When I was a little boy, we used to go to my Aunt Donna's house to watch the fireworks on Independence Day. I never separated the fireworks from what they celebrated. I don't remember a time in my life, not as far back as I can remember, when I didn't love this country with all my heart. That I didn't swell with pride at the sight of the flag, or the sound of the Anthem, or the presence of a soldier in uniform.
I can't stop thinking about the current climate in America. The division. The denouncing of every opinion that doesn't go along with the mob. The pronouncement of labels like "hate" and "racist" on EVERY person who dare to disagree or offer dissent. We NEVER used to be this way. I learned the preamble to the Constitution in Richard Farmer"s eighth grade Social Studies class. I could fire it off today without hesitation. I wonder if HIGH SCHOOL graduates even know that we have a preamble...or have read the Constitution.
I never liked the Confederate flag, I thought Civil War re enactors were just sore losers. But I NEVER would have considered demonizing them...or outlawing them.
Now, years later, I see them being treated with hatred. HATRED! In my lifetime!
This isn't about gay marriage. It's about rainbow flood lights on the White House. The White House is not a billboard. It's not a scoreboard for SCOTUS decisions. It's not to be used for flipping the bird and alienating whatever half of the country "lost" in the latest social battle.
It's sacred, that house. So sacred that even Richard Nixon, who desired that office so desperately for so many years and did so much to finally attain it...including the poor judgment of Watergate...still considered that house more important than himself and resigned rather than denigrate the house and office he occupied.
We don't live there anymore.
I wonder how many people under 40 in this country still get a lump in their throat, and tears in their eyes when they sing The National Anthem. Or when they hear Ray Charles' incredible "America?" I wonder how many read the Declaration of Independence through tears...just THINKING about the courage it took to write and sign something like that. I wonder how many still see the Statue of Liberty and think of grandparents to whom she called over the distance of oceans and continents until they left everything and made their way here...like my grandparents did. I wonder how many love this country enough to do ANYTHING difficult on her behalf anymore.
I'm sick of Christianity being blamed for the state of this country. Faith has been systematically purged from this country over the last 30 years or so...And LOOK AT US! Tell me where we're better! Tradition and heritage and patriotism...even jingoistic patriotism...has been mocked and ridiculed and vilified. Tell me what great thing has filled the vacuum?!
I want to cry. I want to find the middle of this nation...someplace where her heart is, and lay down on the ground and weep. I want to go back to that field trip we took to Washington DC when I was maybe 12 years old and be awestruck again by the capital of my nation.
But I can't. I want to. But I can't. I can't even BE that American anymore. That American is dangerous, he's outdated and "hateful" and "bigoted" and "angry." It's 2:30 am and I'm typing this through tears. It's all gone. Patriotism, respect, honor, history, passionate discourse and debate...It's all considered evil now. Crazy. Dangerous.
In my short lifetime we've moved from rousing patriotism to the last, tragic days of the greatest nation in history.
We walked willingly down the path.
This isn't about the gay marriage decision, or Obamacare, or Charleston. It's about being REAL AMERICANS again. Different but united. Disagreeing passionately but DEFENDING the right to disagree. Stopping with the stupid "I'm offended!" crap. Considering the nation as more important than our petty agendas. Deciding to just GET OVER IT, when somebody won't bake us a damned WEDDING CAKE! Changing public opinion by the lives we lead...not by suing somebody, or claiming offense.
Being fiercely PATRIOTIC...fiercely AMERICAN...which means letting somebody fly a flag we detest, or embrace an idea we disagree with. Unabashedly proclaiming that we are the best, that we are unique, that we are EXCEPTIONAL. Fighting side by side for the things we should fight for, and laying down our wounded feelings and candy-assed claims of being "offended" when we don't get our way. That is how truly independent...truly free people act.
Saturday is Independence Day. I wonder if it will be our last.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Friday, June 12, 2015
Hey I wanted to alert my readers that I have a new blogsite. It's at Fly Line and Spent Shells
It's where I write about returning to the outdoors after over twenty years away. The stories are special and they're getting some critical approval. I hope you'll join me!
It's where I write about returning to the outdoors after over twenty years away. The stories are special and they're getting some critical approval. I hope you'll join me!
Saturday, June 6, 2015
I don't like commenting on days dedicated to remembering great battles or great soldiers. Only because it's THEIR day and I don’t feel worthy of anything except a heartfelt “Thank You.”
But it’s D-Day, (plus 25,915) and I suddenly remembered my only meeting with a D-Day survivor. It’s worth telling. I hope I tell it in a way that doesn’t make it about me. There are people who will do that. People who will retell a story they heard from a veteran as if they themselves had been there. I hate that sort of thing. I’m also not a guy to claim deep abiding friendship with someone I follow on Twitter or Face book. Just because we “Like” each other doesn’t mean we’re actually friends. I wanted that out there too, because I’m not claiming friendship with this man.
In fact…I don’t remember his full name. His first name was Paul, I believe. I met him at a Bible study in Nashville. It was a suburban home in the toney section of town near Lipscomb University He was there to visit his grandson and he was invited to go along to the group. After the meeting, when we were all sort of hanging around and chit chatting, (a group of about 30) Paul was sitting on the stairs, eating a cookie. I walked over and simply pointed to his hat and said “Thank you for your service, sir.” He was wearing a “Scrambled Eggs” cap that said “WWII Veteran” on it.
Having two uncles and a grandfather who served in that war, I asked him what theater he was in. He said “Europe.” I asked him what area he was in and he said “Oh a few…I landed at Normandy and then worked up to Arnhem…”
I paused. I had never met an actual Normandy beach survivor before. Saving Private Ryan had come out the year before and I had that graphic image in my mind. He suddenly took the form of a superhero. Or a god. I asked him if he’d mind telling me about it. He didn’t seem bothered or reluctant; it was simply part of his life. Like asking him what brand his first car was or where did he learn to swim.
“I landed in the second wave of Higgins Boats,” he said. “Half my battalion had already landed and fought their way to the cliffs. We followed behind by about twenty minutes.”
He was rather jovial as he spoke, so far in the story he hadn’t touched upon anything that hurt him. He told me he was seasick and throwing up before they landed. Even before the door dropped, the bullets were bouncing off. They knew the first guys were going to be hit. He was about halfway back in the crowded vessel.
The door dropped and hell unleashed its worst. We’ve seen the movies and heard the stories. I won’t recount them here because it’s not my tale to tell.
He was still not very emotional at this point and telling the story rather matter-of-factly. But then he came to the part that apparently still haunts him. He slowed down a bit and cleared his throat. He told me about the cliffs.
His mission –and that of his battalion- was to scale the great cliffs at Normandy and somehow, some way take out the massive German machine gun nests at the top. They were heavily fortified and deemed almost impenetrable. The Allie plan was simply to thro enough men at them that they would somehow over run them.
Paul was in the second wave.
The first wave was ¾ of the way up by the time he got there. That part had been easy. It was getting near the top that caused the problems. Paul was about half way up himself when the first body fell. The half of his battalion that had arrived earlier had begun to reach the top, and the Germans were picking them off like target practice. He was trying to scale the cliffs on ropes while avoiding the bodies of his fallen fellow soldiers as they hurled past him, missing him by mere inches. It was here that he coughed a little, and cleared his throat. It was here that the slightest tears formed in the corner of his eyes.
This was the hard part. He saw them coming. Sometimes they screamed. Most of the time they were already dead from the gunshots and they were simply falling. He recognized faces. He remembered other, far more pleasant days.
He made the climb and by days end, his group had secured the cliffs. It was on to Arnhem and eventually victory.
But that day…
I can’t imagine. I think it would be obscene of me to try. He was about twenty years old at the time. When I was twenty I was working in a factory, driving a Camaro and my only worry was finding a date for the weekend. His was literally surviving one more day.
I don’t know how a man lives all his life with the images of his friends hurtling past him, either already dead or on their way. I don’t know how he became the jovial, successful, gracious man I met that night. Perhaps the fact that we met at a Bible study and he was a man of faith holds the obvious answer.
Today is June 6. D-Day. If not for men who had sacrificed their youth, and who carried those memories for these 71 years, we’d be in a very different world right now. Battles are large and we see them on a grand scale. But every battle was fought by individual soldiers who fought separate little battles within the large ones. Battles just to survive, and later…to forget. Or at least to accept and move forward.
To those men from D-Day who remain. Thank you. I cannot imagine what you endured. Watching “Saving Private Ryan” doesn’t bring me the slightest bit closer to understanding it. I can only say Thanks.
Friday, June 5, 2015
I named him Jesse.
He was the second Springer Spaniel that I had owned by that time. I was Twenty-two years old. I had long before fallen in love with the breed, and my family owned one when I was fifteen.
But Jesse was mine alone. I bought him from a family friend who showed and bred champion Springers. He was eager to learn, and eager to please. In just days, he knew to sit, shake hands, come, stay, lay down, and –if I knelt down in front of him- he knew how to “give me a hug” but putting his paws on my shoulders and laying his head against my neck.
He was my constant companion. He rode shotgun in my pickup truck to every job I went on. I was a carpenter back then and Jesse would come to work with me every day, lying in the front seat dutifully. It took a little work to get him acclimated to the truck, but after a few weeks he enjoyed it and when he knew we were going anywhere, he would jump and bark and prance until I snapped his leash onto his collar and opened the door so he could jump in.
If I was up on a roof, or walking on a scaffold, Jesse sat down in the yard, in the shade, keeping vigil until I came down. If I was working at ground level, or indoors (only on new construction jobs) he was by my side. He somehow knew not to get in the way, but he never went far.
He was a show dog, bred for the ring, not the field. There is a field variety Springer, and they are essentially the same dog, but the field dog has a keener nose and ability to flush out a pheasant or a quail. Show variety Springers don’t usually make good hunters, but Jesse was the exception. He had a good nose, eyes like a sharpshooter, and he was fearless. He wouldn’t flinch when he heard my shotgun fire, and he never retreated from harsh terrain. He held a point like a statue, and best of all…he never ranged far from my side.
Some bird dogs get on a scent and they will wind up in a farmers field two miles away. But Springers are known for staying close to home, and Jesse was especially prone to stay nearby. He was fast enough to flush pheasants –which tend to run for a while before taking flight- and even pursue a rabbit.
He was the best dog I’ve ever owned and I’ve owned a lot of them. I’ve owned six Springers, and three other breeds. Jesse was my favorite. It might be because I bought him on my own, the first dog that was entirely mine. It might be that he was mine in my early twenties when I was starting a business, and had moved out to my own apartment. He kept me company when I worked carpentry jobs by myself even though I probably needed another pair of hands.
He sat next to me at dinner, in my first tiny apartment. He walked for miles at St. George’s hunting area, or Phillips Nursery, when we stalked row after row of shrubs and evergreens, looking for rabbit or Pheasant.
When he was still a pup and I was training him not to be gun-shy, we walked that St. Georges ground for so long, and he grew so weary, that he would sit there staring at me. I’d walk on ahead and he would wait until I got about fifty yards on, and then he’d come charging to me. He’d run past me for about twenty yards and then plop down, exhausted and hoping that I’d end this hunt and head for the truck. He stepped through some thin ice on a puddle and sunk in to his chest. He was cold and wet and shivering and he still wouldn’t stop.
I turned for the truck and he jumped in and stretched out on the seat. Ten minutes down the road, with the heater making the truck warm, and the softness of the seat lulling him to sleep, he was snoring like a buzz saw next to me. I gave him a bath when we got home; put an extra half-scoop in his bowl and he passed out on the couch and didn’t stir until morning.
He would fetch a ball until your arm was sore from throwing it, and he would have stood still while you stroked his hair until you rubbed the fur off his back if he could. He was smart. Maybe the smartest dog I have ever owned. The combination of intelligence and eagerness to please was something special. I got to where he never had to hear my voice, he worked entirely off of hand signals, like the champion show-dogs do. I would set his bowl down and he would stare at it until I said “eat.” He lived to please. If he could have figured out how to work the stove and read a cookbook, he would have made my dinner.
Jesse loved the water, as most Springers do. I took him fishing with me all the time and he would leap into the pond or the gentle current of the Brandywine River and swim for hours while I fished just upstream. He was gentle as a lamb and maintained his playfulness long after his puppy years had passed.
Jesse was by my side through thick and thin and in those days…there was a lot of thin. But I was young, single, working hard and spending a lot of time with my little friend. He was beautiful. Just beautiful. A gorgeous liver and white coat that shone in the sun and was soft as down. He had that regal gait that champion dogs all possess. He held his head high and pranced as much as he walked. He didn’t do this all the time, but when he knew he had an audience, he loved to strut.
We spent nine great years together. Nine hunting seasons, and fishing seasons and nine years of riding in my work truck, keeping watch while I worked. In late winter, early spring of 1993, I noticed he was a little gaunt in the hips. Having a long coat, I didn’t notice the weight loss until I’d had him groomed. Then I knew something was wrong.
Then came the lack of appetite. Then the weakness. By Easter I knew this wasn’t going to pass. I called the vet and described the symptoms. He said “Bring him in, but I have to tell you…this sounds like canine kidney disease to me and there isn’t much I can do…”
I took him to our vet. He’d been caring for Jesse since I picked him up from Ginger’s house at six weeks old.
He did a battery of tests and took a full body x-ray. When he went to read the x-ray, he cocked his head a bit, and a worried look came over his face. I could tell that he struggled with what he had to say next. Pointing to Jesse’s abdomen, he said “This is his renal stem; this is where his kidney should be…” But there was nothing there. Jesse had been functioning without working kidneys for at least three months. Dr. Spencer put his arm around my shoulder and said “Jesse hasn’t produced a red blood cell in months now. He doesn’t have long.” Then he said something to me that I never forgot. He was stroking Jesse’s head and he looked at me and said, “I know the answer before asking, but he is an inside dog, isn’t he?” I said yes and that not only did he live indoors but he was with me all day, almost every day. Dr. Spencer said; “Craig, your dog should have died three months ago. He loves you, and it’s obvious you love him. The bond between you is literally what kept him alive. You did a great job with him.”
I smiled. I didn’t cry then. I don’t think I grasped what was happening. Dr. Spencer gave him some hydrotherapy and I took him home. We tried a special diet and the hope was I’d have six months to a year with him if we were lucky.
We were not.
The next morning, Jesse had begun to shut down. By evening he was fading and he was suffering. The following morning –Easter 1993- I took him back to Dr. Spencer’s office and we put him down. I spent a half hour alone with him beforehand. I reminded him about our antics. The rabbits and the birds and the swimming holes and the long rides in the pickup truck. I scratched him on the top of his head and said goodbye. I told Dr. Spencer it was time. He gave Jesse one shot and he went to sleep. I left the room for the second one. I couldn’t stay.
I took him to Ginger’s house and he is buried next to his mother.
And until tonight, I had never shed tears over him. It’s not that I didn’t miss him…because God knows how I have. I had simply never chronicled him before. I’ve never replayed all those great scenes at one time until just now.
I’ve owned many dogs since Jesse, and it’s not fair to compare them, but I inevitably do. Jesse was a special dog at a special time in my life.
Sometimes, when our current dog, “Sugar” comes up next to me on the couch and lays her head in my lap and lets out a soft, plaintive sigh, hoping for five minutes of affection…I feel Jesse there.
I miss the playful bark as we rode up on the fields to hunt. I miss the proud little strut he had when he retrieved a bird or even just a tennis ball. I miss the smell of spent shotgun shells, and morning dew on his coat.
I miss my pal.
He is where all great dogs are. In my heart. And a little bit of him is in each dog I’ve owned since. Because a dog is very much a reflection of the humans who love him.
And I loved that one a lot.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
It was white.
White with black threading on the guides. The guides were plain steel, none of that fancy ceramic. That wouldn’t even be introduced for a few more years.
It had a cork handle. Yeah…real cork. It was six-feet long and split in the middle. The ferrule would stick once in a while and I’d have to wrestle with it to get it apart.
I didn’t give it a clever name, like “The Assassin” or “The Fish Master” or anything like that. It was just my fishing rod. But man…was it ever glorious.
It was a six-foot True Temper spinning rod. My stepfather got it at the New Castle Farmer’s Market at the little sporting goods shop there. He bought it with the money I’d been given by a very grateful old man whose dog I’d found on my way home from school one day. He was a beautiful old English Springer named Joe and he had actually made it across all four lanes of DuPont Highway without meeting his fate by a semi.
He was walking around the grass in front of Our Lady of Fatima School when I came upon him.
I stopped and spent five minutes with him –I was always a big dog guy- and he followed me home. We’d scanned the newspaper lost and found section for almost two weeks and never saw an ad. I had grown attached to him and we were ready to keep him when my mother spotted the ad on a Friday night. We called, and it was Joe’s owner. A kindly old man who spent a lot of time with Joe and with whom a lot of memories had been made.
I was heartbroken. I had grown to love Joe, and I loved having dogs. But right was right and the old man arranged to come and get him first thing in the morning.
That Saturday morning I went with my mom to Philadelphia to visit my grandmother. It was, no doubt, just a plan to have me not be there when Joe was leaving. I guess it was a smart move. I don’t know how I would have reacted.
The old man was apparently weeping when he saw Joe again. He was overjoyed. He must have really loved that dog a lot, because he handed my stepfather a one hundred dollar bill as a reward for me for finding his beloved Joe. In 1972 that was a ton of money. When I got home, my stepfather had gone to the Farmer’s Market and bought the fishing rod and reel. I don’t know what how much it cost, but it wasn’t anywhere near a hundred bucks. I had no brand preference. I didn’t know enough about fishing tackle to know the difference. But I didn’t care. To me it was Excalibur.
He brought it home and gave it to me. No lures. No hooks or bobbers or weights or tackle box. Just a six foot fiberglass True Temper spinning rod with a real cork handle and a gleaming red True Temper spinning reel. I was ready. I was Jerry McKinnis from The Fishin’ Hole. I grabbed a ¾ inch nut from the garage and tied it on the end of the line and went out front to practice casting. One cast with the open bail and I had a nylon-line bird nest. The line fouled so badly that I had to cut it all off with an Exacto knife. Thankfully I had a big spool of 12 pound test line. I refilled the spool and tried again. A spinning reel is difficult to master when you’re eight years old. It took a day or so. But soon I was dropping that steel nut right where I aimed it every time. Sometime that winter I had ridden my bike to the New Castle Library and checked out a book called Better Fishing for Boys by James P. Kennealy. I read it over and over through the winter and imagined myself casting with great aplomb in my secret (and yet undiscovered) fishing spot. My stepfather hated fishing so he left it to me to figure out the mechanics of it. So I did.
That next week, after saying goodbye to Joe, and getting my new fishing combo in return, I went to the Western Auto store up the street and bought some fishing supplies. I got a little plastic tackle box, barely bigger than a lunch box, really. I bought two packs of #6 Eagle Claw hooks. The boys on my street all told me never to use anything but Eagle Claw. “You’ll lose the fish right away if you use anything else!’ they’d warned me. (I guess it stuck, because I have never used anything else…right up to this day.) They came six in a pack. I bought the ones that were “snelled,” which I thought was a funny word and as I was unwilling to admit my ignorance by asking, I deduced that the “snell” was the six inch leader that came already attached to the hooks. Instead of tying your line to the eye of the hook, you tied to the loop in the snell. It was easier, that much is for certain.
So I bought some hooks, some plastic bobbers, a hook remover, one of those nylon fish stringers to hold my catch while I caught some more, and some egg-looking bait in a jar. They looked like little garbanzo beans and they supposedly made the fish just about jump into your hands. I bought some sinkers and a fish scaler...because I was determined to catch dinner.
I still needed some lures. I knew that much. But the Western Auto didn’t stock very much. All they had was the classic Daredevil Spoon. It was red and white and would flash like a wounded minnow as it moved through the water. I bought two of them.
All in all I might have spent five bucks. Five bucks today wouldn’t buy you one decent broken-backed Rapala minnow. But forty-three years ago it filled my tiny tackle box nicely.
The following weekend, I was going on my first fishing trip ever. It wasn’t with my dad, or my stepfather, or my grandfather, like little boys dream of. It was with Johnny Wilkins and Tommy Riccio and Richard Ferraro. Three guys I would fish with –in various combinations over the years- for all of my childhood. In later years I would fish mostly with my best friend Mark, but we didn’t meet until I was 14. These three guys were kids I grew up with on my street. We all loved to fish and so we did it together a lot.
Friday night I dug for worms in our yard. Johnny had not yet showed me the secret to catching big night crawlers, so I settled for garden worms in an old coffee can. The problem with “digging” for your worms is that you wind up with only half a worm much of the time. The shovel is indiscriminate when it pierces the soil. But we dug until we’d filled our can with what we decided was enough bait for the four of us.
That night…when I should have been asleep…I was awake in my room, checking and re-checking my gear. Reading my fishing book. (New Castle County Free Library…I’m sorry that one never came back. How do I make it right?) Dreaming of catching trout or bass the next day. I had my line all rigged. The #6 Eagle Claw hook was tied about eight inches above the sinker and I had pulled it down until I could push the point of the hook deep into the cork handle of the True Temper rod. I wonder if I found that rod somehow today, could I even count the number of pinholes in the cork handle from all the hooks I kept safe until morning by pushing them in?
Saturday morning came after a long, anxious night. I was up, dressed, had my Sugar Pops for breakfast, packed a lunch in my Boy Scout knap sack and went outside. I got my bike from the garage, met Johnny and Tommy and Richard and we were off.
The guys were taking me to Nonesuch Creek. It sounds like something we simply affectionately called it, but it’s actually labeled that on maps of the area. I’m sure it got its name from some boys our age, many years before we ever dropped a line in the murky waters. Somehow it stuck and by the time we were kids it was already how it was known officially.
We pedaled through two neighborhoods, down route 141, and dropped down a narrow trail that ran perpendicular to the highway. Through a small grove of trees and out the other side, we burst into a meadow of thistle and goldenrod and weeds. Tommy knew just where to go and in another five minutes or so we were setting up our gear by a bend in the creek.
I don’t remember if I caught a fish that day or not. I do remember I caught some poison ivy. We were boys. We were fishing and being boys in a time when boys did things like fished and hunted. This meant peeing in the bushes, and in those bushes, lay the evil shiny-leafed vine. The four of us came home covered in it.
I don’t know how many more excursions to Nonesuch creek we made…my friends and I and our spider bikes and my trusty True Temper rod and reel. Probably hundreds. We fished other places too. Anywhere our bikes would carry us, and occasionally places where we could convince one of our parents to take us and drop us off. We fished together for a few years and then Tommy lost interest. He was older and started hanging with older friends. But Johnny and Richard and I fished together for years after. In my freshman year of high school I met my best friend Mark. Mark spent as much time at my house as he did at his own and so he became friends with Johnny and Richard as well and we often fished together. Then life took us all down separate roads and suddenly it’s been half a lifetime since we were standing on a bank, lines in the water, talking about what boys talk about.
I’ve owned a lot of fishing rods and reels in the forty three years since I got that white fiberglass True Temper and the red True Temper spinning reel. I’ve owned some that were much nicer and some that weren’t. I’ve caught a lot of fish and spent a lot of time in rivers and streams and lakes and ponds.
But at 51, I only find myself on EBay looking for one specific --and now a “vintage” - True Temper rod and reel combo. I don’t seek out a nice graphite rod with a lighting fast Shimano reel. I’m not looking for a Scientific Angler fly fishing set. I’d love to own those too.
What I seek…what I long for…is to somehow locate a pristine, white, six-feet long, True Temper fiberglass spinning rod, with a real cork handle and a shiny red spinning reel from the same manufacturer. The action would be “medium” and the cork handle would feel perfect in my grip.
If I looked closely –now through my reading glasses- I could see the tiny pock-marks from all those hooks kept safely encased in the cork, as I pedaled my bike to another fishing adventure with my buddies.
The one I got when I was eight years old is long gone. But the stories, the adventures, the moments shared with three boys from Monroe Avenue are still as clear and sweet as ever.
I think it’s what I am searching for when I take to the water these days. I love fishing as an adult. Knowing more about the sport, having more resources. But I wish I could feel what we felt back then when we were kids, fishing in a dirty creek that fed an even dirtier Christiana River. That old rod could tell some tales if only it could speak.
It can’t, of course.
…so I do.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
“Compared to the spoken word, a picture is a pitiful thing, indeed.”
“Those who say ‘A picture is worth a thousand words…’ have never read The Declaration of Independence, or The Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
I was having a rather spirited conversation last week with a coworker whose background is education. We were discussing the advent of technology both in the classroom and beyond. She maintained that college graduates should be required to take classes on technology. They should have to be skilled in things like Adobe and Movie Maker. “Because,” as she stated, “YouTube and TedX are more popular now than books.’
My response is that this is very sad.
I’m not against technology. I’d better not be, since I work in the IT department at a major university. But I’m against the way technology keeps lowering the bar on our classrooms and, ultimately, on our imagination. And without imagination, we will die quickly.
Technology can turn an abstract fact into a two-minute movie clip that entertains and informs. The down side is that once the image is embedded into the psyche, there is no need for the imagination that the words could elicit.
I read the Declaration of Independence and my imagination takes over. I imagine that blistering hot day in July, 1776 when those fifty-five men signed their lives away and a nation was born. I’ve seen movies about it, but they pale in comparison to what my mind provided.
I’ve read and analyzed Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a college course. Reading it. Committing those words to my heart and thinking about the grammar, the punctuation…the faces that formed and disappeared in my imagination while I read it…that inspired more action from me than any newsreel ever could.
The pain and yearning in Danny Saunders soul in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” was more real and more desperate and more heartbreaking that Robbie Benson’s wonderful performance could possibly portray.
What happened? Why do we take our lexicon and reduce it to 140 characters and “LOL’s” and “OMG’s?” What happened to poems, and sonnets, and great song lyrics?
I well recall the early days of MTV and the lament from great lyricists like Springsteen and Cohen. They feared that in the very instant you attach a visual to a song lyric; you remove the internal images that the song created for each listener. Images so personal and individual that they cannot be numbered. Every song produces a different image for every listener. That is the magic of a well crafted sentence. And that art is lost.
There are still great word crafters out there. Still writers who paint with the vocabulary the way Monet worked with watercolor. But the audience has changed. In a never-ending effort to lower the bar and make excuses for why some kid “can’t learn” we have boiled the hard, arduous, difficult work of learning down to 140 characters on Twitter, a clever 3-minute video on YouTube, or a meme.
I read Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and was amazed that Hugo took 134 pages to describe the cathedral. The cathedral! Potok spent page after page describing Hasidic life and culture. Even songs have changed. The opening lines to “Thunder Road” bear this out:
“The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the floor
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you, only…”
To think that those words were penned by a 25 year old, then-unknown kid from New Jersey.
He didn’t just wake up one morning, talking that way. Bruce was educated in the old school. He read great authors. He listened to great records. His foundation wasn’t 140 characters and some smiley faces. It was hard-won. And when the time came to write thousands of songs with incredible lyrics, he was ready for the task.
Who is writing this now? Who says things like Bruce said in “Thunder Road” or Cohen said in “Hallelujah” or Willy DeVille said in “Heaven Stood Still?”
Who is the next Forbert or Hiatt, Or Mullins or Elias?
Who is writing the next great short stories influenced by Flannery O’Connor? Or Potok? Or Hugo? Who is learning to speak great words because they read great words thereby giving them the internal resources to write great words?
All you have to do is go to YouTube to see who the next clever film makers are. But are they moving anyone?
When I was nine, (as I have recounted before) I read Gene Hill’s column in Field and Stream for the first time. It began a lifelong love for words. He wrote of his old bird dog and how she was too old to hunt anymore but she would still come and sit by his side near the fireplace, lay her chin on his leg and look at him plaintively until he relented and scratched her head for a minute. The image made me want to be a writer.
It wasn’t a Tweet. It wasn’t a clever video clip. It was a story. A well-crafted, wonderfully descriptive story that let me concoct the corresponding images on the canvas of my imagination.
The dog that I saw, was a beautiful old Springer. Liver and white, with some gray beginning to show around her muzzle. She waddled a bit because she’d grown stiff with the years. Her coat was shiny and thick. Gene Hill was on a comfortable leather couch. Wearing old, friendly blue jeans that were aged to perfection. His pipe lent the aroma of Captain Black to the scent of the fireplace. The old dog came over slowly and softly and let out the gentlest sigh when she laid her chin on his knee.
As Hill stroked the crown of her head, between her red-brown ears, he thought of the ducks, and the pheasants she’d retrieved. He remembered when she was just a pup. How much training time he'd spent with her. He thought of all the years they ridden together in the pickup truck.
He caught himself with a lump in his throat because he figured, she was healthy, but even so she only had a few more years left. Four. Maybe six if she was lucky. He wasn’t ready for that.
Gene Hill didn’t write any of that in the original story. I imagined that while I read his words. Because he took a lot more than 140 characters. I have no idea what that wonderful old dog looked like in real life. I do know what she looked like in my heart. I don’t know if Gene Hill smoked Captain Black. I’m pretty sure I recall that he smoked a pipe.
But his words fertilized my imagination and I that is how I saw him.
And that is what I lament these days. That is what I fear is lacking in education, and in our individual conversations, and in society.
Words can inspire. They lend themselves to creativity. They foster imagination.
And they are vanishing.