Neil O. Jones wrote about war, sometimes spot on, sometimes indirectly, but always with an effective punch. Neil died one year ago today. What better way to remember him than to share a story he wrote maybe twelve years ago. This one has a favorite saying of his: “champion of the world.” I do miss his voice, this dialect, this storytelling mind.
One thing about Neil: he never drank. Maybe a sip of wine or a beer now and then, but never much, because of his alcoholic father.
Of all Neil’s boyhood lifetime friends from the Oak Cliff section of South Dallas, T-Bone is still with us. Ronny died as a young man in an auto accident. Jimmy died a few months before Neil did. And any little boy named Victory Over Japan deserves his own story.
By Neil O. Jones
If there was ever an individual’s name to represent his baby boomer generation, it was my friend Victory over Japan, called V.J. for short. He was born the same day as the event—August 14, 1945. Though he was not in the neighborhood long, he made two memories that are so sharp, they will always be with me.
His family lived one street over from me there in south Dallas, on Shellhorse Road, about halfway down, on the left, of the deadend road. Two other buddies, the brothers Jimmy and Ronny, as well as their mom and dad—Papa Earl—lived at the end of Shellhorse. Actually V.J.’s mom met my mother before he and I met. They often rode the same bus home from their jobs and they talked and got to know each other on their walk home from the bus stop. They both worked selling to the public, my mother at a clothing store and V.J.’s mom as a waitress at the downtown Dallas Woolworth’s lunch counter. The women learned they had boys near in age, and as they got to know each other better, they learned they had another like concern—alcoholic husbands.
I first met V.J. in the summer of my tenth year. Jimmy, Ronny, T-Bone, and I were taking turns rolling down the steep gravel hill on Shellhorse Road in the brothers’ Radio Flyer wagon. We were seeing who could roll the farthest with just the driver pushing himself off the hill. T-Bone was the leader so far, as he had marked his spot with the marking rock. He was a good six feet ahead of Ronny, who was about three feet ahead of his brother, Jimmy. It was my turn. I gave myself a good push-off, and I had a clean mount. I was able to miss the slowing big rocks and deep gravel. As I made my way down and saw I had a chance for a win, I heard an encouraging voice.
“Lay flat and scoot it when you slow down,” V.J. said from his seat on his porch.
As I approached the marking rock, at first I didn’t think I was going to get there. Then I thought I might just tie T-Bone. My front wheel was finishing its last revolution when I heard, “Now. Scoot it.” And I gave it one good scoot, enough to claim the long distance neighborhood championship of the world—by a half a wheel length.
“Neat,” V.J. said. “You did it.”
The rest of the guys came down to verify the mark. They were all talking about the run when I noticed my new coach-cheerleader friend still sitting on his porch. I told him, loud enough so the others could hear, “We’re going to do some suicide dives. You wanna come?”
He was up before I finished the question. We all gave our names as we walked back up the hill. “I’m V.J.,” he started out. “My whole first name is Victory over Japan ‘cause I was born the day the Japs give up. I go by V.J. And my daddy was in the Army somewhere in the Pacific, my mom told me. And I was born that day and my mom said she knew my dad would be coming home and she was so happy about me being born and victory day and him coming home and she figured it was a sign or something so she named me Victory over Japan, but like I said, you guys can call me V.J. Ever’body does.” I got the feeling he had told that story a few times.
There was an odd silence. Just saying you were maybe named after an uncle or grandfather, didn’t seem like much. Finally I could think of nothing but the obvious. “I’m Neil. These two are Jimmy there, and Ronny. They’re brothers. The cotton top there is Gerald, but we call him T-Bone ‘cause he’s skinny. You can just call him T-Bone. Ever’body does.”
At the top of the hill we looked back at the run. Shellhorse Road, from our angle, began on the high end at Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard, and butted into busy Lancaster Road on the lower end. The flat part between the brothers’ yard and the hill was our starting point. One kid would drive the wagon while another pushed him across the flat part of the road, past Mrs. Cullum’s house and under her big pecan tree until the steep downhill part was reached. The suspension-less wagon bounced on the little rocks and slid a little on and over the bigger ones. In season, we cracked a mess of pecans in our path. At the plummet point, the runner gave one last shove of the wagon just as the driver reached the steep drop in the road. The worst or best wreck I ever saw, depending on your perspective, happened the day V.J. joined the troupe.
It must have been V.J.’s fifth or sixth run as driver and he had made it all the way down without wrecking and he was feeling a little cocky, I guess. T-Bone and I were getting ready to be the pushers when V.J. said, “Can’t y’all push any faster? You push like a couple of girls.” T-Bone and I looked at each other. Without saying anything, sometimes we could communicate pretty well.
T-Bone pulled the wagon back into Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard so we could have more of a running start. We both kicked out holes as starting blocks to get a good jump start. We each took a back corner and rocked the wagon back and forth.
“On three,” I said. “One . . . two . . . three!” And we were off. I timed “three” in rhythm with the forward rocking of the wagon.
The rear of the wagon scooted a little to the side and for a moment tried to catch up with the front. With both his fists together on the wagon tongue handle, V.J. turned the front wheels and adjusted nicely. The wagon straightened just in time before coming to the wallered-out tire ruts on the edge of the brothers’ yard. It was a washed out spot on one side that everybody slowed down for as they drove in. V.J. either could not control the wagon or he aimed for the hole as he hit it square. The front wheels dipped, followed by the drop of the back wheels and the wagon was airborne briefly, slamming down with T-Bone and I still hanging on and pushing as fast as our little legs would carry us. Once on the level part of Shellhorse, we got good grip with our Keds and the speed increased to the point of reaching maximum velocity just as we got to the edge of the hill. Our timing was good because we both gave our parting super shove in sync and with such force that we both stumbled and fell as we launched our bodies horizontal in the act.
V.J screamed. He began to lose control immediately. Bouncing a little sideways, he over-corrected and was headed for the ditch. I looked up from my position on the ground to take in the visual that happened in the next few seconds that I, or T-Bone I suspect, will never forget.
V.J. tried to bring the wagon back into control but there was no way. His right side wheels slipped in the ditch and I heard him scream again just before he slammed into the end of Mr. Woodruff’s culvert hard enough to bust out a piece of concrete. The collision put a big dent in the front of the wagon and the wagon tongue/steering wheel bent funny after it nearly impaled and then flipped V.J. And he took another pretty good lick as he flew out, skidded a ways on his hands and head and wound up rolling to a stop in the middle of old lady Johnson’s petunia patch. One of his shoes flew a good ten feet farther.
Old widow Johnson had to have been in her eighties then but people who had known her for years claimed she was as spry and mean an old hen as she ever was. She didn’t put up with foolishness from anybody, especially neighborhood toeheads who had no respect for her flower garden. She came near swallowing her dip as she arose from her rocker on her front porch.
“Well I’ll swanee,” she hollered. “You kids ain’t got a lick of sense in the bunch of you! Get out of my flowers, boy!” and she fairly jumped off her porch and was whacking him with her walking stick as she continued yelling at him. “I didn’t sweat and (whack!) dig to plant ‘em (whack!) just to have you (whack!) waller all over ‘em!”
Mrs. Johnson’s piercing voice cut through the neighborhood, and one at a time heads looked out of windows and some folk came out front to see what the ruckus was all about. V.J., poor V.J., must have landed harder on his bean than we thought because he was hobbling away fast, but the wrong way. I hollered at him and he sort of got his senses back, luckily before he walked into the zooming traffic of Lancaster Road. He did a hobble step pivot on a stiff leg and was headed right. He was sniffling and his head was bleeding, as was his hand he was holding against his chest, but all-in-all he was limping along at a pretty good clip, bumping up and down with each step and favoring his right side. On his shoeless left foot a dirty white sock was pulled off the ankle and bent under his foot and dragging.
T-Bone got the wagon, and I threw in the broken off front wheel, and he pulled it up the hill. Jimmy stuck the piece of concrete back, as if Mrs. Johnson would keep her mouth shut to Mr. Woodruff about it. Ronny went into Mrs. Johnson’s yard to get V.J.’s shoe so he caught a double barrel shot of her wrath at close range, but he was quick and did stay out of stick-swinging reach. Jimmy was running ahead with his arms held out like a receiver and Ronny saw he was open so he let the shoe fly in a wobbly spiral. Jimmy caught it in stride and passed us all and was the first one back to Mrs. Cullum’s pecan tree. The rest of us joined him, with V.J., the wounded one, hobbling in stiff legged and last. He looked plumb pulverized and pitiful, but as he caught up with us he started to laugh between the sniffles. The rest of us joined in. We would face the consequences later when we had to. For the moment we were on top of that hill and we laughed till we hurt and we were alive and loving it. V.J. made his bones that day.
My other strong memory of V.J. also involves him getting the worst of it, this time from his dad. There were a few times I was in V.J.’s house when his old man was there. He was always drinking Kentucky Times whiskey and every time I saw him, he was already there, drunk as a souse. I knew the speech, and the bloodshot eyes, and the smell all too well from my own dad, and I didn’t like to be around it at home or anywhere else. We usually played outside. The neighborhood kids didn’t play much at V.J.’s house or at my house for the same drunken reasons. I’m sure I was at his house more than the other kids because I understood his situation, like he understood mine.
V.J.’s daddy did mostly labor jobs on construction sites when he could get the work. He also did odd cleanup jobs in the neighborhood. Everybody knew to talk to his wife the night before if there was a job because she would keep him sober that morning to go to work. And he worked fine as long as he was sober. The family owned no car so he either rode the bus to construction jobs or got a coworker to pick him up. He never worked regular.
In a way I hated that old man, and in another way I felt sorry for him and in still another way, I admired him. I hated him I think because, like my dad, when he got drunk he was mean as a stepped-on water moccasin, and he took out his anger on those close to him. I felt sorry for him because he had the saddest face on a man I have ever seen. His mouth was downturned on the ends like an Emmet Kelly clown face, but there was nothing made up about it. His eyes were blank, distant and empty when he was drunk and quiet. When he was drunk, loud, and mean, his eyes were cutting and vicious looking, like Death’s head as I imagined. V.J. had told us about his dad’s experience in the Phillipines, as he had heard it from one of his dad’s Eighth Army buddies who had visited once. One time I saw the father’s scar V.J. had told me about. It was an indentation on his left side that stuck in about a half inch and wrapped halfway around his side below his ribs. V.J. told me it was where a Japanese soldier’s bayonet had pierced him and then ripped out his side as V.J.’s dad wrestled it away and then killed the soldier by pounding his head to mush with the rifle butt. He was not a man to be trifled with, and I was one of the few people who knew that.
Late that fall, T-Bone, V.J. and I were rolling down Shellhorse again. The brothers’ wagon had since been wrecked too often and the axles were bent, so their mom turned it into a planter she kept under their front room window. Not to be sidelined for long, the three of us came up with a makeshift hill racer. It was just an oblong wooden crate we had attached with casters we had found in T-Bone’s garage. Although we did the best we could, the vehicle looked kind of funny because there were two sizes of wheels. We tried it both ways and learned it rolled better with the small wheels in the back, making it less likely to flip forward. We couldn’t guide the thing; we just sort of aimed it before we shoved off the hill. There was just enough room for two to ride. The small wheels dragged on some of the bigger rocks, preventing us from getting up much speed. We did ride on the opposite side of the road from Mrs. Johnson’s, per V.J.’s request. Once I was pushing the two of them and at the last second pushed the back end a little sideways so it would head for the old lady’s yard, but my scheme didn’t work. T-Bone and V.J. both stirred up a dust cloud as they bailed out into the gravel before they would risk the wrath of Mrs. Johnson again.
V.J. and I took our turn as pilot and co-pilot. T-Bone had just given us a good send-off. I was in the back and couldn’t see much. V.J. was waving and shouting, “Hey, Daddy, watch us. Here we come.” I looked around V.J. as we bounced down the hill and saw that his dad had just turned up Shellhorse and was walking toward their house with a sack of groceries. He waved back. We came to a stop about twenty feet from him.
“You boys be careful with that thing, you hear?” he said as he approached us.
“Yessir,” V.J. said. “Look at our two-man racecar. We made it ourselves.”
V.J. and I got out so he could get a good look. He tilted it on its side and said, “Oh yeah. She’s a good ‘un, all right. No brakes and no steering wheel, but you got you a nice rope handle to pull it up the hill with.” He laughed a little. “Yeah. She’s a dandy. You boys just be careful, and you best not let your Mama see you.”
Most of the two hours of daylight left we spent riding that hill, until V.J. found a horned toad that caught our interest. In turn we petted it and studied it and V.J poked a little finger in its mouth just to show us its pink insides. We all liked horned toads but V.J. especially loved to mess with them. T-Bone caught a grasshopper and tried to feed it to the horned toad but I guess it was not in the mood for eating with three giants around it pulling its legs and rubbing its underbelly and poking at its thorny head.
When we heard his parents going at it, V.J. kneeled down and put the horned toad back in the grass. “You go on little guy. I’ll play with you again some day.” V.J. stood and said to us, “I gotta go. He’s drunk by now and something set him off and he may be getting rough.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why go now? Do what I do and wait till it blows over and he goes to sleep and things quiet down.”
“No,” V.J. said. “I can’t,” and T-Bone and I watched as he opened his screen door and entered just as there was a loud crash of something breaking inside.
T-Bone and I started back to our homes on Arden Road, but we took our time. The yelling lowered to just the man talking loud, but we could still hear everything being said. Then the fight picked up again. This time it sounded like something heavy was slammed against the wall and it seemed the whole house shook. Then we heard V.J.’s voice, “Don’t, Daddy, don’t. Leave her alone!”
The man yelled, “Why you little . . .” and then there was a cracking sound, and the sound of jostling and things being turned over and the mother’s voice begging the man to stop, “Before you kill him.”
The mother pushed the screen door open with one hand and was pulling her son out of the house with the other. The drunken man came through the door a second later and threw a couch pillow at them, but missed. “Go ahead and go and sleep outside for all I care. Just get the hell out!”
We came up to them and the mother seemed glad to see someone. “Neil, is your mother home? Do you think we could come over? My boy here is gonna need some tending to.”
I told her yes and we all went to my house where we got in the light and my mother did what she could for the two of them. V.J. was the worse off. He had a black eye and his nose was bleeding and looked kind of bent. There were scratches around one of his wrists, but what amazed me was the mark I saw next. As I stood behind him, I saw something through his thin tee shirt that was dark and big. I pointed it out to my mother. She had him raise his shirt to reveal the second visual image of V.J. I’ll never lose. It was the perfect outline of a red handprint. Later it became a bruise-blackened handprint.
V.J.’s mom kept saying she was sorry for putting her problems on us and my mother told her it was no bother. She told my mother that her husband was not usually that way, but he was not feeling well lately and that made him mean. Mother nodded and said, “Yes honey, I know.” They stayed about an hour. I walked back with them and watched as the mother picked up her couch pillow in the yard and they entered the dark, quiet house.
A month later on a Saturday morning early, I ran to V.J.’s house because I had caught a fat horned toad and I wanted to show him. On his front porch I saw through the front window the house was empty. There was a hand-drawn “For Rent” sign attached to the screen door with bobby pins.
As I sat there on his steps, I felt the movement of the horned toad in my shirt pocket. I pulled it out and poked my little finger in its mouth to see its pink insides. Then I put my little thorny-head buddy between my feet and watched as it hesitated in its sudden freedom.
“Go on little guy,” I said. “Lay flat and scoot. I’ll play with you again some time.” I poked it a little and it ran into the high grass.
On my way home, I moved slower. I wondered what happened to V.J. and his family. I think about it still, now and then. The mother probably stayed with her husband; she had few choices. V.J. stayed around at least another five or six years, for his mother’s sake, if not for his own protection. He would have gotten as big as the father and maybe held his own in future go-rounds. The father, I suspect, continued to see an eyeless, misshapen Japanese face every time he drew back for another swing at his Victory over Japan. He is likely dead by now. My guess is V.J. and his mother are glad he is finally able to rest.
A walk to the river became a New Year’s Day tradition when I had my golden retriever and lived in Fieldstone Farms in the late 1990s. I continued the tradition with my first cocker spaniel. A branch of the Harpeth River snaked across the northern edge of the street next to mine, and there are walking trails in Fieldstone, so I’d walk the dog first on the trails and then through an open field of dead, brown grass and dried stalks of weeds to the tree-lined rocky river. We’d stand on the hard-mud bank and watch the trickling flow.
Why a walk to the river? I suppose because a river is a good symbol for life—for the journey we take over the years from one point to a far point in the future, from beginning to destination. A river is good inspiration and shows us how to journey on.
The river has movement. Water keeps flowing onward. No matter what, it keeps going. It doesn’t stop—doesn’t get distracted, doesn’t get down and quit, doesn’t lose its focus and purpose. I wish people were made like that. I’d stand on the path at the edge of Lynnwood Branch and watch the water rush westward, and I’d get caught up in the thought that I should keep moving forward, too, and hopefully, with the same momentum, the same compulsion to “get there,” wherever “there” is.
The river finds a way. Slabs of rock sit beneath the flow, and big rocks and boulders stand in the way of the water, but the river peels off around or over the obstacles, driven to move on. The river keeps going around fallen trees and strainers. The river doesn’t stop at the obstacles and give up. I wish people could do that. People tend to look outside themselves, at others, at a higher being for rescue from obstacles, and not to the power within, like the river does. The river has its own energy and draws from it to get around. We have our own power source, too, without and within at the same time. At the river’s edge, I’d stare at frothy-white riffles pouring around rocks and look for meaning for me.
The river has highs and lows. Just like people do, like I do. Sometimes the river is full, deep, and faster moving, and other times it is low and trickling. Either way, it still has a push to get to its destination, to complete its purpose, to be and do. I need the river’s inspiration.
I live in a section of my new neighborhood that is in a U-shape, bordered by Aenon Creek. So today, January 1, I will continue the tradition of going to the river seeking an example for the new year. Even though upon awakening it was one degree outside, with a chill factor of a negative five, I will dare to get out of my Cuddl Duds pajamas, wrap up, and walk to the river with my new cocker spaniel. I need to see the creek moving on and finding its way, even though today it might be at a low.
Happy new year to all, and may you find hope and example at the river.
Twenty Seventeen. You brutal taker. You evil manipulator. You kicked, pushed, and machete-hacked at me. You tried to knock me down and shut me up.
I stood up for Christian values, and you sent a Christian bully attack. I lost maybe a hundred friends because of it. I can’t go home, I couldn’t go to my class reunion, I lost my past. But I am strong, and I know when I am right, and so I keep standing. It’s the way I’m made. Nevertheless, it hurt.
You took Neil. And one by one you gave my friends challenges to deal with.
You broke me, Twenty Seventeen. You broke me.
Instead of sliding away, though, I chose to push back. I made decisions that have changed my life. Good things began to happen. Appropriately, my essay “Pushing Up the Sun” was published in A Second Blooming, and I did a book signing at Barnes and Noble in May with editor Susan Cushman and author River Jordan.
“God uses broken things. Clouds break to give rain, and seeds break to produce new plants that make fruit or flowers. The seed comes from a plant that thrived in a season now gone. It lies dormant, tender parts packed inside a hard shell, all folded up. It needs water to soften it, needs warmth and sunshine, needs time. For the seed to achieve its ultimate purpose and become what it was destined to be, it has to come undone. The shell breaks, and the insides come out, and unfoldment occurs.” . . .
“By nature and need, I pushed the walls until they cracked and broke and fell into destruction, and parts of me began to come out into the new. Unfoldment was what I experienced. Growth didn’t happen in a fast burst of activity. It was a process, and it was ongoing as I walked further into the light to see the person I was becoming.” . . .
“Like the seed parts, I was standing up, reaching out, and growing stronger. And like the plant, I was establishing a leaf system to absorb power and nutrients from the sun and strong roots to draw water from the source and hold me firmly through the winds.” . . .
“I’m not going to sit around in the darkness after sunset, not going to linger in what was. I am going to follow the beam of light home over the smashing water. I am standing under the sun and pushing it up.”
Because of that, I still have me. I have me!
Many people can’t legitimately say that now. But as far as growing-up principles, ground-in values, and a Christian worldview, I think I am still the person I was before Twenty Seventeen. I didn’t let a political representation or party skew my views, alter my right and wrong, and change my spiritual perspective. My beliefs now and all through 2017 are the same as what they were in 2007 and 1997 and 1987 and so on. If anything, I am more open and more accepting and more in search of enlightenment, which is the way it should be. I should still be growing and seeing with more light and love the people and issues of my world. I should be calling out the hard things as right or wrong, good or bad, I should be seeking truth, I should be reflecting my inner light and the person I am instead of falling in line with the masses and excusing the wrongs in the world. It is what I was called to do.
Immanuel Kant said, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and that immaturity comes from the lack of courage to use his own reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another, such as church and government leaders. I so much desire to use my own mind and voice and not be one in the “great unthinking masses.”
I am more perplexed, impatient, and angered than ever at those who have acquiesced, condoned, and normalized wrong beliefs and behaviors—in other words, given up their spiritual values. I don’t understand those who follow blindly; those who pick up any extreme statement or belief because it falls in with what they want to believe, even if that belief is not consistent with what they proclaim; those who try to make a visibly and obviously bad political representation into something good. I still need to work hard at understanding and loving those who do this, those who are unable to discern right from wrong and who readily reach out and reel in the bad words, actions, and behaviors, those who can’t speak in their own voices and are part of the unthinking masses. I admit I have not been good at understanding and accepting those people. I am a failure at it. I don’t cut people much slack. You either are or aren’t a Christian. And if you are, you should act like it. You can believe the Bible all day long, you can be a “prayer warrior,” you can sit on a pew every Sunday, and that’s all good, but if you proclaim it, then your beliefs and behavior should reflect it. Twenty Seventeen took that away from many and rendered them incapable of seeing it.
On Christmas Eve at my son’s in Asheville, I took my dog for a walk and saw an image of light that stays with me:
At the top of Maney and Fenner I
Stand at eye level with mountain peaks off in the distance,
Pisgah, Cold Mountain.
Above blue tops the sun
An aberrant glow ball behind a film of clouds,
It’s not a star that shines this eve
But a sun, with filtered light, giving
Hope that the world will clear and the
Sun will shine true and new on all.
Now, on this last day of the year, I’m ready to step into the next the happiest I think I’ve ever been in my life. So thank you, Twenty Seventeen, for not only were you a brutal taker, but a blessed giver. You gave me some goodness and some light, and you gave me me. And I want more of it all in the next to come.
I want enlightenment. I want to keep standing up for good, truth, and the right values. I am committed to keep calling wrongs out. Maybe I can be softer about it. I don’t know how to be hard and soft at the same time in a hard world.
Maybe I can find a velvet hammer to use in my efforts.
My son was five when, unbeknownst to me, he retrieved used Tampax applicators from the bathroom trash, put four or five together like a long, white telescope, and went on a back yard adventure. A giant yard of big, old trees, sand box with trucks and buckets, a two-story playhouse, and a swing set, but all he could see through his invention were a few oak leaves, the wheel of a Tonka in the sand, the yellow seat of a glider. Yet he was intent on his narrow scope of exploration.
I kept watching him out the back door—focused, looking for treasure, a mind full of pretend. I kept asking myself, “What in the world is he looking through?”
I think he was smart to invent an instrument for viewing his surrounds, but I don’t think those white cardboard applicators joined together gave him a complete view of the world around him. Looking through that long narrow tube, my little boy could only see what that little round hole at the end of the applicators showed. He had tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision is extreme narrowness of viewpoint resulting from concentration on a single idea or opinion, to the exclusion of others.
I can’t help but notice that there are many adults in this world now walking around looking through Tampax applicators. They see one idea or one object at the end of the tube and pick on it, scratch it raw, and then beat on it until it bleeds. They have no peripheral vision, none whatsoever, and concentrate to a fault on one grain of sand out of all the world’s beaches—one tiny inanimate object over all of humanity. I keep shaking my head and saying, “What is wrong with them, and why can’t they see more?”
We live in a time of tunnel vision and tangibles. People like tangibles—real things, palpable, things you can see, touch, even hear, pick up and hold or easily wrap your mind around. Simple and familiar tangibles attached to one meaning and experience include: a football, a tuba, trumpet, drum, cymbal, banner or flag.
People just can’t see beyond the viewfinder of the Tampax applicators; they can’t see intangibles or abstract things. They attach to the material item single-mindedly and focus on its color, sound, texture, and what they personally think about it. They build anger and hostility as they look to hammer and hurt everyone else who doesn’t see the item like they do. There’s no understanding or empathy outside that one object, even though there’s an infinite world of possibilities. I keep shaking my head. “Why can’t they see the big picture?”
I remember the movie Patch Adams. My other son (the one who was given a real Fisher-Price Adventure Tool Set after it was discovered what his brother used for exploration) was in that movie. I think of the scene in which Arthur Mendelson, an elderly, eccentric, intellectual patient ran up wildly to Patch and held up four fingers. “How many do you see?” The staff thought the old man was crazy, but Patch pursued his question. Mendelson told Patch to look beyond the fingers, to look at him, and by gazing through, Patch saw the fingers double. By looking at the four fingers, Mendelson said, “You are focusing on the problem. If you focus on the problem, you can’t see the solution.” This was a charge to see more, to look at the whole, to see what no one else sees, to see an answer. “See what everyone chooses not to see … out of fear, conformity, or laziness.”
My friend, writer Chance Chambers says, “I will not hold flags and ceremony (tangible items) in higher regard than human lives. A song doesn’t mean more to me than freedom and the right to live without fear.”
I don’t have a lot of hope that a lot of people can embrace this. Most are very content with their Tampax applicators, and we’ve just got to let them play, pretend, and cry in their own little, narrow worlds.
Are you a Know Nothing? I’ve been called a Know-It-All, but this is different. It was a political party a hundred sixty years ago. Ever heard of it? Read on.
“Its origins lay in a succession of anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic secret societies, culminating in the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, and finally in the Know-Nothing, or American, Party.” (John D. Hicks, A Short History of American Democracy, 1946)
The effects of that party are still felt today.
The “Know Nothing” movement was a nativist political party that operated nationally in the mid-1850s. Nativism is a policy that favors native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants. It was a secret society, and there were rules about joining—initiation rites, hand signs, and passwords. Members had a pureblooded pedigree of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock, and they vowed to reject all Catholics. They weren’t supposed to talk to outsiders about the secret society. If asked, they responded with, “I know nothing.”
This secret society rose to prominence in 1853 and included more than one hundred elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half a dozen state legislatures, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported:
- Deportation of foreign beggars and criminals
- A 21-year naturalization period for immigrants
- Elimination of all Catholics from public office
- Mandatory Bible reading in schools
Their aim was to restore their vision of what America should look like with Protestantism, temperance, self-reliance, and American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.
In the early 1800s, immigrants trickled into the country, but in the decade following 1845, 2.9 million immigrants poured into the United States, and many of them were of the Catholic faith. All of a sudden, more than half the residents of New York City were foreign-born, and Irish immigrants made up 70 percent of charity recipients.
The cultures clashed, fear spread like fallout riding a wind current, and conspiracies abounded. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are . . . vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” One author claimed to have gone undercover in a convent and published a book spewing conspiracies, such as priests were raping nuns and strangling any resulting babies. She was proved to be a fraud, yet her book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. People want to believe conspiracies. As a result, churches were burned, and Know Nothing gangs spread to cities around the country, from New York to Cincinnati to Louisville to New Orleans to San Francisco.
“The Know Nothings came out of what seemed to be a vacuum,” according to Christopher Phillips, professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. “It’s the failing Whig party and the faltering Democratic party and their inability to articulate . . . answers to the problems that were associated with everyday life.” (Does this sound like today, or what?)
The Know Nothings, according to Phillips, displayed three patterns common to nativist movements:
- The embrace of nationalism (exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture: PUT AMERICA FIRST)
- Religious discrimination (Protestants against Catholics, instead of current-day Christians against Muslims or Jews)
- Working class identity exerting itself in conjunction with the rhetoric of upper-class political leaders (LOCK HER UP, PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE, BUILD THAT WALL, BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF THEM, GET THAT SON OF A BITCH OFF THE FIELD, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN)
I’m not going to apologize for the use of bad language because these are words used by the President of the United States, and they should be good enough for all and appropriate for use at political rallies, in the media, and in our schools and churches.
“One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” Christopher Phillips concludes. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent.”
It’s interesting what you can find in your mama’s college history book from 1946 if you go looking.
I don’t, but I did: write poems. I was inspired over the Labor Day weekend, with a few images from Cedar Ridge and words from his family. So here it is, in memory of.
by Kathy Rhodes
In the Farm Kitchen you stood pouring
Coffee into a Montana blue pottery Pollard Hotel mug
You got the summer we went to Red Lodge, then
You turned and took a step to the dark-wood window
That framed a view of the back pasture
Covered in morning mist and fog from Fountain Creek
Shimmering under new sun.
Not far inside the gate a gray rock rises up like a monument
Sculpted sharp at the top in a point to the skies far
Above the evergreens on Cedar Ridge.
Grass grows high around its base where horses grazed
And nearby, our writers group met at a fire pit on fall nights
For roasting hot dogs with coat hangers and reading our stories by flashlight.
At the window, you’d often flip open your cell and call:
“If you got a minute, I got somethin’ to tell you.”
You—part rube, part scholar—loved that place, that pasture, that rock,
And you’d speak of
Three brave deer that came up to the salt lick right by the horses or a
Rafter of turkeys strutting by as the farm cat paid heed or a
Cooper’s hawk glaring, or a red-headed pileated woodpecker, or a
Hound named for a Shakespeare priest’s daughter watching deer eat grass, or a
Doe and her fawn that stood in the mist by the rock and looked at you in the window.
Now you are scattered out there about that rock,
Looking in the window like the deer,
One with your land on the ridge,
In the dew-sparkle on blades of grass,
Under late summer sun turning leaves to gold to fall and blanket you,
Looking up at blackness of sky and twinkle of stars like fireflies, and
All day every day for all time, you remain at the rock,
Looking in, keeping watch on that log cabin built strong and sturdy to stand up
Down the generations after you,
Protecting all within.