Monthly Archives: March 2016

Roosevelt was Right

Theodore Roosevelt was my favorite president long before Ken Burns created his documentary about the Roosevelt family. Aside from his mistaken, historical-context-laden Native American policy, which I do not condone, Roosevelt rose to the challenge of Chief Executive and accomplished much in his eight years in the Oval Office. What makes him unique is that instead of trying to change people and issues on the other side of the political spectrum, Roosevelt tackled the problems that his own party was responsible for aiding and abetting. Through his family’s impressive economic and political profile, Roosevelt represented the party of Big Business. Yet he successfully limited the powers of big business, namely the growth of corporations, during his time in office. As an insider, Roosevelt knew well how to get their attention then motivate them to cooperate, effectively throttling a power that promised to run away with any sort of individual rights for the people and small organizations. His method of operation is one we should all consider and apply to ourselves.

With whatever demographic you associate, look to call down your own trouble-makers instead of pointing across whatever barrier there is, to someone who sees things differently (Notice I didn’t say “wrongly”).  I’m speaking in extreme opposites on purpose:  Immigration? If you’re a legal immigrant, use your knowledge of families and movements to help the police find law-breaking immigrants. Religion? If you’re religious or atheist, encourage like-minded individuals to find ways to make life better for everyone, instead of acting in destructive ways, which is the antithesis of true spiritual aspirations. Politics? If you’re a Democrat or Republican, stop encouraging the radical 2% fringe on each end, because they don’t represent the best of your party.  Economic or social status? Instead of the rich blaming the poor and the poor blaming the rich for all social ills, try to get your “brother” or “neighbor” to see how he might be adding to the problem, in the myriad minor ways people warp and tilt the law in their favor.

With a little forethought and dedication, you can use your situation as an insider in your own subgroup, as Roosevelt did, to appeal to citizens who are acting against the best interests of our country. We aren’t getting anywhere gouging at “the enemy,” whatever side of whatever skirmish we’re on. There’s really so much more that we have in common, if we would quit focusing on another group whose views on one subject or in one area might be opposite our own. Trust that “they” have their reasons, and, just like “your” group, most are committed to trying to make our world a better place.

We extol the courage of our military heroes. Does it really take that much courage to look at a bigot or sycophant and say, hey, bud, dial it down?!

So call down those in your own ranks who are giving the other side a target. I’d much rather someone I know and trust point out my thought distortions, gross exaggerations, and self-justifications than someone I expect to see the worst in me. I’ll pay much more attention to the former.

Roosevelt became president after the assassination of William McKinley. Who knows if he ever would have been elected president on his own? But when he was presented the opportunity, he made a difference. We each have unique opportunities in our own spheres of influence. Don’t waste your resources slinging hardballs into a brick wall; that negative energy  keeps your hands dirty. See what you can do with the folks on your side of the issue.  While you focus on that irritant in your own eye, that speck in your adversary’s eye might become less of a bother, and you might find ways to work together in spite of yourselves.

Feeling the Burn

I’ve always been fascinated by how childhood’s seemingly minor thresholds turn out to be major upheavals in how a child sees and understands the world, and it has been a common theme in my writing.  Our growth from innocence to experience exacts a high cost, and it’s what we pay, willing or not, to become adults. Last Saturday, March 19, marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my father, Frank Shell. I took one of the stories my dad told me about a lesson learned in his childhood and loosely transformed it into a work of fiction with several lessons. “Feeling the Burn” was originally published in Louisiana Literature*.  I’d like readers’ responses on what was learned that hot summer day.

 

Feeling the Burn

 

“I was hoping we’d get a soda this afternoon.” Fate Taylor kicked a rock repeatedly along the dirt road, weaving side to side to follow its path.

“Now how would that happen?” Terrell, Fate’s older brother by thirteen months, sidestepped Fate’s rock.

“Tell me again how it tastes.” Fate’s bare feet, calloused to convey him through an Ozark summer, were unhampered by the small stones, though he avoided the larger pointed rocks.

Terrell shrugged and chewed his biscuit as they ambled toward the game. “It burns your throat. But the burn feels good.” He added the last with a rise in inflection, conveying he understood it didn’t make sense. Fate watched Terrell’s lips repeat the description he had heard many times. He ran his tongue over his lips again. The heat absorbed the moisture entirely. Terrell kicked Fate’s rock. “But you ain’t gonna get that burn today.”

“Maybe I will,” Fate stuck out his chin in defiance as he looked at his brother.

Both boys had finished the second grade two days earlier, and summer stretched before them like a luscious treat to swallow whole. The next day their father Leland made them chop and stack a hickory hit by lightning for firewood. Cutting into that rock-hard wood burned their shoulder, arm and back muscles. All four Taylor boys crawled into bed at night with nothing left in their bodies that could possibly make provision for their family. They rammed cedar fence posts in the ground, hoed the tomatoes and pole beans, and cleared the meadow of sassafras striplings.

But this afternoon, the local boys of Simms Creek would take on the county seat team of Winnsboro at a baseball game, and Terrell and Fate’s mother Mattie had said they could attend, provided they finished their chores and Leland agreed. That morning Terrell milked while Fate gathered the eggs. They carried their burdens to the cool of the spring house. They wiped sweaty hands on their overall legs, and strained the steaming milk through a white cloth into frosted Mason jars which they lidded carefully and lowered into the spring.

“Think if we sold some of the eggs and got a soda Ma’s miss them?” Fate asked

Terrell frowned as he examined then tossed an egg Fate had cracked. “You blew your chance last year.”

One Saturday late last November, Mattie had their oldest brother Willis harness Jep the mule and drive the family to Greeson’s store in the cart. She sold the pecans that her boys had gathered that morning. She handed each boy a nickel in front of the store. Terrell had purchased a Coca-Cola, bolted it in a few gulps, and then belched with pride and surprise as the burning sensation in his throat ripened. Fate also bought a Coke, but did not drink it immediately. He seated himself on the left end of the store porch and placed the bottle beside him. Terrell tossed a baseball in the air and caught it.

“Hey, think fast!” Terrell fired the ball toward Fate. The ball glanced off Fate’s fingers, knocked over the bottle, and broke it. The dry gray boards quickly soaked up the liquid. Fate rubbed his knuckles, blinked, and glared at his brother.

“Why didn’t you catch it?” Terrell mocked. That night, he described the curious sensation of drinking the cola to his mother. “Burned a nickel is what you done,” Leland said, as he sat at the table and whittled a sling shot for Terrell. Mattie tapped her pointer finger against her lips from behind Leland, and raised her eyebrows at her boys.

I won’t lose it next time, Fate whispered.

Continue reading Feeling the Burn

Witness

Short Fiction about Childhood’s New Experiences

I hadn’t thought about Brenda Duncan in twenty-five years. But as I drove my daughter Lucy and her buddies to Cumberland Springs for church camp, memories of my own childhood crowded into the forefront of my mind. When we arrived and the girls tumbled out of the car, excited but the most superficial degree of nervous, innocent but much less vulnerable than anyone would think, just as I had been so long ago, that girl from my cabin commanded my attention again.

The first night of camp when I was ten years old, we huddled along the bunk beds and tried to understand Brenda’s story. Ten months earlier, she had watched her father shoot her mother in their bedroom.

Brenda’s shaggy bangs hung in her eyes. She had scratched at the mosquito bites on her legs until they became sores. She swiveled on her ratty sleeping bag from side to side of her bunk, like an actress playing in the round.

“Mom reached for the ash tray on the dresser. She didn’t hear Dad walk in the room. He shot her in the chest. Her blood got all over the blanket she just bought at Woolworth’s.”

A shudder rippled through the bunks, lined with snaggle-toothed, saucer-eyed girls just like me. I couldn’t imagine my father raising a hand to hurt my mother. I feared I would get in trouble for listening to Brenda, because my parents didn’t allow me to watch scary movies or violent television shows. I felt a sense of shame, as if I were tainted just by hearing the story. But it was also delicious, darkly attractive.

The next day, I let Brenda cut in front of me at breakfast. My best friend Janet shared with Brenda the home-made peanut butter cookies her mom sent to camp. We invited her to sit with us at morning worship services. At crafts, Brenda always got the paint colors she wanted. She could claim the front of the water fountain line on demand as the tale of her tragedy spread. The counselors hugged her, patted her shoulder, cooed “poor child.” As we marched into the cafeteria for dinner, campers’ heads drew together, fingers pointed, mouths whispered behind cupped hands. All eyes focused on us, the loyal friends and the unfortunate girl. Brenda held her head high as she glided past the gossipmongers. The strange fixed smile on her face was one of defense, we reasoned. And after evening worship, a longer, deeper version of the morning, we could not tear ourselves away from the tale she was obsessed with telling.

“I hid behind the door. He stared right at me before he left. Momma never made a sound.”

The third day, she groped for details: how she hadn’t talked to her father since then. How when they returned to the house much later, she had to sneak in the bedroom while her grandmother made a phone call. How her aunt refused to listen to the truth.

We began to avoid eye contact with Brenda. That night, as she whipped up the emotions of our cabin mates, Janet and I used our flashlights to read notes we’d exchanged with boys during the worship services. Brenda poured on the effects: “Did I tell you about the gun?” A few girls yawned and fell asleep.

The fourth day Brenda didn’t say much. Nobody made room for her when she approached the crafts table. When she didn’t get her own bottle of glue right away, she wandered off. She found the camp nurse and they sat outside the nurse’s camper in lawn chairs. The nurse leaned forward, listened, and held her hand. When Brenda approached us in the cafeteria line at dinner, we turned away. She scooted her tray next to mine anyway then sat down at our table.

“My grandmother still won’t let me talk about it.”

Janet and I would not look at her. We giggled between ourselves about the lifeguard we both had a crush on. The three other girls at the table leaned over their plates, intent on their mashed potatoes and gravy.

“They fought all the time,” Brenda’s voice grew shrill. “I was used to it.”

“Okay, okay, we know,” I rolled my eyes.

“He’s in jail now,” she practically shouted.

Janet and I exchanged glances, and we shook our heads. I stabbed at the meat loaf. When Brenda touched my arm, I jerked away.

“What’s wrong with you?”  She appealed.

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with me.” My voice grew louder.

“I was there all by myself.”

“We know the whole story. You’ve told us everything.” I slammed down my fork.  “And it’s sick and we’re sorry, but we wish you’d shut up.”

Suddenly the room was still. Everybody had frozen. Campers standing in the food line stared. But they were watching Brenda.

I picked up my fork, swirled my peas and carrots. “Look, we’re sorry. But we just can’t…you can’t talk about it all the time.”

Brenda’s eyes narrowed, but didn’t fill with tears. She whirled to her plate, chomped her dinner roll in silence. The noise gradually returned. Chairs scraped across concrete, forks tapped against plastic plates, occasionally a glass of fruit punch crashed to the floor. The other girls at the table wiped their mouths, set down their napkins, waited for me. We abandoned Brenda and bused our trays as a group. As we left the cafeteria, my friends thanked me for cutting her off.

I shivered at the memory then caught up with my daughter Lucy, who was trying to pick a bunk with all her friends nearby.  They had lugged in their big suitcases and only a few items remained in the front seat.

“Can I speak with you a minute?”

Lucy huffed but followed me back out to the car. She piled her autograph dog on top of her scrapbooks while I tried to talk to her.

“You’ll make new friends here,” I hesitated. She shrugged. I looked at the other campers trickling into their cabin. “Some will be different from you.”

A wiggle of understanding crossed her forehead. She looked at me straight on.

“Mom they’re waiting. We’re going swimming and I don’t want to have to walk by myself.”

“I know, but, the different ones, you’ll treat them…?”

“What? I still have to change. Can I go now?  I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

She dashed off to avoid being odd man out. It’s not you I’m worried about, I thought. I was still standing there when Lucy’s friends appeared in their bathing suits. She scampered to catch up with them.

“Make sure you…listen,” I called half-heartedly, but they were already out of earshot, carrying their monogrammed towels and sun totes toward the swimming area.