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A VETERANS DAY REFLECTION

November 11, 2018

Sunday, November 11, is Veterans Day. I have reflected on how we as Americans will honor those who have served our country. Scout troops and veterans will march together in parades. Some will hold flag retirement ceremonies. Our national leaders will mark the day with pomp and ceremony. People of faith will gather for worship and will remember those who died in service to our country and their families. Many will simply breathe a silent prayer. I will conduct a graveside funeral for a ninety-seven-year-old man who served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.

Five of my uncles served our country during World War II. Two were in the Navy, two were in the Army Air Corps, and one was in the regular Army. Uncle Buzz was in the Normandy invasion. Uncle Bill was assigned to the Pacific. Two were in bombers that were shot down over Germany. Uncle Bury parachuted into Switzerland. Uncle David was taken as a prisoner of war.  Uncle Robert endured the harsh life of an infantryman and then was captured as a prisoner of war. From these uncles, I learned a major truth. In war, there are no soldiers without wounds.

November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

Mark Twain wrote, “The patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

This serious quote from a great humorist speaks an important truth. November 11, Veterans Day, soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The treaty signed at Rethondes, France, ushered in an era of peace.

In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory”. There were parades and public meetings.  Business activities were briefly suspended at 11:00 A.M.

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the anniversary of the armistice should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings. On November 11 observances were to be held in schools and churches, or other suitable places.

This day was originally intended to honor veterans of World War I.  In 1954, by an act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day.

Traditionally a two-minute silence is observed on November 11. It is two minutes well spent because we too easily take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.

I remember playing Army with my friends when I was a boy. Our battlefield was usually Dead Horse Canyon, over the creek and through the woods behind our house. One of my buddies insisted that he play the part of Audie Murphy in every skirmish. I didn’t know who Audie Murphy was until much later. I can understand now why my friend wanted to play the part of the World War II hero.

Audie Murphy was the son of a poor Texas sharecropper. The farm boy earned fame as the most decorated United States combat soldier of World War II. Among his 33 awards was the Medal of Honor, the highest military recognition for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States of America.

He also received every United States military medal for valor, some of them more than once. He was recognized with five awards by France and Belgium. Credited with killing over 240 of the enemy while wounding and capturing many others, he became a legend within the 3rd Infantry Division.

Beginning his service as a teenage Army Private, Audie quickly rose to the enlisted rank of Staff Sergeant. He was given a battlefield commission as Second Lieutenant. Murphy fought in nine major campaigns across the European Theater. He was wounded three times.

During his three years of active combat service, Audie became one of the best fighting soldiers in history. Many believe that his accomplishments will never be repeated by another soldier, especially given today’s high-tech warfare.

On September 21, 1945, at the age of 21, Audie was released from the U. S. Army. His picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Actor James Cagney invited Murphy to Hollywood. The next two years were hard times for Murphy. He slept in a local gymnasium until he began receiving token acting parts.

In 1950 Murphy got a contract with Universal-International where he starred in 26 films. Most of those films were Westerns.  His 1949 autobiography To Hell and Back was a best seller. Murphy starred as himself in a film biography released by Universal-International in 1955 with the same title. The movie, “To Hell and Back,” held the record as Universal’s highest grossing picture until 1975 when it was finally surpassed by the movie “Jaws.”

Murphy married actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. They were divorced in 1951. He then married former airline stewardess Pamela Archer. Pam was the love of his life. They were parents of two sons.

Despite his success in Hollywood, Audie never forgot his rural Texas roots. He returned frequently to the Dallas area where he owned a small ranch. He also had ranches in California and Arizona. He was a successful thoroughbred and quarter horse owner and breeder.  His films earned him close to 3 million dollars in 23 years as an actor. But Audie loved to gamble. He was an avid high stakes poker player. He won and lost fortunes.

Murphy wrote some poetry and was successful as a songwriter. Dozens of his songs were recorded by Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Porter Waggoner, and Roy Clark. His two biggest hits were “Shutters and Boards” and “When the Wind Blows in Chicago.”

Audie suffered from battle fatigue, now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the war, he was plagued by insomnia and depression. During the mid-60s he became dependent on prescription sleeping pills. When he recognized that he was addicted to the prescription drug, he locked himself in a motel room, stopped taking the sleeping pills, and went through withdrawal symptoms for a week.

Audie was always an advocate for the needs of veterans. After his addiction, he broke the taboo about discussing war-related mental problems. In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke candidly about his personal problems. He publicly called for the United States government to give more attention to the emotional impact war has on veterans and to extend health care benefits to include the mental health problems of returning war vets.

While on a business trip on Memorial Day Weekend, 1971, Murphy was killed at the age of 46. He was a passenger in a private plane flying in fog and rain that crashed into the side of a mountain near Roanoke, Virginia.

On June 7, 1971, Murphy was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Pam Murphy, wife and widow of Audie Murphy, established her own distinctive 35-year career working as a patient liaison at the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Hospital. Every soldier who was a patient in the hospital was treated with respect and dignity by Pam Murphy.

“Nobody could cut through VA red tape faster than Mrs. Murphy,” said one veteran. “She was our angel.”

When Audie died, he was broke, having squandered millions on gambling, bad investments, and other women.

“Even with the adultery and desertion at the end, he always remained my hero,” Pam said.

Pam Murphy died on April 8, 2010. She was ninety years old.

One year Dennis McCarthy of the Los Angeles Times asked Pam to be the focus of a Veteran’s Day column for all the work she had done. Pam declined. “Honor them, not me,” she said. “They’re the ones who deserve it.”

Let’s do as Pam Murphy said and honor our veterans.

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THE BLESSING OF ADOPTION

November 4, 2018

A month or so ago, I spoke with a young couple about their futile attempts to have a child. They literally had tried everything from homeopathic treatments to fertility measures, all to no avail. Quietly weeping, the young woman said, “Our time to be parents is slipping away. We would like to consider adoption but our parents object. My father says adoption is taking a big chance. You never know what kind of child you’ll get.”

“Your father is correct,’ I said. “But that is also true for parenting in general. Parenting is always a risk without any guarantees. If you decide to adopt, the one thing that is somewhat certain is that you will get a child.”

During the Civil War, Zachary Taylor Hutson fought in the Wilderness Campaign with Robert E. Lee. When the War of Northern Aggression ended, Z.T. Hutson was mustered out of the Confederate Army. He took a train south to Spartanburg. From there, he walked all the way to his family farm in Barnwell County. He made the 130-mile journey hobbling on a wounded leg and suffering from tuberculosis. The trek took a full week.

In time, Z.T. and his wife, Simpie Getsinger, had two sons, Willie and Joe.  Willie eventually took responsibility for the farm. He served as a representative from Barnwell County to the State Legislature.  Joe, the younger son, left Barnwell County and moved to the Upstate. He attended Getsinger Business School founded by his uncle Joseph Jasper Getsinger. There he met Belle Haynsworth from Darlington.

Joe and Belle lived in Spartanburg. They were the parents of five sons and one daughter. Joe changed the spelling of his name from Hutson to Hudson.

After his first wife died, Willie married Mollie Woodward.  Her father was Robert E. Lee Woodward.  Willie gained a stepdaughter from Mollie’s first marriage. Willie and Mollie had four sons and then a daughter, Louise.

When little Louise was only six weeks old, her mother, Mollie, died.

Joe and Belle traveled from Spartanburg to Barnwell County for the funeral.  Following the burial in the cemetery of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, Willie handed his infant daughter across Mollie’s grave to his sister-in-law, Belle.

Willie said to Joe and Belle, “I don’t b’lieve I can raise this little girl on a farm with these four boys.  I’d be obliged if you’d take her with you to Spartanburg. I’d ‘preciate it if you’d rear her as your own.”

That baby girl was my mother.  Her aunt and uncle, Joe and Belle Hudson,  adopted her.  Because her adopted parents and her birth father were so closely related, she always regarded both families as hers.  In essence, she was the youngest of twelve children in the two families combined.  Throughout her life, she had a good relationship with all of these older brothers and sisters the two families.  She thought of both Willie and Joe as her daddies, calling them Little Daddy and Big Daddy.

I knew my grandmother, Belle Hudson, as Granny. In her Last Will and Testament, Granny included these words, “And to my niece Louise, whom I have always regarded as my daughter, my desire is that she share and share alike with my other children.”

My mother wept tears of joy.

Granny’s estate was very modest. Her love for her family was extravagant.

My mother’s inheritance was not wealth. It was acceptance and a sense of belonging.

On October 31, 2011, Clare and I became grandparents of two precious children, a brother and sister, adopted by our son and daughter-in-law. These two children are counted among our thirteen grandchildren. We love and cherish all thirteen of our grandchildren. Each is a unique individual; each is created in the image of God, and each one is a blessing in our lives.

In family court on adoption day, I saw a group of caring adults gathered around these children. There were smiles all around. The judge was all business until the legal proceedings were concluded. Then he posed for photographs along with adoptive parents and two sets of grandparents. Because it was Halloween Day, he offered our new grandchildren the first trick-or-treat gifts of the day, Tootsie Pops.

When I shook the judge’s hand to thank him, he commented, “In family court, I hear many sad, even tragic, stories. A case like this where two children are placed in their forever family is what brings me joy. This makes my work worthwhile.”

In our family, we regard adoption as a blessing, but it is not that way for some. At http://www.adoption.com there are numerous stories of people for whom being adopted has been a painful experience. Nearly every person who has been adopted has questions about their birth parents. Many know that their adoptive parents have loved them and provided for them in ways that their birth parents could not have. However, for some, adoption carries a lifelong stigma.

In the church that I served for eighteen years, we were fortunate to have several adoptive families. It has been my privilege to dedicate children who are chosen through adoption at birth. I have baptized young people who were foster children and were later adopted by their foster parents. In these situations, adoption is a blessing to the child, the parents, and the church.

Those, like my mother, who are adopted, have a special place in the world. In a very real sense, they are the chosen ones.

A list of famous people who were adopted includes people of diverse backgrounds and occupations. Moses, the biblical leader of the Jews, Lakota war chief Crazy Horse, and comedian Art Linkletter are on the roll.

Among the politicians on the list are John Hancock and Nelson Mandela. Civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson were adopted.

The list includes inventor George Washington Carver, naturalist John Audubon, Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, and Steve Jobs of Apple computer.

Philosophers Aristotle and Jean Jacques Rousseau are included. Authors Edgar Allan Poe and Langston Hughes were adopted.

The Associated Press published the story of Captain Scott Southworth of Wisconsin. Scott knew he would face violence when he was deployed with his Military Police unit to one of Iraq’s most dangerous areas. What he didn’t expect to find was nine-year-old Ala’a, a boy suffering from cerebral palsy. Ala’a, abandoned on a street in Baghdad, had been taken to the orphanage of the Sisters of Mercy founded by Mother Teresa. On a visit with his unit in 2003, Scott met the black-haired and brown-eyed Ala’a. The boy dragged himself to the side of the 31-year-old American Captain and won the soldier’s heart.

Over the next 10 months, the unit returned to the orphanage several times. A bond developed between Southworth and Ala’a. The boy began referring to Scott as Baba, Arabic for Daddy.

Iraqi law prohibits foreigners from adopting Iraqi children. Immigration laws in this country are also prohibitive. Homeland security in the United States was another hurdle.

The process took several years. Undaunted, Southworth prevailed, and Ala’a became his adopted son.

Adoption is indeed a blessing!

MAMA’S CANDY APPLES

October 27, 2018

I went into a local store the other day to pick up a few groceries. I was amazed at the vast display of Halloween candy. Judging by the sheer volume and variety of the seasonal confections, many of the folks in our neck of the woods must certainly have a sweet tooth.  Seeing all that candy brought back memories of boyhood days when trick or treating was eagerly anticipated.

One of my favorite Halloween memories is the candy apples that Mama made for the many trick-or-treaters that came to our house. I shared the story in this column several years ago. Since then I have received a request for a repeat. Some want Mama’s recipe for the sugary fruit on a stick; others just enjoy the story.

On Halloween night, our grandchildren, along with great-nieces and great-nephews, visit their great-aunt Beth’s house to trick-or-treat. My sister Beth follows the tradition started by our mother. She makes candy apples for the costumed little ones who come to her door seeking treats.

The bright red candy apple was an entirely new experience for our grandchildren. After a time of intense licking, they were a sugar-coated sight. Cheeks and lips were crimson, chins and hands were sticky. In their first encounter with a candy apple, they never did get down to the fruit beneath the candy coating.

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. All Hallow’s Eve was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting “Trick or treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried plastic jack-o-lanterns or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase to stash his booty. He stuffed the second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar – Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers – merited a star.

I learned a lot from Rusty. His advice was to avoid large groups. Two beggars at a time were enough for any home. Five or six together usually got smaller gifts.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was like a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole. He never told about the houses with the whipped cream star. On the other hand, he gathered as much information as he could.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum for a Hershey’s Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball Cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside.

One dark night, at one of the roadside conferences, an unlikely clown revealed that “a guy on the other side of Duncan Park Lake giving away silver dollars.”

After the meeting broke up, Rusty said, “Let’s go!”

I knew he meant we were going to the other side of the lake, but the trip was beyond my range and would have taken me long past my curfew. We headed back toward my house.

Rusty stopped at a driveway with a whipped cream star. He took off his pirate’s eye patch, removed the bandana from his head, walked to the door, and collected a second 3 Musketeers candy bar from the same house. He added a second whipped cream star to mark the driveway.

“I’ll see you later,” he said as he left for the other side of Duncan Park Lake, and I continued toward my home.

My mother knew how to throw a party. She believed every holiday deserved to be celebrated to the fullest. St. Valentine and St. Patrick got almost as much attention as St. Nicholas.

Halloween was one of her favorite occasions. Orange pumpkins adorned the front porch. Inside our home, glowing jack-o-lanterns and gossamer ghosts were everywhere.

Mama’s contribution to trick-or-treaters was a candy apple, the treat everybody wanted most of all. Mama dipped apples, each fitted with a short sharpened stick, into a hot candy coating. If you have ever burned your hands with a hot glue gun, you know how dipping a candy apple feels.

Every Halloween, Mama made hundreds. Children came trick-or-treating at our house from all over town.

Mama bought apples by the case from the old Community Cash grocery store at the end of our street. The family took turns at a hand-cranked pencil sharpener putting points on the dowel rods Dad had cut at the lumberyard. The apples were washed and the sticks inserted before Mama cooked the candy. She made many batches, hundreds of candy apples, every Halloween.

My sister Beth, now the queen of candy apples in our family, was willing to share Mama’s recipe, which makes 12-24 candy apples. She said the technique for making the treat can be tricky.

Ingredients:

2 cups sugar

1 package cinnamon candy drops (Mama stockpiled these.)

1 tablespoon red food coloring

1 cup water

1 teaspoon vinegar

Directions:

Cook all ingredients to 265 degrees – somewhere between soft and hard crack stage – on a candy thermometer.

Dip apples.

Place on a marble slab greased with real butter.

Wrap in plastic bags when cool.

Several years ago, I conducted a funeral service for a man who grew up in our neighborhood. Following the funeral, the brother of the deceased fondly told me of coming to our house on Halloween. He said that Mama always invited the children into her kitchen so that she could see their costumes.

“We would get a candy apple, go home, change disguises, and come back for another.” Then he made a confession. “One year, my brother and I came trick-or-treating at your house four times. We got four candy apples!” Then he added, “Your mother knew. She called us by name and said, ‘You boys have been here four times. I think that’s enough this year.’”

“What made you think you could get away with that?” I asked.

He grinned, “There were four whipped cream stars by your driveway.”

MARK TWAIN AND THE RIGHT TO VOTE

October 21, 2018

For three Tuesday night in October, I have been teaching the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge to a dozen or so Scouts. The requirements require these young Americans to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The merit badge places an emphasis on our rights and our responsibilities as American citizens. One of our duties is the responsibility to vote.

“Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain.  Someone once asked my grandfather who he was going to vote for in a presidential election.  His comment was, “I’ve hardly ever been able to vote for anybody.  I almost always have to vote against somebody.”

An important election is approaching. This political contest is serious, yet, like all political events, it is in some ways quite comic. The comedians of America have played a significant role in the campaign that precedes the election. The candidates have been the subjects of stand-up routines and half-hour satires. Some have appeared on late-night talk shows. “Saturday Night Live” features regular spoofs of both Democrats and Republicans.  Comedy has been a significant force as voters make their decisions.

Beginning in the year 2000 Time magazine has published a special issue. In the past “The Making of America” series has featured Lewis and Clark, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The seventh annual issue featured Mark Twain, the first American writer to achieve the kind of fame normally accorded presidents and generals.

Writing for Time in an article in 2008, Roy Blount, Jr. called Mark Twain our original American superstar. Like current talk show hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, and James Corden, Mark Twain also helped the folks of his day laugh at serious issues.

Roy Blount was quick to remind us that this stinging satire is not new. Ernest Hemingway said all modern American literature could be traced back to Mark Twain. With his white suit, cigar, disheveled hair, and bushy moustache, Twain was the first political comedian, the master of one-liners. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said, after his obituary mistakenly appeared in the New York Journal.

“As it happens, many of the issues of our day were also the issues of Twain’s day,” writes Blount, “and he addressed them as eloquently as anyone has since.”

Andrew Carnegie once remarked to Mark Twain that America is a Christian nation. “Why, Carnegie,” Twain answered, “so is Hell.”

Twain had a talent for detecting hypocrisy. His irreverence could be edgy. While it was funny, it was unsettling.

The motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on United States coins in 1864. Mark Twain was 29 years old at the time.  Three years before Twain’s death in 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt shocked the nation by declaring that “In God We Trust” should be removed from United States coins because they “carried the name of God into improper places.”

In conversation with Andrew Carnegie, Twain quipped that “In God We Trust” was a fine motto, “simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well – In God We Trust. I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true.”

Mark Twain came from America’s heart.  He made Americans laugh, especially at themselves.

In the special edition of Time that featured Twain, Richard Lacayo wrote of an exchange between Twain and the British poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold. After making two visits to the United States to observe American customs, Arnold eventually wrote his impressions in the book Civilization in the United States.

Troubled by the way Americans appeared to lack any capacity for reverence toward those in authority, Arnold wrote, “If there be a discipline in which the Americans are wanting, it is the discipline of awe and respect.”

One institution of American life that struck Arnold as improper was what he called “the addiction to the funny man, who is a national misfortune there.” Six years earlier, he had attacked in his writings the most famous American funny man of all, Mark Twain.

Offended by Arnold’s words, Twain prepared a reply.  Though never published, it includes the single best one-line defense of how a democratic society works. “A discriminating irreverence,” he wrote, “is the creator and protector of human liberty.”

Lacayo wrote of Twain, “He was plain speaking and had the kind of deadly wit that could cut through the cant and hypocrisy surrounding any topic, no matter how sensitive: war, sex, religion, even race. Twain was righteous without being pious, angry for all the right reasons and funny in all the right ways. You might say he gave virtue a good name.”

Tuesday, November 6, is Election Day.  By almost anyone’s estimation, we will again see closely contested election in many quarters. Many voting in this year’s election will remember when the United States learned that every vote counts. Harry Truman narrowly won the office of President in 1948.

I am awaiting the end of the campaign.  Most of the country is ready to make a decision and then to move forward.  We have all experienced an overload of rhetoric.

Mark Twain understood how important it is for people of faith to vote. Again criticizing Christians, Twain wrote in the September 2, 1904, edition of Collier’s, “If more Americans could be persuaded to vote, it would bring about a revolution that would be incalculably beneficent.  It would save the country.”

Until Election Day, I am going to try to become a more informed voter. I am also going to laugh at all the jokes and impersonations.

On Election Day, I plan to eat a good breakfast. I will pray for this country and those we will elect. I will drive out in the county to my voting place, a picturesque old schoolhouse in Whitestone, South Carolina. I will wait patiently for my turn, glad for the large voter turnout. Once behind a curtain, I will make my selection, keeping whom I cast my vote for or against to myself. It is, after all, a secret ballot. I will be grateful that I enjoy the freedom to do so.

I learned long ago that prayer and humor are first cousins. We pray and we laugh about what is most important in our lives. So I intend to approach this important election with a prayer in my heart and a smile on my face. Both Mark Twain and the Almighty would approve.

The Scouts in my merit badge class are too young to vote. I am trying to teach them as well as my own grandchildren. As always, the very best teaching to teach by example. I am going to vote because I cherish this freedom. I am going to vote because I love this country. I am going to vote because I see in the eyes of young Americans the hope for the future of this country. I am going to vote. I would urge you to do the same.

BROOM TALES

October 12, 2018

Clare and I enjoyed a meal at a local eatery in early October.  As we finished our meal, I noticed two ladies standing at the checkout. While waiting to pay their tab, they examined a display of brooms placed near the door by the local Lion’s Club. The available selections featured brooms of various sizes and prices.

“You need a broom for Halloween,” one said to the other.

“Are you saying I’m a witch?” her companion asked.

“I’m just saying, you need a broom.”

“I haven’t been called a witch lately, but something close to that.”

“Yeah, me, too. Maybe we both need a broom.”

I thought about witches I have known. When I was growing up there was an old woman who lived way down beyond my house where the pavement ended and the road turned to red dirt. She had a big, black cast-iron pot in her yard and several mean dogs. One day I walked down there by myself. I heard a shotgun blast. I was pretty sure she shot at me. I thought she might have been a witch.

When I was in high school English class, I encountered three witches as characters in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. I can still remember their chant.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

At Halloween, the image of witches riding across the sky on magical broomsticks is common. Where did the notion that witches ride brooms originate? It developed during the witchcraft hysteria, with subsequent mass executions, beginning in the early 16th Century in Europe.

Rye was the bread of the common folk. It was a staple in every home.  Rye bread that aged became host to a mold called ergot. In high doses, ergot could be lethal. In smaller doses, it became quite popular among herbalists as a cure. It’s mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare and in writings from the witchcraft age.

Medicinal preparations made from ergot helped to relieve migraine headaches by constricting the swollen blood vessels that caused the pain. One ergot derivative was also useful in preventing hemorrhaging following childbirth by causing uterine muscles to contract. It was also used to ease menstrual difficulties.

Some ancient herbalists applied ergot ointment to the female body using a smooth stick, as, for example, a broomstick. However, ergot is also a source of LSD and the hallucinogenic effects are powerful. Women who were given this treatment often experienced altered states of consciousness including fanciful flights. Some who observed women under the influence of the drug were convinced that the women were possessed by demons and therefore they were thought to be witches. So brooms, magical flights, and witches became connected in the public mind.

Novelist J. K. Rowling gave us the high-tech broomstick in her popular fantasies about Harry Potter. The first broomstick Harry owned was the Nimbus Two Thousand. The amazing transport allowed Harry to fly through the air, especially in Quidditch matches. But in a competition at Hogwarts in Harry’s third year, he was attacked by Dementors. Rendered unconscious, Harry fell off his broom. The errant Nimbus flew into the Whomping Willow. The tree objected to being hit and smashed Harry’s broom to bits. Later in the epic tale, Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, replaced the Nimbus with a Firebolt, a considerable upgrade in the broomstick world.

My most recent encounter with a witch was in a television commercial for GEICO insurance. A witch with a sinister laugh flies around a broom manufacturing plant. She stops to snag a fresh broom from one of the intimidated employees and continues her giddy flight. Two guys, one playing the mandolin, the second a guitar, croon that those who choose GEICO insurance are happier than a witch in a broom factory.

The commercial raises a question about the manufacture of brooms.

Brooms have been used for centuries to sweep caves, campsites, cabins, and castles. In America, making brooms is considered a heritage craft. All American brooms were handmade prior to the eighteenth century.  They were unrefined round brooms made from fibrous materials such as grass, straw, hay, fine twigs, or corn husks.  The broom sweep was tied onto a handle made from a tree branch. Cordage used to tie the broom was woven from hemp and flax. Homemade brooms swept clean the floor and the hearth, but they fell apart easily.

In 1797 a Massachusetts farmer, Levi Dickenson, made a broom for his wife. He used the tassels left over from his harvested sorghum.  His version swept better than others. Dickson started making brooms for his neighbors.

After the invention of the foot-treadle broom machine in 1810, broom shops appeared in many communities. Like the Lion’s Club display at the restaurant, customers were offered a choice of buying a small handled broom for use in tight areas around the fireplace or a long-handled one to sweep the open wood or dirt floors in their homes.

The less ornate craftsmanship of the Shakers changed the design of the round broom in the mid-1820′s.  They eliminated the woven stems up the handle and introduced wire to bind their brooms to the handle.  Using a vise to press the broom flat, it was stitched with linen cord.

By1830, the United States was producing enough brooms to export to other countries in South America and in Europe. The American broom industry thrived until 1994 when foreign brooms were permitted to be imported into the United States, duty-free.

Brooms play an important role in southern legend and lore. Jumping over the broom is a euphemism for marriage. The exact origin of the custom is uncertain. A commonly held belief is that the practice has roots in Africa. However, there are no recorded instances of African weddings that involved jumping over a broom.

What is certain is that brooms were spiritual symbols in some African regions. In Ghana, brooms were waved above the heads of newlyweds and their parents.

Some anthropologists believe that jumping over the broom at weddings was first known in Wales, originating either among the Welsh people themselves or among gypsies living in Wales. If so, the custom must have come to the colonies through Welsh settlers and then transferred to the slaves of the South. When a couple jumps over the broom together, their marriage is confirmed, and they will enjoy a good life together.

The Irish have a saying worth remembering. “A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners”

My grandmother used to say, “Never take an old broom to a new house.” This may explain the southern custom of giving a new broom as a housewarming gift.

Recently, one of our grandsons was helping me sweep the back porch. I used a grandfather-size broom; he used a child’s broom. I was reminded of a couple of old broom superstitions.

  • Always sweep dirt out the back door, or you will sweep away your best friend.
  • When a child takes a broom and begins to sweep, company is coming.

About that time my grandson’s parents showed up to take him home.

There must be at least a grain of truth in the old legends.

CATS

October 6, 2018

The world is filled with cat lovers. From ancient Egypt where they were first domesticated to the exotic Persian cats, the animals have been revered. They are thought to be the most popular pets in the world. Many of our friends are cat people, some have cats living in their homes – the very definition of a house cat.

Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Broadway musical Cats opened on Broadway in 1982. The production won numerous awards including a Tony as the best musical. As of this year, it is the fourth longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Suffice it to say, many people love and enjoy cats. Some do not.

I am fascinated by the big cats on the National Geographic television channel. I enjoy watching the Panthers, the Lions, the Bengals, and the Jaguars of the National Football League.  I can tolerate cats around the house as long as they stay outside, hunt rodents for their keep, and leave the birds alone.

Since we married Clare and I have pretty much agreed that cats were not our favorite pets. Clare just downright does not like cats, inside or out.

I have learned that when Clare senses something is amiss, I need to pay attention to her. While house hunting in Winston-Salem, we visited one picturesque abode. We got no further than the front door when Clare said, “Yuck! The previous family had cats! Many cats!”

We purchased a different home, further out in the country near the old Moravian settlement of Pfafftown, North Carolina. We had no sooner moved into our new domicile when our first visitor appeared on our doorstep. He was a very large cat, as white as Martha White’s self-rising flour, and as wild as a March Hare. We were told by neighbors that the cat belonged to the previous owners of the house.

I made the mistake of feeding leftovers to the feline, and he stayed around for the seven years we lived there. I named him the Kentucky Wildcat, though we resided in the heart of Atlantic Coast basketball territory. In the seven years, we had Kentucky, I never laid a hand on him. I never could get close enough even to scratch his ears. He possessed the disconcerting habit of darting across my path when I went outside on dark nights. Though I half expected his surprise appearances, he never failed to startle me.

I saw Kentucky for the last time on the day we moved away. I thought of trying to take him with us but he was simply not available. It seemed only right. I really had never owned him. I doubt he ever had a real owner.

Clare often wears two pairs of glasses. Her prescription lenses are perched on her nose and a pair of reading glasses is at the ready on top of her head. But her unaided eyesight is amazing. She can spot a dead bug on our basement floor at thirty paces. She can see a stain on my shirt and identify the source before I am even aware of the blemish. She carries a Tide laundry stick in her purse, just to keep me presentable.

My wife’s hearing is equally sensitive. Several years ago, on a rainy night during a booming thunderstorm, Clare thought she heard a baby crying. I, of course, heard nothing. But I have learned to pay attention when Clare senses something strange. As I listened, I heard only rumbling thunder, whistling wind, and pounding rain.

“I hear something that sounds like a baby crying,” Clare insisted. I listened more closely, and I heard what she had heard.

I went out into the storm to investigate. Sure enough, Clare was right! It was a baby crying – a baby kitten.

I reported my find. “Don’t bring that cat into this house!” she instructed.

I heeded her warning. Again, I have never regarded myself as a cat person. Dogs are more to my liking. At the same time, I felt compelled to provide some comfort for the black and white foundling. The little kitten had obviously become separated from her mother during the storm. I could not be sure how old the kitten was. She was so small I could hold her in the palm of one hand.

Placing an old towel in a garden basket, I made a bed for the tiny trembling stray. Cold, wet, hungry, and frightened, she continued to cry. She even tried to nurse my little finger in search of milk. That didn’t work.

I called a good friend, a retired veterinarian, who gave me sound guidance.

“You found her, Kirk. She’s your responsibility. You’ll have to become her mother.”

At a local pet store, I purchased a formula substitute for mother’s milk. The little orphan lapped it up and promptly fell asleep in the crook of my arm. As I have said, I am not really a cat person, but I had become the unexpected caretaker of a kitten.

Our daughter named the cat. “She was delivered to your porch by a thunderstorm. You have to name her Stormy.” So, Stormy she is. Little did I know then that the name Stormy would later become associated with a national scandal, as in Stormy Daniels.

My veterinarian friend advised me on immunizations and on the proper time to have her spayed. Those health issues were taken care of by the good folks at our local animal shelter. Now, when I take Stormy to have her shots, my friend Roger goes with me. Believe it or not, it takes two grown men to corral the small cat into a crate to transport her to the vet.

My responsibilities are relatively few. I make sure Stormy has her regular ration of food, that her water bowl is freshly filled each day, and that she has a routine tick and flea treatment. I also take a little time to scratch her ears. When I sit down on a favorite bench in the yard near the tree of life, Stormy still enjoys climbing into my lap for a snooze. I, who am not really a cat person, enjoy that, too.

Stormy has made herself at home in our garden. She quickly found the patch of catnip and enjoys a daily tumble in the fragrant foliage. She has her favorite lookout posts and napping places. She has climbed most of the trees in our garden and knows how to descend as well as ascend each one.

Early in our relationship, Stormy and I reached an agreement. She is free to stalk and capture any varmint that crosses the estate. However, she is under strict orders to leave the birds alone. She does have to be reminded.

We have been gifted with a variety of relics at our front door. These have included an assortment of deceased moles, voles, mice, and chipmunks, and at least three gray squirrel tails. I don’t know what she did with the other end of the squirrels. Perhaps there are three tailless squirrels still bounding through our tree branches.

Late one night, I heard the sounds of a major catfight. Actually, Stormy had cornered a possum. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with the critter, so I ran it off with a pickax handle I keep close by for just such occasions.

As far as I can tell the bird casualties have been limited to one starling. Honestly, I wasn’t a bit upset by the demise of the pesky starling. Stormy is a discerning cat.

In one corner of our garden, I have a cast-iron chiminea that I bought from a fellow in Commerce, Georgia. Sometimes on cool nights, I build a small fire in the rusty stove. Stormy ventures over to check me out. Then, just like she did when she was a little kitten, she will hop on my lap. I am not really a cat person, but I scratch her ears. Stormy purrs, and we enjoy watching the dying embers together.

TALKING TO THE ANGELS

September 30, 2018

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a remarkable read.. The book, best described as historical fiction, is set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century. It is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, early leaders in the women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement. The book relates the coming-of-age story of two characters. Sarah is the daughter of a prominent lawyer. Hetty is a slave assigned to Sarah. Neither is a wilting magnolia. Both are determined women, each with a strong defiant streak. I am not surprised that questions of God and Christian ethics arise throughout the novel.

Years ago, even while I was a seminary student, I realized that some of the best theology is not written by theologians. Works of fiction often require the reader to struggle with religious as well as moral issues. Theology and ethics are best learned through enrolling in the proverbial college of hard knocks. Fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth about life.

Among the more memorable novels with theological themes are Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851), Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1876), Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1955), Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (1972), Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), and Marilynne Robinson, the trilogy, Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lilia (2014). This is a partial list, to be sure, but it is a respectable sampling.

Several years ago, I came across a book title I had never heard of. Talking with the Angels is the true story of four young Hungarians during the Holocaust. Over a seventeen-month period, the four encountered luminous forces that helped them find courage and hope in a time of uncertainty. These angels, as they were described, accompanied the group until three of them met their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Gitta Mallasz had recorded the instructions given to her in eighty-eight experiences of angelic revelation. Gitta was the only survivor among the friends. Her journals were preserved. After the war Gitta shared these remarkable dialogues with the world through her book. Gitta always rejected any notion that she was the author of the book, saying, “I am merely the scribe of the angels.”

Gitta’s story reminded me of one from my own family

My nephew David Kreswell Suits came into the world in October 1981, the fourth of eight children born to my sister Mamie and her husband, Dr. Steve Suits.  Kres was a twin. His twin brother, William Haynsworth Suits, was stillborn.

Mamie knew immediately that something was wrong with Kres.  He screamed and seemed to shake uncontrollably.  Mamie could do little to console her baby boy. Several pediatricians examined Kres. An older physician suggested that Mamie and Steve take their infant son to a pediatric neurologist for an ultrasound of his brain.

When the results of the scan were revealed, the doctor asked several questions:  “Do you have other children?”

“Yes, answered Mamie, “three.”

“Are they all normal?”

“As normal as they can be,” replied Steve.

After a long pause, the physician advised, “Take this child to a local facility for mentally impaired children.  Leave him there and try to forget that you ever had him.  Go home and take care of your three other children.”

Reluctant to hear more of his advice, Mamie escaped to the restroom.  She stared into the mirror and prayed.

When she returned moments later, she asserted, “Steve, it’s time to take our baby home.”

Mamie and Steve presented Kres to their three older children – Steven, age four, Burk, age three, and Neely, one-and-a-half.  The children greeted their new little brother with love and joy. Mamie knew from that moment that Kres would be a part of their family as long as he lived.

Kres was diagnosed with hydrocephaly.  Quite simply, he had no brain, only a brain stem.  He had no vision. His hearing was extremely limited. He had no motor abilities.  Though Kres lived for twelve years, he was profoundly retarded. His tiny body could not develop.  Caring for him was a constant challenge.

Mamie and Steve welcomed four more children to their family. Mamie commented, “Each time I had another child, it was like having two newborn babies to care for.”

Many times people advised Steve and Mamie to find a place for Kres so that they could provide their other children with the attention they needed.  Mamie simply noted, “Kres was a part of our family.  He was God’s gift to all of us, and he made a profound impact on every one of us.”

I asked Mamie about any high points in the twelve years that she cared for Kres.  She explained that Kres could make no positive response and that every reaction was a cry or a scream except on very rare occasions.

In Mamie’s words, “Once in a while, Kres had a peaceful angelic expression on his face and a very faint smile.  When that happened, I would tell my other children, ‘Kres is talking with the angels.’”

Mamie added, “Just before his twelfth birthday, I went in to check on him.  He had the biggest grin on his face.  It was as if the angels had told him a wonderful secret.”

My parents had the custom of giving each of their forty-six grandchildren a very special present on their twelfth birthday.  When asked what they could give Kres, Mamie and Steve told them that Kres had been accustomed to sleeping on a waterbed.  His brothers loved to bounce on the bed.  It had finally burst.  And so for Kres’ birthday, Mamie suggested that Mom and Dad buy a new waterbed, Kres-size in length.

Dad purchased some fine walnut lumber and asked Ray Harris to build a waterbed frame, countertop height so that Mamie would not have to bend down when tending to Kres.  Ray Harris has been a family friend for many years.  He is a carpenter and a master cabinet maker. The gift was to be ready sometime before Christmas 1993.

Two weeks after his twelfth birthday, November 8, 1993, David Kreswell Suits died.  Dad and I went to the home to be with the family.  Dad stayed with Mamie while I drove Steve to the hospital.  He wanted a physician friend to sign the death certificate.  I will never forget turning in the darkness toward Steve who was in the passenger’s seat.  As he cradled his tiny twelve-year-old son in his arms, I saw that rare smile on Kres’ face that Mamie had mentioned. I thought He’s talking with the angels. Steve and I both wept tears of grief and tears of joy.

When Mamie found out that the bed frame had not yet been built, she asked Dad, “Could the lumber be used to make a coffin for Kres instead?”

The night before the funeral, Ray Harris stayed up all night long, fashioning a fine walnut casket.  Mama lined the casket with a quilt; one that she had made by hand.

Gathered around Kres’ grave, our thoughts turned to a twelve-year-old boy, so limited in this life, but now made whole.

We were all sure that Kres was talking and singing with the angels.