Rarefied Earth

“Nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does, but you ain’t afraid when you’re washed in the blood like I was.” So goes the lyric in one of my favorite Don Williams songs. It’s a fond recollection of an unspoiled childhood in simpler times coupled with the confusion of middle age. If I listen to it too closely it brings on an allergy attack, and my eyes get a little watery. He references fallen heroes, lost religion, and fallen friends. I’ve dealt with all of that the older I’ve gotten. It leaves you scratching your head, “What do you do?” I wonder.

This week I’m choosing to focus on being thankful rather than angry; thankful for the way the world was, not angry at how it is. I grew up on a road that wasn’t paved yet with a one lane bridge over the creek. We had to take the tractors the long way around to get to the “back of the farm” because the bridge was too narrow. There was still a country store within a mile in either direction. My school was a couple miles down the road, and church was just a mile. We watched TV on a thirteen inch with rabbit ears (it was color though). For fun, we would rent a VCR and movies on the odd weekend. That’s right; we had to rent the machine too. My prized possession was a Knight Rider bigwheel that I literally ran up and down the sidewalk till the wheels came off. A trip to the combine junkyard for parts was better than a day at the beach. Western Sizzlin was our preferred restaurant destination if we were lucky enough to go out to eat, and you could count on pudding for desert.

School life was simple back then. When you got in trouble bad enough to get sent to the principal, you were going to get spanked twice, once by the principal and once when you got home. The teacher would have you go out to dust erasers at the end of the day, if you’d been good. We were still saying prayers in the public elementary school. Timed tables were the preferred method for teaching math. Sentences had to be diagrammed. There was an annual talent show where we could showcase our lack of talent, and when you got sick Mrs. Patsy would take care of you until Mom could get there.

Grandmother was right up the road, ready with a deck of cards and cookies for your visit. There was a neighbor who’d go out for a drive on his lawnmower, and another that drove his tractor to the store. Yet another hauled seed and fertilize in the back of his car. No dually pickup was required to farm in those days. Even on the bad days we were making good memories. Like the time I got to see a bull fly. “If I’m lying, I’m dying,” to quote Jerry Clower, who we listened to enthusiastically. That bull did fly. I suppose I should devote an entire article to that someday. Later that day he tried to kill me, so I eventually punched him right between the eyes. Not sure if the punch did it or not, but we respected each other more in the years that would come. He never gave me any trouble after that. There were times we got two tractors stuck in the mud because we weren’t smart enough to know it really was that wet. There were barn tiers that broke because the tobacco was that heavy, and times we came within an inch of death doing something monumentally stupid. There were a lot of bad days all together that add up to a lot of good memories. When someone tells you that you’ll look back and laugh, they’re right. However miserable it is, odds are that enough time gone by will turn the tears into a grin.

There’s a humorist that I like to listen to named Dylan Brody. He did a piece one time about how his life had been a “slow flow of glass.” It’s a great story about his childhood and how we’re all “going to be what we’re going to be.” You don’t get to be the person you are overnight. It happens slowly, like a pane of glass that starts out perfectly flat, but morphs over time. I recommend looking him up. The guy has an interesting perspective. I’m not always happy with the person that I am today, but I’m a work in progress. As I give thanks this week, I’m thankful for the quirky, backward little community in which my foundation was laid. It was far from perfect, but in retrospect it was rarefied earth. I grow fonder of it with each passing year.


Faith of Our Fathers

“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” -Alex Haley

Family ties are one of the most prolific sources of irrational actions taken by humans. A bloodline can lead a person to do things they wouldn’t do for any other reason. That irrational loyalty could be the reason the forces of evil are hell bent on destroying families. People will favor the family before the flag. That’s why communist countries have always claimed state ownership of children. Family bonds are dangerous to those in power. Loyalty to one’s bloodline is primary; and therefore, it threatens the primacy of the state. Some of the most inspiring stories from history are those where people risked everything to save their children, brothers and sisters from thugs and tyrants. If I were the devil, I’d try and break family ties, bound by blood, so that people would have fewer reasons to lead one another towards salvation. If that is his plan, it’s working wonderfully. Our families are not only shrinking, but they are divided by divorce and abuse, and a thousand other modern maladies.
Many years ago, I was afforded a favor by a cousin that I didn’t even know because he was inspired by family loyalty. Even though we’d never met, he felt he owed it to the patriarchs to support the family. I’m blessed to have many cousins that I know well, and many more that I’ve never met. Before there were networking seminars to attend, extended family was a natural network of influence and support. It’s something my children will never understand. Families are shrinking, so they are likely to know all their cousins. They will never have the pleasure of meeting one late in life and sharing an oral tradition that is not identical, but very similar. A familiar stranger will probably never call them out of the blue and enhance their life in any way. Pity. Maybe their children will provide the next baby boom and a fresh batch of cousins.
Twenty years (or so) after the War Between the States, my great-great-grandfather left Springfield, KY, on horseback bound for Daviess County. I’ve never ascertained the exact reason he made the move, but there are a number of families that left Washington County and arrived here about that time. My guess is that they were searching for greener pastures. I’ve made the pilgrimage to Springfield several times to tour the churches and scour the tombstones of my forbearers. The first time I ventured there, I could feel my blood stirring in a very strange way. I felt I had been there before. Through this connection to the past, I was given hope for the future. The bloodline that had made the journey across the Atlantic, and then from Maryland to Kentucky, was still intact. As I walked through those headstones in another part of the state, I was surrounded by familiar names. I thought of the struggles and obstacles they went through in order to survive their trip through the mountains and valleys to arrive there on the graveyard hill at St. Rose. I remember reading of the family of one great-grandfather (not sure how many greats back he’d be). He and his wife lost seven children on the journey from Maryland. I imagine they arrived broken and beaten, but their bloodline survived; thrived even. From there the family would rebuild and rebound. And here we are, two hundred years later.
There’s a legend that I’ve read on that says when the Marylanders arrived in Kentucky, they would meet on Saturday nights. After shaking hands, neighbors would turn around and kick each other in the rear end as punishment for ever leaving Maryland. They bought their new home at the great cost of tackling hostile natives and an untamed environment. That investment, made with blood, sweat, and tears is what landed my children in the fertile soil of West Daviess County centuries later. When I think of those early, tail kicking, settlers that celebrated Mass at Holy Cross and later St. Rose, I’m given hope for the future. My favorite hymn is Faith of Our Fathers. In spite of the modern challenges my own family faces, I find myself steadied by the hope given me by my fathers. Though we are threatened by challenges of a different kind, the family has always been in danger of annihilation. We have always persevered. And so it continues. May we never forget the sacrifices made by others to carry us this far.