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HONORING OUR FLAG

June 11, 2019

Clare and I recently purchased a new flag to display on the front of our home. For years we have proudly hung the flag that draped the casket of Clare’s father, Mr. Jack, Jackson S. Long. Mr. Jack served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.  His honor flag was presented to Clare at his funeral.

Over time the old flag that served us well for so many years became worn and faded. Made of cotton, the flag could not last forever.

The new flag is fashioned from heavy synthetic material purported to be more durable than the old cotton banner. We hung it on our front porch just before Memorial Day and will display it there until Labor Day. In the near future, we will invite a local Scout troop to help us properly retire the former flag.

Our grandchildren have been keenly interested in the new flag. They enjoy rubbing the shiny surface and watching it blow in the wind. Some of the older children have taken an interest in the history of the flag. Perhaps this brief refresher will help all of us appreciate the history of our flag.

June 14 is celebrated in the United States as National Flag Day. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on that date in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. In August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. While Flag Day is not an official federal holiday, many Americans mark the day as our family does by displaying the flag. As Flag Day approaches on June 14, these reminders may help us pause and give the flag the honor it deserves.

The early flags of the United States of America were all hand sewn. Each flag has a unique history. For Flag Day, allow me to repeat some of those best-known stories. Read more…

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THE DESIDERATA

June 7, 2019

I was ordained on April 1, 1970. That’s right! I was ordained on April Fools Day.

Perhaps you can imagine the jokes and the teasing that simple fact has prompted.

Clare and I were members of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I was two months away from graduation from Seminary. Dr. John Claypool was our pastor. He was also my professor of preaching at Southern Seminary. It was appropriate that he would be the one to deliver my ordination sermon.

John was an outstanding pastor and preacher. He served a total of five Baptist churches as a pastor. His life took two tragic turns. The first was the death of his nine-year-old daughter. The second was a difficult divorce that all but disqualified him from holding a pulpit in a Baptist church.

After a period of discernment and additional theological study, John became an Episcopal priest, continuing to use his remarkable gifts for ministry. He became the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a position that he held for fourteen years. He died in September 2005 at 74 years of age.

John chaired my ordination council and preached my ordination sermon. In the homily, he used a poem entitled “The Desiderata.”  The plural of desideratum is desiderata, the Latin word meaning desired things.

At the ordination service, the church presented a Bible to me. John had placed an abbreviated copy of the poem inside the Bible as a bookmark.

That copy, which I later pasted inside the front cover of the Bible, indicates that the poem was written in 1692 at Old St. Paul’s Church, in Baltimore, Maryland.

In truth, the author was Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana, who copyrighted the verse in 1927. The claim that “The Desiderata” was written in 1692 and was later found in Old St. Paul’s Church is incorrect.

In 1959, the Rev. Frederick Kates, the rector of Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore used the poem in a collection of devotional materials he compiled for his congregation. At the top of the booklet was the heading, Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore A.D. 1692. The church was founded in 1692.

As the poem was passed along, the authorship became clouded. It is certainly understandable that a later publisher would interpret the heading as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old St. Paul’s Church, dated 1692. This notation added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem.

A spoken-word recording of the essay was made by Les Crane perpetuated the older date. That recording reached #8 on the “Billboard” magazine charts in 1971.

When Adlai Stevenson was former Governor of Illinois and Democratic candidate for President of the United States in both 1952 and in 1956. When he died in 1965, a guest in his home found a copy of “The Desiderata” near his bedside. Stevenson had planned to use it in his Christmas cards. The publicity that followed gave the verse a boost in popularity and furthered the mistaken relationship to Old St. Paul’s Church.

The Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.

Last Thursday, I read again the poem pasted in my Bible. I reflected on the life of my pastor, my teacher, my mentor – John Claypool.

At the time I was ordained, I wondered why he included the poem in his sermon. Now, after fifty-three years of pastoral ministry, I understand the wisdom of these words.

BLACK SNAKE IN THE HOUSE

June 4, 2019

Last Monday afternoon our daughter walked into her laundry room. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something move on the shelf above her washing machine. It was a rather large black snake. She closed the laundry room door and left the house with her two young daughters. She called her husband. The serpent was safely returned to the wilds of Duncan Park.

Four years ago, I was rummaging in the part of our basement we call Outer Darkness, a Biblical term used to describe the final destination of lost souls. Back in 1937 when my grandfather built the house, it was heated with a coal-burning furnace.  The coal was dumped through a chute into a coal cellar. That old coal cellar is what Clare and I named Outer Darkness. It is the final destination for forgotten items. Anything that probably should have been discarded long ago spends some time in outer darkness before it is finally cast into the trash.

I honestly don’t remember why I was fumbling around in Outer Darkness, but I distinctly remember seeing the four-foot black snake coiled among the boxes and shopping bags. The sleek reptile was just as surprised and just as eager to get away as I was. The one thing I knew for sure was that he was in the wrong place and had to go. Employing the handle of an old straw broom, I managed to carry the intruder outside.

My dad often told me that every time Mama saw a snake it was a sign that she was pregnant. Fortunately, Clare did not see the slinky fellow lounging in our basement four years ago.

For the first six years of my life, our family lived in a four-room house on Kentucky Avenue in Spartanburg. In the kitchen, a two-eyed laundry heater stoked with firewood supplied the source of hot water, provided warmth for our home, and served as a cooking surface. Smoke was vented through a stovepipe.

Early one morning when I was five years old, I heard my mother calling my name with distress in her voice. She was cooking breakfast when she discovered a large black snake coiled behind the heater. The slinky critter had found a warm place to spend the night.

My mother gave me the instructions, “Go out the front door. Come around to the back and hold the door open for me!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

My mother, pregnant with her fourth child, herded the snake out of her kitchen with a straw broom. The shiny black serpent, his presence in the house most unwelcome, wiggled past me. My admiration for my mother’s courage and my respect for the black snake’s ingenuity increased.

The southeastern United States is home to at least forty-five species of snakes. Only six of those are poisonous. Among the several species of black snakes the ring-necked snake, the pine snake, the eastern indigo snake, and the southern black racer are included. The eastern hog-nosed snake is sometimes black. The venomous cottonmouth moccasin is usually black but lives only below the fall line in South Carolina. Humans often kill snakes as a result of misinformation or misidentification.  I have heard the comment “The only good snake is a dead snake!” numerous times.  In our area, many people think that every snake they see is a copperhead.

The black rat snake, also called pilot snake, is the most common snake in the Southeast. It is also the largest snake in our area, sometimes reaching eight feet in length. Found in forests, fields, marshes, and farmland, these skillful climbers can ascend the trunks of large trees and climb into the rafters of barns. They can also swim quite well.

Years ago I was fishing with a group of Cub Scouts near Burrell’s Ford on the Chattooga River. I noticed a humongous granddaddy black snake slithering down the opposite bank of the river, the Georgia side. He proceeded to swim through the swift current, straight toward the covey of young boys.

In an attempt to prevent widespread panic, I met the long snake on the South Carolina side, quickly grabbing him behind the head. The large constrictor threw three coils around my arm. His strength was impressive.

The Cubs shouted, “Dr. Kirk, what are going to do with him?”

“Can I hold him?”

“Can I take him home with me?”

I retreated to a pine tree to release the powerful snake. Just as I let him go, he whipped his head around, biting me hard on my right thumb. Having expressed his displeasure with me, he scaled the tree in no time flat. I washed my bleeding thumb in alcohol from a first aid kit, explaining to the boys that we had invaded the snake’s territory.

In the spring and fall, black rat snakes are active during the day; in the summer they move around at night. When startled, they often wrinkle themselves into a series of kinks. If they feel further threatened, they may flee quickly or coil and vibrate their tails in dead leaves as a form of mimicry, making a sound like a rattlesnake. They produce a foul-smelling musk odor which they release onto a predator.

This species is a constrictor, coiling around its prey and tightening its grip until the victim suffocates. Then the predator swallows its meal whole. True to its name, black rat snakes consume mice and rats. They will also hunt other snakes, as well as chipmunks, squirrels, bats, birds, and bird eggs.

My mother apparently had radar for black snakes. One Sunday after church the ten people in our family were enjoying a fine dinner together when Mama saw something amiss through the screen door. “I think a snake is crawling up the wall in the garage,” she said.

Sure enough, a hungry black snake was making its way to a wren’s nest in the rafters. My dad quickly dispatched the intruder to the field beyond the fence.

Though they have few natural foes, I have witnessed a full-grown black snake dangling helplessly from the clenched talons of a red-tailed hawk. Humans are their most common enemies. They are in danger of being slain by frightened people.  Black snakes are also frequent roadkill victims.

Black snakes are beneficial to humans because they prey on rodents. Several years ago, I released a black snake into my barn for that very reason. I haven’t seen him since.

Even those who understand the value of these beneficial reptiles don’t always respect them.

Once a man offered to build a tool shed for his brother-in-law. The property owner had seen a large black snake on his land. He cautioned, “If you see a black snake, leave him alone. Black snakes are our friends.”

Later that day the owner returned to see how the project was progressing. Aghast at seeing a large dead black snake draped over a fence, he chided his brother-in-law, “I told you not to kill a black snake. They are our friends.”

“When I sit down to eat my lunch, I don’t appreciate being surprised by your friend.”

My sentiments exactly when I found one in our basement!

STRAWBERRY SEASON

May 25, 2019

Last week I visited one of our favorite South Carolina Certified Roadside Markets. The tables and bins were loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, most of it from Upstate farms. I purchased tomatoes, squash, and a few of the first peaches of the year.  The main attraction was fresh strawberries. I bought a gallon bucket of the delicious red fruit. We are at the peak of strawberry season in the Upstate.

The Beatles’ song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was released on an old 45 rpm vinyl record back in the old days. It was on the flip side of “Penny Lane.” What is the meaning of the seemingly senseless lyrics? An answer can be found at http://www.Songfacts.com.

Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army orphanage in Liverpool, England. Having lost his father and his mother, John Lennon felt a kinship to the homeless boys. He had fond memories of the place, especially the garden that inspired this song.

In an interview, Lennon explained, “Strawberry Fields is a real place. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie, into a nice place with a small garden. Paul, George, and Ringo lived in government-subsidized housing.

“Near our home was Strawberry Fields, a boys’ reformatory where I used to go to garden parties with my friends.  I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields Forever.”

John donated money to the orphanage before his death. One of its buildings is named Lennon Hall.

The title of the Beatles’ song reminds me of Strawberry Hill on Highway 11 in northern Spartanburg County. The strawberry fields near Cooley Springs are abuzz with activity this time of year. Read more…

FOLLOWING DIRT ROADS

May 19, 2019

I recently read Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux. Well well-known travel writer, Theroux explores the section of America I know best, the Deep South. He finds a paradoxical place, full of incomparable music, unparalleled cuisine, and also some of the nation’s worst schools, housing, and unemployment rates. Theroux hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, says of the book, “Deep South is an ode to a region, vivid and haunting, full of life and loss alike.”

This week I heard on my car radio the song God’s Country by Blake Shelton. The first few lines are:

Right outside of this one church town

There’s a gold dirt road to a whole lot of nothin’

Got a deed to the land, but it ain’t my ground

This is God’s country.

Paul Theroux’s book and Blake Shelton’s song reminded me of the place I grew up, Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Read more…

BULLFROG LORE

May 13, 2019

Last Wednesday night after a scout meeting, I sat outside on our screened-in back porch. Thunderstorms were approaching, and the critters in our yard were stirred up. A lone male mockingbird sang a courting song from the top of an oak tree. Tree frogs and crickets joined in with their own melodies. Two feral cats darted across our lawn. A big, fat possum ambled out of the bushes and disappeared into the woods. Dogs barked in the background, and two bullfrogs chimed in with bass notes from our pond. All of the activity was a prelude to the storm that followed.

Just a week earlier I heard a program on a local radio station. The talk show featured experts from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Invited to call in questions, listeners kept the telephone lines humming throughout the hour.

Most callers were concerned about fishing regulations. They wanted answers about licensing requirements, size and number limits, and information about stocking ponds and streams.

Finally, near the end of the program, a fellow named Ralph was on the line.

“Ralph, where are you calling from?”

“From my pickup truck.”

“What’s your question?”

“What about frog gigging?”

The Game Warden answered, “The laws of South Carolina are completely silent when it comes to frog gigging.”

“You mean there ain’t no rules?”

“That’s right.”

“Hot diggity-dog!”

“You must like to eat frog legs.”

“Man, yeah! Fried frog legs are the best thing ever with a good vegetable like macaroni and cheese and a cold beer!”

Our garden waterfall spills into a pond lined with creek rocks. The water is recycled back to the top of the hill by a pump, creating a continuous flow.

On a visit to our garden last year, a friend sat by the pond watching the goldfish dart among the plants. “You need a couple of bullfrogs,” he observed.

I recalled the pleasant sound of bullfrogs from my boyhood fishing and camping adventures and agreed that a couple of bullfrogs would make a fine addition to our small pond. A few days later a man from our church gave us six big croakers from the abundant population in his own pond. “I wanted to be sure you had at least one male and one female,” he chuckled.

After our gift of frogs arrived, I learned several interesting bits of information:  bullfrogs can live up to fifteen years, and female bullfrogs can actually lay as many as 20,000 eggs at one time. In a year or so more, I have no doubt that their croaks will be deafening.

I have enjoyed hearing their deep resonant voices singing after dark along with the symphony of tree frogs, crickets, and a persistent whip-poor-will. The cacophony conjures up thoughts of bullfrog tales.

In 1865, the budding journalist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was living in a cabin near Angels Camp, California.  He frequented the bar at a local hotel, listening to yarns spun by prospectors from the nearby hills. It was there that he heard a tall tale, which he later crafted into a short story.  Twain wrote about a bullfrog named Dan’l Webster, who fails to hop even once during a jumping contest. His dismayed owner, despondent over losing a bet of forty dollars, later discovers an opponent had filled the big frog with lead quail shot.  Twain’s legendary amphibian helped make him famous. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” has become one of the best-known bullfrog stories.

Perhaps the most famous tale about frogs was written by the Brothers Grimm. “The Frog Prince,” which has been told and retold, usually recounts how a princess finds a conversant frog. The frog asks that she kiss him in order to break an evil spell so he can change into the handsome prince he was prior to the curse. Though in the story’s original form the princess does not actually kiss the frog, it is most frequently told so that her kiss transforms the frog into a prince.

This theme has many variations, even one for liberated women.

Once upon a time, a beautiful, independent, self-assured princess happened upon a frog in a pond. The frog explained, “I was once a handsome prince until an evil witch put a spell on me. One kiss from you and I will turn back into a prince. Then we can marry and move into the castle with my parents. You can prepare my meals, clean my clothes, and bear my children. We’ll live happily ever after.”

That night, while the princess dined on frog legs, she laughed, “I don’t think so.”

A variation for senior adults places an old man – wearing a tattered long-sleeve shirt, khaki pants, and a straw hat – on a log.  Fishing with a cane pole from the riverbank was slow. As the late summer sun began to set, a bullfrog hopped up on the log next to the elderly gentleman and asked, “Are you married?”

“No, my wife died five years ago,” the man answered, surprised to be speaking with a frog.

After a pause, the frog offered, “I am really a beautiful princess. If you kiss me, I will become a young woman and marry you.”

The old gentleman considered the offer. Without a word, he gathered his fishing equipment, put the frog into his straw hat, and walked through the dark woods back to his pickup truck.

“Are you hard of hearing?” the frog demanded.

“No, not at all.”

Annoyed at the man, the frog repeated, “I really am a beautiful princess. Kiss me, and I will become a gorgeous woman. I will marry you.”

“I understand,” the man answered.

The frustrated frog shrieked again, “I really am a beautiful woman! I’m offering to become your wife. Why won’t you kiss me?”

The old man paused a moment, then explained, “At my age, I can have a whole lot more fun with a talking frog than I can with a second wife.”

THE STORY OF A MIGRANT MOTHER

May 10, 2019

Here is a Mothers’ Day story that captures the essence of motherhood.

On May 10, 1908, Anna Jarvis of Grafton, West Virginia, organized the first Mother’s Day celebration. Neither a wife nor a mother herself, Anna wanted to encourage Americans to honor the women who are the strength of the nation. When the holiday became so quickly commercialized, Jarvis protested. The sale of cards and flowers and the proliferation of Mother’s Day advertising detracted from Anna’s initial vision of a simple day to express gratitude for our mothers and grandmothers.

Arthur Brisbane, a famous newspaper editor, gave this advice to his fellow journalists, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Picture a woman whose face you have seen and probably recognize. She is not a famous celebrity; neither a beauty queen nor a film star. When she gave permission for her most familiar photograph, she was not strutting on a red carpet. She was under a makeshift tent, nursing the youngest of her seven children. Though the photograph became an immediate success, the mother in the picture never received any compensation. For the photographer, the picture brought fame. For the woman pictured and her family, it became a source of shame.

The thirty-two-year-old mother could have been on the cover of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Her story is similar to that of Steinbeck’s Ma Joad. The mother of six, Ma is a poor but strong woman married to a tenant farmer. Driven from their Oklahoma home by the Dust Bowl drought, the Joads set out for California.

In 1936, three years before Steinbeck published his work of fiction, Dorothea Lange snapped several black-and-white photographs of a destitute mother with three of her children. Lange worked for the United States Government Resettlement Administration as a photographer. While visiting a migrant workers’ camp near Nipomo, California, she captured the picture that made her famous.

Lange selected one of the pictures to send to the San Francisco News. The newspaper printed the picture immediately, along with the caption that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California. Within days, the camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. By the time the shipment arrived, the young mother and her family had moved on to another camp.

The iconic portrait of an American mother living on the brink of starvation was entitled “Migrant Mother.” As an illustration of severe poverty, the worried and worn woman in the picture unwittingly became the face of the Great Depression.

Because Lange had been funded by the federal government when she took the picture, the image was always in the public domain. As a collection, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography. Ken Burns included many in his recent The Dust Bowl, a documentary film which aired on the Public Broadcasting System. The film recounts the impact of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This picture appears in the episode entitled “Reaping the Whirlwind,” a phrase taken from the Old Testament book of Job.

The connection to Job’s suffering is appropriate. The Library of Congress entitled the image, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

In Lange’s field notes preserved with the photograph in the Library of Congress, she recorded that the young mother and her family were “living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.” Lange later wrote of the meeting:

“I did not ask her name or her history.”

Who was the mysterious woman in the mythical portrait?

Because Lange failed to get the woman’s name, it was more than forty years later that the woman in the picture told her story. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Florence Owens Thompson at her mobile home in the Modesto Mobile Village. He recognized her from the forty-year-old photograph.

Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on Sept. 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. She was a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her father had abandoned her mother before Florence was born. Her mother remarried Charles Akman who was of Choctaw descent. The family lived on a small farm outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

At age seventeen, Florence married Cleo Owens on February 14, 1921. They soon had their first daughter, Violet, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and a son, Leroy. The family migrated west with relatives to California. Cleo worked at a sawmill and on the farms of the Sacramento Valley.

By 1931, Florence was pregnant with her sixth child when Cleo died of tuberculosis. Florence worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children. In 1933 Florence had another child. She became the common law wife of Jim Hill.

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Florence and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville where they hoped to find work in the lettuce fields.  On the road, their automobile broke down, and they coasted to a stop at the crowded migrant camp on Nipomo Mesa.  The crops had been destroyed by freezing rain.

Florence remembered setting up a temporary camp and cooking vegetables that had been frozen in the field for her children while her husband and two of her sons worked to repair the car. It was then that Dorothea Lange drove up and started taking photos including the one that bears witness to the deprivation and suffering of the Great Depression.

During the 1930s the family labored as migrant farm workers following the crops in California. Florence would later recall picking cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to see. She added, “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”

Florence and Jim Hill had three more children.

The family settled in Modesto, California in 1945. After World War II, Florence met and married hospital administrator George Thompson.

In a television interview with Cable News Network (CNN), daughter Katherine McIntosh remembered her mother as a strong lady who was the backbone of the family.  She said, “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her. She loved music, and she loved to dance.”

In 1998, the photo of “Migrant Mother” became a 32-cent postage stamp in the 1930s Celebrate the Century series. In the same month the stamp was issued, a print of the photograph with Lange’s handwritten notes and signature sold at auction for $244,500 at Sotheby’s New York. Florence, the woman in the picture, never got one red cent.

Florence died on September 16, 1983. She was buried in Hughson, California.

Her epitaph reads:

FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON

Migrant Mother

A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood

Anna Jarvis had the right idea. On Mother’s Day, we celebrate with gratitude the women who, like Florence, have been the strength of our nation.

                                                               Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.  He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com