Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts

16 October, 2018

Rubber Tramp Stories 1: Big Rock Candy Mountain is Hollow

I met a hobo once, through a mutual friend. He came in on a southbound CSX and hopped off about seven blocks from my house, near a McDonalds. 

The only number he had was my friend JP's number. Naturally, JP called and invited me to hang out at his place in Middletown. He was always wanting to show me his world -- the world of trains and hobos. I've never met a man so in tune with his world vision, so able to bridge the connection between belief and action. Nearly everyone has ideas. Very few people actually live them. And while I think I'm not shabby in that particular area, I always embrace -- even if I am sometimes amused and/or frustrated -- by his attempts to educate me. 

Although I can't prove it, I think sometimes he thinks because I've spent a good deal of my time in school that I haven't lived.  This point of view isn't a new one, and in his case it isn't rooted in the usual good ol' American anti-intellectualism; no, for JP, the fact is that formal education abandoned him and he's managed to be a pretty well-read and self-educated guy anyway. But when he called and told me I needed to come meet his friend, I knew what he really meant. 

He meant "You're never going to believe THIS motherfucker."

JP and I haven't traded You-won't-believe-this-crazy-motherfucker stories, although we've traded here.
plenty of others.  And no, I haven't hopped trains -- mostly because a part-time hobo with a house out in Oakland named Dirty Face told me, without skipping a beat, that I was too old to start at 42. But I have done my fair share of traveling... as what the old timers would call a Rubber Tramp. When you travel off the beaten path for any length of time, you end up meeting some really interesting people... ones that I wrote about

So made it over to meet JP's hobo friend. I'll call him D. D is neither his given name nor his hobo name -- yes, that's a thing. He was still a little jumpy by the time I got there, but he'd had a shower and JP fixed him a plate and some coffee.

D talked primarily about two things -- a friend who died and his graduate work in Para-psychology. His friend died when he got trapped under an unstable load on a train he'd hopped. He was usually pretty smart, D said of his friend. But sometimes it just happens.

He was more animated talking about his graduate work. He was writing a book, he said. The whole basis of his thesis was that happiness is infectious, and if he just tried to get people to smile, that it would make the world a better place. I pointed out there was something very sociological about that and D shook his head. It was about the spirit, he said. And people, he said, almost always get that shit wrong.

People act like the big spirit is in the sky, he said. But really, it's under our feet. He told us about his epiphany, about how the Earth is hollow and how there's not a molten core at the center, but a city where a beings of a higher plane live.  People keep looking up for inspiration, he said. But all a long it's under their feet. Like tree roots.

I hung out for a little while. We talked and listened to Sun Ra records and drank coffee. But then it was time to go. And while I can't quite get behind the idea that the Earth is hollow, I found myself paying a bit more attention to the terra firma.

[Check out my friend JP's work here. It's good for your soul. I promise.]

Thanks for reading.

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19 June, 2014

Learning Along the Dirty, Sacred, River: Fathers, Teachers, Elders, Part 2

[Part one can be found here]

Me (Left), Dad, and my older brother. Dad was my first hero.
The best and most important lesson I have learned from my father is that I am not him.

I am not him. I am not my grandfather, nor his father, nor his father. I am not them. And while it is fashionable in some circles to worship our dead*  doing so means we lose not only something important from them, but from ourselves, too.

Although I grew up listening to stories about my grandfather Daniel, the truth is my Dad told me very little about his own life. I've written before about the book he and I never got to write -- a memoir of sorts we were going to title Every Man Is A VIP. He told me he was waiting for me to be old enough to understand.

Over the years since his death -- this September 3rd he will be gone 24 years -- I have come to different conclusions as to why he thought it was important to wait. After all, don't fathers regale their sons with stories about youth and prowess? That seemed to be the pattern of most of the fathers of the sons I went to school with, went to church with. Not that he didn't share stories about himself, but almost always they were funny stories. Most often, he was not the hero of his stories. He was never the villain either. When he told me the reason he never ate bananas he did not shy away from his own culpability. (He ate bad ones in the Navy while at port in Hong Kong... and so did the entire ship, including the Captain who ordered them NOT to eat the bananas. The entire crew ended up with dysentery... including the Captain.) When he told me the story about his military induction, he did not hold back on his feelings of inadequacy standing naked in a cold gymnasium with a thousand other young men. All men have their failures and all men have their triumphs. But for Dad, a story about him 1) was funny and 2) was educational, even and especially at his own expense.

The only time he told hero stories was when he talked about his own father, who was far from perfect and probably in need of some understanding, if not revision.

Grandpa Daniel "Boone" Parsons, with me and my brother

 Men are not perfect creatures and it does us all a disservice to worship our elders to the point that they become symbols of divine infallibility.

Grandpa Parsons died when I was 3, so my own memories of him are limited. Most of what I know about him, I know from stories Dad told. I learned a little more from My Dear Sweet Ma, and some from my Grandma Dunn, who knew him because they lived across the street from Dan and Minnie Parsons on S. Charity Street. He was not an easy man, though he, too, loved to tell stories.  I have come to suspect that my dad's ambivalence about dogs is rooted in the fact that maybe sometimes the dogs ate better than he did. Grandpa was fond of whiskey even though (and probably because) his wife supported the temperance movement. He was also something of a flirt and probably a philanderer, which made Grandma Parsons terribly (and likely understandably) jealous.

Then again, being personable isn't the same as taking your pants off and Bethel, like all small towns, has always operated more on rumor than substantiated fact.

He was a stubborn and argumentative man. One of my favorite stories about him is the one in which he stopped speaking to his barber over a political argument. He still went to the barber. After all, there was only one in town.  He just didn't speak to him. But he was also a man who took no guff, who did not simper and skulk.



Grandpa (Clay J, Sr.) Dunn at Bantam.
Grandpa Dunn died in 1988. He worked with his hands, which means he also worked with his mind. I once watched him working on a design for one of his carpentry projects. He was drawing it out on a napkin at the kitchen table. It struck me, being as young as I was and thoughtless as I was, that he was far better at complex math than I was at simple math -- and that he had dropped out of school.

Most of his world was cut off from me. I was too sick to be in his workshop, too sick to wander the woods much... or at least, that was impression I was given until I was 10 or so. Most of his world was cut off from me, but the one thing I learned from him, though he spoke very little around me, was that being educated is not the same thing as knowing. And while I was being raised to embrace education, I tucked away the knowledge that there is more than one way to learn something, and that I could learn by doing as much as I could by sitting in some stale classroom, waiting to be told what is important.

I keep that in mind every time I step into the classroom to teach. This lesson keeps me grounded as teacher more than any pedagogy.

It wasn't until recently that began to (maybe) understand the Old Man's motivations in not telling me the rest of his stories. Every boy grows up in his father's shadow**. But there's a point where the son must extract himself from that shadow, whether it is an oppressive one or whether it is a comfortable one. A boy doesn't really become a man until he fully extracts himself from that shadow. My Old Man castes a large shadow, and so did his father, and I'm guessing that his father did before that. Dad had to leave home before he could properly see himself in the light of day. The same was true for his father. The same was true for me. I like to think now that the Old Man understood this -- that bearing down too much on a son will keep him forever in the shadow. He did not want to be worshiped. He wanted to be understood when I had the appropriate context and experience.

I am not my father. But I am my father's son. I don't need to sit and wonder what The Old Man would do in any given situation because it is not my father who is in any of those situations anymore. But I can look back over what he taught me, the things he tried to tell me, and I can find my own answers. 

______________________________________
 *Worshiping the dead is not the same thing as Remembrance. Remembrance implies meditation, consideration and reconsideration, paying attention, and LEARNING. To worship the dead means fitting them into whatever convenient framework makes us feel better about ourselves and our world view, no matter how incorrect that view might be. See also: every public school history textbook. See also: every sermon by James Hagee, Pat Robertson, Robert Tildon, Joel Olsteen, Jimmy Swaggart, and Oral Roberts. See also: any nightly "world" news show on a major television network.
** This is true whether the father is present or not. Absence does not negate the father. Absence just leaves more room for interpretation and selfish revision.

12 May, 2014

Learning Along The Dirty, Sacred River: Mothers, Teachers, Elders, Part 1

I was cooking dinner for my daughter and her boyfriend last night*, trying to explain why I clean up after myself as I cook. I was telling The Kid about her Grandpa Parsons (my Old Man) and how it was that he became  a not too terrible cook in spite of always managing to dirty every single dish in the kitchen. He started to learn how to cook because my Mom was often in class and unable to cook; it didn't help that other than chili, the only other things he could cook with any proficiency were hamburgers and hot dogs. And, if there was an egg cup** that did not have some smattering of slop in it, he would find a need for said egg cup just to have his record of dirtying every dish uncontested.

Stella (The Kid) informed me that she was the same way. Then she laughed a little and said that her Grandma Dixie (My Dear Sweet Ma) once said of the tendency that "it must run in the family."

In order to explain why my dad cooked at all -- other than to make chili or to cook out on the grill -- I talked about how My Dear Sweet Ma, when I was 10, decided to go to college.  in 1983, it was neither common nor encouraged for middle-aged married women to go back to school. The prevailing wisdom was twofold: 1) people ought to be working towards   retirement, not working on homework, and 2) that a married woman with two young boys ought to be at home.

This last view point was most vociferiously supported by some people in my extended family among the Dunns, her people, who felt that if she did anything other than fold laundry, watch soap operas, and sculpt her hair into a fine, fine beehive, she was not being a proper woman. The Old Man was intolerant of that view, and showed his intolerance in the manner he is most remembered for: he simply told them all to go to hell after putting on the mantle of Ol' Sarge^ ... against which there was no real or imagined defense.

As I was telling the story of why I try and clean up after myself, I was once again struck by the unusual progressiveness of a man who I had, for my entire childhood, attributed with an almost caveman-like  sense of right and wrong.*** And I was also struck again by just how strong an individual my My Dear Sweet Ma is. 

You wouldn't necessarily know it by just looking at her. She is not one to loudly make her way through the world... certainly not in the heavy-footed manner by which her youngest son (that would be me, Dear Readers) makes his way through the world... but she has made her way nonetheless, and except for my father's death, she has pretty much made her way on her own terms. She graduated after earning her bachelor's degree, and went on to complete her Masters. She taught public school for 26 years -- first as a Special Education teacher and then as a 5th grade English and Social Studies teacher.

I love my mother's story -- the parts of it I know. There's more to it,  but it's not all mine to tell here and now. I love my mother's story as it happened. I love it as it is still unfolding. She is embracing her post work life with the same quiet and relentless reserve ... a reserve she might attribute to her faith... that she has used to embrace all the important things and people and circumstances in her life. I love my mother's story because it helps me place my own story, and the stories of other family members into some appropriate context. And I am glad that I noticed it while it is still in the process of unfolding.

The Kid will turn 20 in September. This July, she is planning on getting married to the boyfriend, Will, who I have at times called  Plus 1. As she grows into an adult it occurs to me that there are things she needs to know.  (Shhh. There's no need to tell here that 20 isn't an adult age, simply an age that the legal system has arbitrarily decided is old enough to vote (18),old enough to get shot at defending corporate profits (18), but not old enough to by beer (21). ^^ ) She needs to know how to fix a leaky toilet. She needs to know how to diagnose simple mechanical issues. She needs to know how to change a tire, change the oil, change a battery. She needs to know the things I've learned, and the things I was taught. I've let loose of some of that over the years; but there are things she needs to know that transcend my life.


This is my Grandma Dunn, Lonnabelle. She was also, in her own way, a quiet but strong woman. I used to spend a lot of time with her when I was not allowed outside. After Grandpa died, almost all of his extended family deserted her. Her own family was scattered. Her maiden name was Ackerman,and she grew up around Crystal Lake, Wisconsin. Her own mother died when she was young and her father remarried a woman named Lucille, who I wish I had a picture of because she remains in my mind one of the sharpest, funniest, most blunt^^^ people I have ever known.  Grandma Dunn made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, knitted quilts until her hands wouldn't let her, and loved crossword puzzles, word searches, Reader's Digest, Alec Trabek, and Pat Sajek. She also liked playing Gin. She once told me she enjoyed playing cards because as a child in Crystal Lake, her father -- who was a religious man -- would not allow any card games into his house that used face cards. 

Why, you might ask? He associated face cards with gambling.

Later in life, one of the things she did was tell stories about her life to elementary school children. She enjoyed this deeply, as it gave her a chance to talk about the happiest times in her life, and about times she had come to remember as less complicated. Being the snot-nosed shit was, I was far less interested in her stories than I should have been... a mistake that, when I think about it now, physically pains me.

When I was younger and in my extremely religous phase (Please note the ontological difference between "religious" and "spiritual".) and was seriously pondering a life in the pulpit, she would talk to me about religious and biblical matters. She would ask me my interpretations of biblical text, and ask me what I thought it meant in a modern world. We talked about the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. We talked about the Golden Rule and the Great Commission. We talked about The Song of Songs and the Book of The Revelation. She was the one who pointed out to me that church wasn't just a building... that church could be anywhere, because Grandpa didn't need to put on a tie and sit in a pew to worship; he just took a walk in the back 40 and talked to God himself, mano y mano.


This is my Grandma Parsons, named Minnie. She died before I was born, so what little I know of her I know second and third hand. She was a small woman, with bright red hair. Even when he was a child (and, by his own admission, a snot-nosed shit) Dad teased her and called her Pinky.  Her maiden name was Blackburn, and she was, I believe born in Clermont County. She endured the largeness of my Grandpa Parsons' personality, raised three sons and a daughter, and died almost 10 years before her husband, who was actually actually a decade older than her. She was a prohibitionist in spite of my Grandpa's fondness for whiskey, and though she sometimes confided in her youngest son (my Uncle Bill) she never once faltered in her own beliefs. 

I didn't get to know her... but given that I know me, my father, and some of the stories about Daniel Boone Parsons... I'd say that she was one tough woman. Parsons men require more patience than most women have ... and I say that as a man who respects the deep and abiding capacity of women to shape the world.

The day before yesterday was Mother's Day. And while I wasn't in Losantiville to spend it with My Dear Sweet Ma, I did call and wish her a Happy Mother's Day.  I may be the son that gives her the most  trouble; but I hope she knows that, at least, I've finally learned to pay attention. 


____________________________
*She requested that I make this sausage rice pilaf dish she likes during my visit. And since she is a culinary school student,and knows more about what good food is than I do, I took it as a compliment and happily complied.
** There was no egg cup. Ours was not a high falutin' family. But if there HAD been... lawdy, lawdy, lawdy. 
*** Sorry, Dad. I should have been paying more attention.
^He was a retired Air Force Master Sgt. Standing in the face his full fury was like trying to stand up against a hurricane with a one string mop and a bucket with a hole in it.
^^ All lines are arbitrary ones, whether they are legal distinctions of adulthood or lines on a map.
^^^ Blunt was not an adjective I would apply to Grandma, or most anyone in the Dunn family. And other than Lucille, I have never met another Ackerman. Lucille died fairly recently, outliving Grandma by well over a decade. I understand that up to the day she died, Lucille still read the stock market pages everyday.

17 March, 2014

Culpeper Tells, Winter Talks Back

The Traveller's Angel and I jaunted east of the dirty, sacred river, barrelling up I-64, through the deep Appalachian darkeness of  the West Virginia Turnpike at night. We left River City Friday afternoon on a warm and sunny afternoon in order to make for the second day of Culpeper Tells!, a brand new storytelling festival in Culppeper, Virginia.

Culpeper is a pretty litttle town that has, over the past gfew years, built itself back up from devestation. The town has survived four earthquakes in the last year. The Big One, though, happened in August 2011. The town of Culpeper  built itself back from a 5.8 magnitiude earthquake. 

We had the opportunity to see some tellsers we've seen before, and to hear a few we haven't. Naturally we signed up for the story slam. But time ran out before the Kentucky contingnent could storm the stage.

We left Culpeper Sunday morning and rolled down VA 17 towards Norfolk to visit The Kid. And, as is almost always the case when I travel, winrter was at my back. The storm warnings blew up behind us, ad we hit the coast a good couple of hours before yet one more last hurrah of winter rolled through dropping ice, snow, and sleet in a wide swath from Loiusville to the coast. 

The North Atlantic coast may not seem the most romantic of destinations in March. Even without the interminably long winter  weather, it's still chilly, windy, and rainy.  But it's been a while since I've seen The Kid's smiley, shiny face. It's also been a while since I've seen Will, the boyfriend -- who is a nice guy, in spite of the fact that no one will ever be good enough to date my daughter.

We're staying at a Super 8 -- the same one I managed to stay in when I was here in January 2012. That trip was a very different one. I was here then to deliver bad news, among other things. I was convvinced that I was on my way to disappearing, convinced that, with the dissolution of my marriage that I most certainly would disappear, because I had convinced myself that no one weould see me the way my ex had seen me. 

I didn't know that I was on the road to put myself back together. I didn't even know I was broken. 

Amanda travels well. She's smart, pays attention to her surroundings, and drinks up new experiences. She wants to see everything she can,learn everything she can, experience all that she can. Although we've known one another for nearly 20 years, I like to think it has taken that long for me to get back to her. That it's too me 20 yeasrs to see myself in a proper enough light that I could allow her to see me. Some processes take longer than others.

And now I am here, with her, visiting The Kid -- who isn't really a kid, I guess -- and even though the North Atlantic winter is lingering outside, I am basking in the wearmth of a deeper, lovelier and more permanent light. The light where all the stories and poems and songs come from, where road unrolls under our feet and there is blue sky ahead.