Desserts galore began crowding the dessert tables.  Boxes and boxes of fried chicken pressed up against the other meats. By the time they decided to start eating, the dishes were fighting for space on the long line of tables.

When everybody declared themselves stuffed there was still a large amount of food left, and the widow said she could not take it all home.  Then she had a brilliant idea.  She came up to us as we were contemplating all the remaining food and announced, “I solved it!  I just told all the college students they could take all this food back to their dorms!”  It was a perfect solution.  We got rid of the excess food, the kids got food for a week, and they did all the heavy labor of hauling the food to their vehicles, leaving us to just clean up.

Communication when coordinating is very important.  Sometimes you get all the information needed, and sometimes not.  Sometimes you just get lucky despite the missing information.

Not Just a ‘Writer’

I’m not just a writer.  I’m a storyteller.  I started telling stories before I learned my alphabet.  Once I discovered how to read and write, I learned that I could write something on paper and I could show it to others who had not heard me tell the story.  But writing my stories came later when my family could afford the extra paper and pencils.  Poverty sucks.

When I was a child, I was very introverted.  My family members were the only people I could tell my stories to.  When I was in elementary school, recess was an ordeal of loneliness until I started worldbuilding in my head.  It took a while to realize I was interacting with my imaginary world.  I would come out of it to see the other children staring at me.  I had been walking around, miming various actions and moving my mouth silently.  Finally one of them asked me what I was doing, and I began telling him about the sandwich factory I had built.  For some reason – hunger, maybe? – I was fascinated by the thought of automated assembly lines surrounded by machines slicing and stacking and wrapping meat and cheese sandwiches.  I had never seen an assembly line, but I guess we had been studying something on the subject.  Where were all the sandwiches going? I didn’t know and didn’t care.  It was the process that fascinated me.

The other kids thought I was nuts, but they began talking to me more, and I slowly made friends.  It helped me get through school.  Then we moved, and I had to make new friends. Since I was still introverted, it was difficult.  In the fifth grade, our English teacher discovered I had written a story.  I think it was about a horse since she had been reading a chapter a day from a novel about a horse to the class.  My story had several chapters as well, and she read a chapter of it every day to the class.  They did not seem impressed.  But they were happy they did not have to face a quiz about it, so I got no criticism.

I continued writing, the plots changing as I aged.  In the tenth grade, I was writing a teenage romance.  I had a thick spiral notebook dedicated to it.  A couple of weeks before the end of school, our history class teacher had pretty much finished everything on his curriculum and just told us to keep it quiet during class.  I immediately hauled out my notebook and began writing on my story.  The seat to my left was filled by a hulking football player.  He was a nice guy, but physically imposing.  I didn’t realize he was reading the page I was writing until I filled the page and started to turn to the next with my left hand.  He pinned my hand to the desk and leaned over.

I was speechless with shock and mortified by the immediate teasing coming from his friends behind us.  He ignored them and me and finished reading the page.  Then, still silent, he took the notebook away from me, flipped the pages to the story’s beginning, and read the whole thing.  I sat there too terrified to protest.  Luckily he caught up before the end of class.  I had no idea whether he’d let me have it back.  I had no idea what he was thinking as he read it.  It was a teen romance, written by a girl who had never had a boyfriend.  Would he make fun of me? Would he tell me it was trash?  Would he think it was about him?  It wasn’t, but would he be able to tell?

Just before class ended, he finished and handed the notebook back.  He looked at me, a warning clear in his expression.  “Finish it before school is out for the summer,” he said. “I want to read the end of it.”  He got up and left the room, still majestically ignoring his friends as they swarmed after him, demanding to know why he had held hands with me and then read my notebook.  I finished the story.  I did NOT want to find out what would happen if I didn’t.  After he finished it on the last day of school, he finally announced his opinion of it.  “A good story,” he said with an approving nod.  Nothing else, but I didn’t need anything else.

I lost my introverted nature over the next few years, but I never lost my love of story telling.  I wrote stories, I wrote poetry, I wrote songs.  I sent two books to publishers, and the editor told me that the beta readers had really liked them, but it wasn’t quite what the publishers really wanted at the moment.  I had learned about genre publishing by then, so I wasn’t surprised, but I was glad the beta readers had all liked my work.

One day I got the chance to have a science fiction/fantasy work of mine critiqued by a couple of professional writers and several amateurs as part of a science fiction convention.  You paid a fee, you sent in a chapter or short story, and received a copy of their work for you to critique.  I was always taught that if you need to offer criticism, make it constructive or leave it alone.  I learned that not everybody felt that way.

Science fiction and fantasy is such a broad genre most people have their own preferences for a certain kind.  Some have strong likes and dislikes of certain subjects.  At our session, we were supposed to go around the table, offering our critiques of one writer at a time.  The writer under the microscope was not allowed to argue with someone’s opinion, or defend their writing, or even speak until the end.  When mine came up, one amateur writer hated the whole story because it was based on a parallel world.  I didn’t worry about his opinion because that was his only criticism.  He just didn’t like parallel worlds, so he blew off the whole story.  Another young man loved my story.  He told me he couldn’t wait to read the rest of it.  I’m hoping to finally get that thing published soon, so maybe, wherever he is out there, he’ll be able to.

The other amateur writers were more focused on the technical aspects, like grammar and punctuation, and didn’t really have much to say about the story itself.  My work had been totally different from theirs, so I wasn’t surprised.  Then one of the pro writers, a white middle-class suburban mom type, complained that my characters were not believable.  “A teenage prostitute?  Where were her parents?”  Yes, she said that.  Everybody stared at her for a minute, and she looked like she couldn’t figure out why.  I don’t even remember the rest of what she said, I was so flabbergasted by that naive remark.

The other professional writer was a Canadian who wrote urban punk fantasy.  He tore my story to shreds, slapping the manuscript copy on the table.  “Nobody talks like that!” he snapped, and proceeded to vigorously point out how terrible everything else was in my story.  I was speechless about that, too.  Everyone looked vaguely embarrassed as he wound up.  When he was finished and I was allowed to speak to all of their critiques, I just smiled at him and told him I’d work on the dialogue.  I was from the rural southern United States, and he was an urban Canadian with a teenage daughter.  Maybe he didn’t get to listen to the kind of conversations I listened to.  I ignored everything else he said since it sounded like opinion, which didn’t worry me.  I was just pleased that one young man, who was my target audience for that story, really liked it.  That meant I had done it right.

I have had other comments since on many different stories I have written.  One lady told me about one story that she laughed and then she cried and then laughed again.  I said good because I had as well while I was writing it.  One lady told my church that she had not finished one of my books yet, but felt that it had changed her life, and urged all of them to read it.  Whoa!  I’m not sure I meant to do that, but she seemed happier, so I was glad.

Strong ego?  You bet.  I love to read what I write.  I like getting good reviews, but bad ones don’t bother me.  I may have to publish my own books, and I don’t make money at it yet, but I’m enjoying myself.  I get to tell stories, and that’s all I want to do.

Conversations With God

I had an interesting conversation with God the other day.  No, not a prayer.  I have conversations – you know, the kind where I say something, He says something, I say something…

People often give me a funny look when I say God talks to me, as if they expect me to start waving a sign saying stuff like “Prepare to meet thy Doom!” or something.  Nah.  The folks at my small church gave me that look when I first joined them, but since I’m a cheerful sort and often have humorous conversations with God that I remark on, they’ve relaxed.

I’ve had these conversations for as long as I can remember.  My parents, bless their hearts, just nodded and said stuff like, “How interesting.”  They were used to my storytelling, which started about the same time, and they might have thought that was just another story.  But it’s not fiction to me.  To me, God’s voice is as real as my mother’s, more trustworthy than anybody I know, and I never have to ask Him to speak up, stop mumbling, or clarify whether something He said was sarcasm or a joke.

A little girl, hearing me say God told me something, asked what God sounded like.  “Ever had a friend stand behind you and say something over your shoulder?” I asked her.  “He sounds just like that.  You don’t see Him, but you can hear him clearly.  You know His voice because you hear Him all the time. That’s what He sounds like.”

Some people say God speaks to them through the Bible, others say they have visions.  That happens to me, too, but I also get the audio version, which is better for me, since I can ask questions and get immediate answers.  I don’t always LIKE the answers, and sometimes He tells me my brain doesn’t have the words to understand the answer.  Like calculus, I guess.  I still don’t get that, either.  Algebra barely got through.

The conversation I had the other day was fairly typical.  He’s never really been able to get me to learn two things: self discipline and patience.  Especially patience.  Ever heard that old joke?  “Give me patience, NOW!”  That’s me.  My sister and I were cleaning all the Christmas decorations out of the house and putting them back into storage for another year.  We got the storage bins out of the storage building outside, filled them up, opened the door to take them back to the storage, and discovered a downpour occurring.

“Come on, God, give us a break!” I complained.  “Cut the rain off for just half an hour, can’t You?  Just give us enough time to get these boxes back into the storage building and You can let it rain all the rest of the day!  What do You say?” No response, and the rain just seemed to come down harder.  A couple of minutes passed, and finally my sister and I both shrugged.  We’re not sweet enough to melt in the rain, after all.

We lugged the plastic bins out of the house and into the storage building, getting incredibly soaked in the process, and no, we didn’t melt.  But just as I shut the storage building door and locked it, the rain stopped.  Perfectly timed.  I shook my fist at the sky.  “God, that’s not funny!” I shouted.  My sister just shook her head and laughed.  But God replied quite clearly.

“No, it’s not funny,” He agreed, sounding annoyed.  “If you had shown enough faith to wait a mere ten minutes, you would have been completely dry, wouldn’t you?”

I hate it when He makes a point so true I can’t argue.

A lot of the writing I do is at His order.  For instance, I’ve never been much into angels.  I just never paid much attention to the subject, other than the mentions of them in Bible stories.  But when I started writing a Christmas story for the Sunday School teachers in my church every year (I’m the Sunday School director) I discovered there were angels in every story, and so when I published the first collection of Christmas stories “Once Upon A Christmastime” I put an angel on the cover.  “Standing Next To A Miracle”, my second collection of short stories, is about the people who were friends and family of the people in Bible stories of miracles, but my third collection, coming out shortly (I’m planning, anyway) is all about angels.  “Angels With Attitude” it will be called.

I wasn’t planning on writing anything like any of these short stories.  I was planning to be a novelist, and already had a long list of novels I was planning to write as soon as I retired and finally got the time to sit back and pound the keyboard.  But when I finally do, what comes out?  Short stories about angels and Bible characters.  Huh.  I never know what will emerge.  I’m quite often surprised.  I usually can’t remember them, so I have to go back and reread them for myself.  I only half-jokingly remarked to my church members that I was ghostwriting for God.

This past Christmas was a hard one for our church.  Our church treasurer and a dear friend to many died of illness.  At her funeral we discovered a young man who had grown up in our church had died in an accident on his way back to his parents’ home the night before.  It was during his funeral a few days later that God spoke to me.  I never know until just before Christmas what the gift story will be about.   I always just wait for inspiration to strike, find stuff to go into gift bags that goes with the story, and type like mad when it hits.  But this time I got it during the funeral, and I was appalled.

You see, there was a story I had been planning to write for the “Angels With Attitude” collection, but I hadn’t got it on my computer yet.  God told me this story would be my Christmas gift.  I didn’t want to put it in a Christmas gift.  It’s a good story (I believe) but horribly inappropriate for any member of my church at Christmastime during our grief.  I was even more appalled when I discovered a short while later that the husband of one of the Sunday School teachers had just been diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer.

The story, you see, is about an angel of death (yeah, not THE angel of death – he explains it in the story) appearing to a young cancer patient.  I argued fiercely with God.  Okay, not argued; protested is really the correct word, since argument is a two way arrangement.  God doesn’t bother to argue.  You do it His way, or face the consequences.  What happens to me is I am placed under unction.  I heard that phrase once and thought it sounded appropriate, since that’s the sound I make: “Unnnn!”  Essentially, that means since I agreed a long time ago to do what He tells me to do, He’s going to keep nagging me until I do it.  In the Bible they called it anointing.  Wonder if any of those anointed folk felt like going “Unnn!”

He got His way, of course, but I added a letter outside the story to tell the teachers not to blame me for the story.  Apparently, God thought it was necessary for SOMEBODY to read it, so there it went.  I haven’t heard from any of them yet.  Maybe I’ll put an excerpt on my website and see what everybody else thinks of it.  Buy the book to read the whole thing.  Or look up one of the teachers I gave it to.  They might let you borrow it.  But I’d rather you buy the book.  You’ll like the other stories, too.  God said so.

Update: Just heard from a relative of the young man whose funeral I attended.  She said the story helped break her from her deep well of grief and begin to live again.  Whew!  Never try to second guess God.  I’ve learned to just ask to see the results of acting on His orders once in a while.  Got to get this third book published.

 

A Veteran’s View

I’m not the veteran I’m talking about this Veteran’s Day.  I never got to serve in the military thanks to my physical health.  Several other members of my family did, but the one I’m talking about here is my dad, William Almas Perry.  Born March 4, 1926, he was at the right age to join the military during World War II.

He rarely spoke at all about his service, mentioning to his young daughters only that he had served in the Philippines and in England.  “But what did you do in the war, Daddy?” we pressed one day, probably on a Veteran’s Day.  He shut us down quickly with “I picked up dead people” and walked away, leaving us with the horrific mental scene of a battlefield filled with bodies.

It was not until his funeral and afterwards many decades later that we learned the truth.  His “I picked up dead bodies” was what he did after the war while finishing his service in England as an ambulance driver for the military.  He just didn’t want to talk about what he did in the Philippines.  We heard about that from the veterans who had gone to war with him, from the same small town, who had known him as a boy and a man.

My father, like many country boys who had to catch their own food, was a dead shot with a rifle and had a hunter’s keen eye for his prey.  The army chose him to save the lives of many of his fellow soldiers by sending him into the jungles of the islands first and taking out the enemy snipers waiting for them.  The fact that he came back alive is proof of how good he was at his job.  The fact that I never saw him use a gun in anything but a demonstration to my brother in law of his military shooting pose and his continued ability to hit a bulls-eye was proof of how his service affected him.

After his death, one of his many cousins gave us a couple of poems he had sent back to his mother during his service that she had sent to the newspaper for printing.  The exact dates of the writing are uncertain, but they were both written during the war.  She told us that there were more, but until more of the old newspapers are scanned into the computer and I can look them up, these are the only two I have.

 

OBJECTIVE – HOME!

By PFC William A. Perry, United States Army

O God, I did not

Come out to this war

From a park bench,

Or from a rented room.

I came from HOME!

And I brought with me family words:

Garden, crib, fireside, front door,

Wife, little fellow.

Now they are all mixed in

With the war jargon:

Jeep, tank, foxhole,

Tommy gun, blitz.

Help me, God, to keep

My thinking straight.

Grant the impossible –

Make home – our Home –

Seem real in battle.

Show me how to

Sort out my thoughts

And use the words about home;

Even when I am sitting in a swamp

Hours at a time,

Not daring to move

More than my eyes;

They’ll keep me sane.

I’ll be a better human,

And just now,

When fighting is my job,

I want to stay human.

It didn’t take a war

To show me

How I love my home.

But it has taken a war

To show me

How it will feel to

Walk out from Hell

Straight to a Paradise

That men call Home!

O God, let ours rest

Under the shadow of Your hands.

 

MY BUDDY

by PFC William A. Perry, United States Army

Hit again! That’s twice today;

Why don’t they get it over

And blast me all away?

Feeling mighty weary,

Losin’ all my stuff.

Buried in a foxhole –

That’s what I call tough.

Ain’t got strength to wiggle,

Must be awful weak.

Tongue is just one big blister;

I can hardly speak.

I’m no Christian soldier,

Never had the luck.

Just a no-good drifter,

Just a fighting buck.

Never had no learnin’

Never taught to pray.

Want to talk to Jesus –

Don’t know what to say.

Where’d you come from, Buddy?

Wasn’t here before.

Don’t look like no soldier,

You ain’t used to war.

Wanna use my foxhole?

Cuddle up right nice;

Have a drink of water –

Sorry, there’s no ice.

Gee, your hand is bleedin’

Guess they got you, too.

Nasty rats of Hitler,

That’s the way they do.

You and me together

Strangers in this sink;

Sharing drops of water,

All there is to drink.

What’s that on your shoulder?

Buddy, that’s no gun!

You should have some weapon –

War ain’t just clean fun.

Guess that blasted bullet

Threw me for a loss.

Eyes are getting hazy;

What you got, a cross?

Funny sort of helmet,

Looks just like a thorn.

Never seen one like it,

Never, since I’s born.

Aw, your head is bleedin’,

Let me wipe your brow.

I got strength to do it –

Strong as ever, now.

Say, you tryin’ to help me?

Well, that ain’t no use –

I’m beyond all helpin’;

Took too much abuse.

Still it makes me better

Just to know you’re here;

Yeah, I know I’m dying,

But I got no fear.

Crown of thorns and cross?

Golly, I remember –

You’re the King! The boss!

Thought I was unlucky –

All I’ve sacrificed;

But I’m dying happy

In the arms of Christ.

I’m a Christian soldier.

Got no pain, no grief.

Take me up to Heaven

Like you took the thief.

Jesus, gentle Jesus,

Got no pain, no fear.

Hidin’ in a foxhole,

And you found me here.

A SLICE OF AMERICAN LIFE

A few days ago I enjoyed a weekend experiencing that staple of small town Americana, the high school Homecoming.  For those who have never seen various movies or grew up in large urban areas or have never lived in the United States, let me explain.

In most small towns large enough to have a high school and a football team, they hold an annual celebration called a Homecoming, where alumni who remember their high school days fondly (or wonder about their classmates’ lives in the years between graduation and the present) gather back together for a day or two.  A pep rally is held to cheer for the football team and raise enthusiasm for the following game.  The alumni are recognized.  There is usually a parade at some point with groups of alumni creating and riding in floats, on trailers, or sometimes just vehicles.

I graduated from a town in north Texas named Rising Star.  There were 21 in my graduating class as I recall (haven’t located my yearbook yet), and at least two of them were juniors who took extra classes to get the necessary credits to graduate a year ahead.  The entire high school had a total of about 100 students the year I graduated.  We were so small that during the field and track season, there were only about three students who were not involved in the various events.  I was one of them.  We would spend the entire day in study hall with one teacher when the track meets were held out of town.

In a town this small, football is a huge deal.  Homecoming weekend is pretty much the biggest deal of the year, except for perhaps the Halloween school carnival.  People who have been away for decades come back for it. The representative for our class who went to the alumni business meeting  (yes, they have those) said they had started a roll call of alumni classes with the 2015 graduating class, and she finally left when they reached 1948, and were still going.

I graduated in 1976.  Forty years I’ve been away, and this was the first time I had made it back for a Homecoming even though I lived only four hours away.  Why so long?  Mostly, I think, I was so busy living my life I wasn’t really curious about my classmates, and hadn’t really been involved in the town or the school in the two years I spent there before I graduated.

Now, however, I’m retired, and thanks to social media and the enthusiasm of classmates who did want to gather, I decided to go.  About half the class was able to make it, one even despite nearly dying in an auto accident in August.  Several classmates still lived there in the still very small town and one was even a businessman and city council member.  (Still shaking my head over that, Johnny.  You, a politician?)

I had a terrific time, I have to admit, and also have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.  My sister had gone to her graduating class’ Homecoming several years before and was not inclined to ever repeat it.  She went with me only to provide transportation and get away for a weekend and figured she would get in a good amount of reading while I socialized.

She forgot that, even though she graduated from a different school after our family moved following my graduation, she had gone to Rising Star’s junior high school with the younger siblings of my classmates.  Since she has an incredible memory, she remembered them. Once she started asking my classmates about them, she found herself caught up in regular conversation and never did get to her reading until we were back at our hotel.

I was having a great time, too.  I wasn’t so much interested in nostalgic memories, since I spent the two years I’d been in school there working when I wasn’t in class, and had zero interest in sports of any kind, so I had rarely been to any of the games.  I had not socialized much due to my work hours and mostly remembered my classmates from our time in classes.

I was fascinated by how they had spent the years between, and how their lives had turned out.  I had never been able to use the scholarship I had been awarded for an out of state college, but had wound up accomplishing more in my career than I had ever dreamed I would and had done the things I had always wanted to, like writing nationally read published works (training material and procedural manuals, but hey, they made life easier for a lot of people).

I was delighted to find several of my classmates had become teachers.  I figured that had made our class sponsor, our English teacher, laugh really hard after the hard time we gave her.  (Sorry, Mrs. Burns, if I ever made you gnash your teeth!)  Some of us had gone into the medical field.  Some, like Johnny, had become businessmen and women.  Some had become civil servants like myself.  One had become a pastor (yeah, still shaking my head over that one, too, Clark).

Most of us had gone through health problems, several of us with breast cancer.  We lost some classmates to accidents, and even one to an unsolved murder.  One we had even more sadly lost to suicide.  Like many small towns, some of those had been family members and the mourning was doubled.

It was, in the end, the kind of family reunion you wished you could always go to, where the conversation flowed freely as well as the laughter, many hugs were exchanged, experiences were gasped and laughed over, and good food was shared.  Old pictures and news clippings were pored over.  There were no snide remarks made, no sniping at each other, or ugly memories recalled (at least not in my hearing).  I was, again, in awe of people like Tami and Denise and Brenda and Marilyn (okay, I need to quit), who could remember everything that happened to EVERYBODY. I can’t remember what happened to me half the time.

We joined together enthusiastically just as we had those decades ago for the pep rally, the football game, and for decorating our cars and riding them in the very short parade, waving madly at the townspeople who lined the single street we went down. (Note to self: anytime a parade is even mentioned in passing, get a big bag of small candies to throw to the kids, just in case you get to be in it.  It’s important!)

After the parade, we joined one last time in cleaning up what we could before we had to rush back to south Texas.  (Sorry, Brenda, I know we probably should have done more!)  It was hard saying goodbye, but my sister took many photographs, and that will help.  As we all agreed, social media is great for staying in touch, and hopefully we will see each other before we’re too old to enjoy it again.

So, here’s hoping life will get even better for you guys, as I hope it will for me.  I was so glad to see you again, Bonnie, Brenda, Robert, Tami, Denise, Marilyn, Marion, Johnny, Teco, Susan, Nancy, Kim, and others whose names I cannot remember (sorry, I totally blame the chemo!) but thoroughly enjoyed meeting.  I asked my sister to check my list of names since her memory is better, but this was the best I could do.  And for any of you who weren’t there, yeah, of course we talked about you, but at least we didn’t nominate you for a committee!

Time marches on, the saying goes, and sometimes it marches in a great direction, leading folks back to each other.  I’m looking forward to having it circle around again. Thanks for the memories, as Bob Hope liked to say.  Love you all.

Surviving Mother Nature

As I sit and watch the news, most of it is about the weather.  It gives me great pleasure and gratitude that I am in a very small area of the United States that has survived the current blast of winter weather afflicting the rest of the nation with barely any damage.  But everybody else – hooboy!  For all who don’t recognize the term, ‘hooboy!’ is an exclamation pretty much equivalent to ‘OMG!’.

I have been through forest fires before aerial support was available and blizzards with only a wood stove and been caught in flash floods in pitch black darkness.  I remember walking across a parking lot in Austin, Texas on a day when the wind began gusting to speeds I had never known, and it lifted me off my feet for a few terrifying seconds.  I’ve survived tornadoes, hurricanes, and blistering heat that took away my breath.

I’ve been grateful that Winter Storm Goliath (I just love that they’ve started naming them like hurricanes) has pretty much just left my area with a glancing blow.  The places I used to live were not so lucky.  I lost a cousin several years ago when he was a lineman trying to help Oklahoma blizzard victims get their power lines back up, and now Oklahoma is suffering again.  I’ve been praying for those volunteers trying to get the power restored for them.

One of my Facebook friends just posted that the local emergency alert system posted a warning about a freezing fog.  I used to live in his area, and I’m glad I no longer do, because – hooboy, again – does that bring back a memory!

When I was a girl we lived in the Ozarks in Missouri. One year while we were out of school during Christmas vacation, it became very warm. It stayed warm long enough for the dormant trees to have their sap start rising and flowers start blooming. It was like late spring and everyone enjoyed it thoroughly.

In those days before weather apps and satellites and accurate weather reports, families, farmers, and everybody else was caught by surprise and shock when, after a heavy warm fog descended and lingered for a day or so, the temperature crashed to below freezing. Way below freezing. We lived in the country up in the hills in heavy woods. We awoke to what sounded like a war outside.

Since our home was heated by a wood stove, it was also cold. While dad swiftly lit a fire that had been unnecessary for quite a while, we tried to rub the windows clear only to find the ice was all over the outside. The explosions and cracks and snaps were the tree branches exploding as the sap suddenly froze and expanded.  Tree limbs of all sizes were fragmented and sent flying through the air. 

The first thing we had noticed on getting out of bed was the lack of electricity.  Sure enough, the ice had coagulated on the power lines and brought them down.  My dad struggled outside after the trees quieted and looked around as best he could.  He reported when he returned that there was about an inch of ice on everything.  

We weren’t able to find out how the rest of the area was faring until the freeze thawed and the population was able to get around some, and the power was restored to our non battery radios and television.  We knew it was dire enough where we were, since we had to constantly struggle to get to our wood supply and bring it in, and worse yet, find a way to get water.  Our water came from an underground water supply that required an electric pump to bring it into the house.

So did all our neighbors, except for an elderly couple living a couple of hills away.  They still had an old fashioned hand pump water system.  Our dad joined all the other men on our road slipping and sliding their way to the couple’s house carrying what they could to haul water.  They had to walk, because vehicles could not handle the ice at all.

The cold was intense.  My sisters and I joined together in one old iron framed bed, just large enough to hold two girls at the top and two at the bottom, and my youngest sister, barely a toddler, stayed warm between our parents in their bed.  We huddled around the stove in the living room when we were forced to get up long enough to eat.  Our small home had been built before insulation, and was drafty.  Going to the bathroom was unpleasant, and we ignored personal hygiene until we had water again.  But we had it good, considering what others had to deal with.

Remember me saying that farmers were taken by surprise, too?  Our area of the Ozarks was farm country.  Lots of dairy cattle, beef, horses, chickens, livestock and pets of all kinds were out in the fields and yards enjoying the warm weather.  They stayed out in the fog, because who worried about a little water?  The cattle were almost all lying down, probably chewing their cuds and enjoying the warm ground, when the temperature dropped.

Horror stories emerged as the news began to filter to us.  Farmers awoke to the screams of their animals as the creatures tried to rise from the ground, only to discover the heavy ice now coating them had frozen their milk bags to the ground, and their lurching attempts to rise had torn their milk bags open and ripped the hide from their bellies.  Hundreds of animals had to be put down in the fields that first morning, then their carcasses disposed of after the farmers’ tractors could finally find purchase on the ice.  My gym teacher had to put her mare’s new foal down after she found it had tried to leap to its feet and ripped its hooves off.

Because of the extensive damage to the power lines, the dairy farmers who had surviving cattle had to milk by hand and soon found themselves unable to deal with the cows who were loudly expressing their pain as their milk bags distended without relief.  They called on the local agricultural agents for help, and generators were finally discovered and flown in from all over to power their milking machines.

All the children my age were affected (some to their delight) when it was discovered the sudden freeze had broken the school’s steam heating system that had been shut down over Christmas vacation, but not drained.  New parts were brought in, only to freeze and break before the steam heating could beat back the intense cold.  We had to go to school through June that year to make up for the time we lost in January.  That was no fun, since our school had no air conditioning.

It was a rough winter, but the lessons lingered.  Work together with family and friends.  Know your neighbors.  We always have water stored, and a way to keep warm no matter what heating system our house has.  I don’t understand people who have all electric homes and apartments.  Always have food that doesn’t have to be cooked, and keep the freezers full so the foods can keep themselves cold in there.  Have a way to light the house in the absence of electricity, and very importantly, have a way to pass the time without computer, television, video games, or recharging smart phones.  Keep the gas tanks full in the vehicles and bug out bags prepared in case of evacuation.  Those lessons have got my family through bad weather, and bad times, of all kinds.

My prayers go out for all the travelers trying to get home, the homebound worrying about food supplies, warmth, and water, and the professionals trying to bring them relief.  I pray for the law officers like my nephew in law, the truckers like my relatives, and the commuters like my sister.  I pray for us all, and pray that you find it in your hearts to help where you can, and find help where and when you need it.