Creosote Poles

My father is not a gruff man… not a hard man with harsh words or ways. My father is a man of opinions and fixed ideas. A man who believes he knows what is right in things he has experience in. His unending advice and parenting has been a thing I have carried throughout my life… take responsibility for your actions… simple, plain words with a heavy mantel that sits on my shoulders. He wasn’t lax in his parenting… his preferred discipline was the measured tone of expressing disappointment instead of his leather belt. As he has aged, I have noticed that his moments of anger or disappointment are more silent scowl than vocalized ire. Oddly, my first real memory of my father is one of where he was gruff… of course this is a memory that I have thought of for decades, in reality, my memory of his voice and gruff directions may be nothing more than a mental interpretation… potentially a memory that is more of how I would react than his actual actions.

We had a German Shepard… Ralph… Ralph was my father’s dog. We lived at Fort Riley, Kansas. Ft. Riley is an old cavalry outpost that sits on the Kansas plains… Custer and the other blue woolen soldiers had traipsed across this territory hunting the ultimate guerilla fighter… the Native American warrior from Ft. Riley. By the early 1970s, Ft. Riley was home to the 1st Infantry Division… bloodied and bruised from years of jungle fighting in Vietnam and in the midst of the transition from draft Army to all-volunteer force. My father was an Army sergeant, he was no draftee… he had joined before Vietnam, his early service days were ones of preparing for potential invasion of Cuba and watching a small corner of the world… Vietnam… loom on the horizon. Like the 1st Infantry Division, Ft. Riley in the early 1970s was where my father was recovering from his second combat tour in Vietnam. For his service, the Army had established him and our family in a squat light brown duplex on post.

This memory of this color may be utterly incorrect… but in my mind this duplex is light brown… we lived in the one on the left when facing the front. Covered parking spaces separated the two homes where they met in the middle. The front of this duplex, however, is not what sticks out in my memory. The thing I remember most… the memory that settles at the top of my memory list is a creosote soaked telephone pole. It was in our backyard… specifically, it set as the boundary where our backyard ended and the common area of our housing area (neighborhood for you civilian types) began.

This first memory is warm, fresh-cut grass floats in the air as lightly as the smell. The only way you don’t know this smell is if you were born on the moon or raised in the desert. It is that sweet… almost sugary wet… smell of growth… even the texture of cut grass resonates with this smell. For some the color green is immediately connected to this smell because of the distinct flavor it leaves in the air and upon the tongue. This first memory is that sweet green smell of cut grass twirling in warm summer air.

Punctuating the smell is the sound of a lawnmower. The heavy vibrating beat of a gas-powered lawnmower. The gasoline exhaust of the lawnmower mixes with the grass smell… imaginary fuel slickness adds to the fresh-cut grass clippings… a coating that is both real and felt. This is the smell of summer… the warmth of the plains’ sun and cut grass… if a video was made it would have a sound track of the a lawnmower moving to and fro. As the video begins the mower sound would be moving closer… then a slight change in pitch… as the mower moves away. Grass would be tossed from the side and caught in a slight summer breeze… summers in Kansas are notoriously still… amber waves of grain only happen when the fall winds work their dance when a chill begins to come down from Canada. This imagined video is my first memory.

The gruff voice of my father finally breaks in… the mower stops. Ralph and I are playing… not sure what sort of play an under 4 boy with no fear and a large German Shepard may be engaged in… but we are playing. I am probably bugging the shit out the dog… it is my style to poke and prod… to explore and push boundaries. These are qualities that were not only foundations in my little child self, but they are characteristics that guide me through my adult life. Yes… I am probably bugging Ralph. My father has had enough… he is probably… at that moment… not only responsible for cutting the grass but also responsible for making sure his pugnacious son and dog aren’t permanently injured. The mower goes silently… my father firmly instructs… again I imagine it is a gruff instruction… Ralph and me to go sit by the telephone pole… go sit as far away from his mowing yet still within the boundaries he has established as his domain… his yard. His son, his dog, his yard… these are things my father sees before him.

Ralph and I obey… Ralph probably moves quicker and more obediently… I’m sure I dawdled… I am sure I stopped to pick some freshly cut dandelion or scoop a handful of grass to bug Ralph with. Finally, the two of us are seated by the telephone pole and my father returns to his mowing. It is a cloudless sky… skies on the plains are always cloudless in my mind. Later, when I was in Kansas during my own military service, I remember standing outside on a fall day and marveling at how amazingly pure and clear the sky was… harkening back to the day of my childhood when I had gazed at that same sky as I sat by a telephone pole and my father’s dog.

That telephone pole was pure creosote. Creosote is chemical that is basically watered-down tar that is used to keep wooden telephone poles from rotting. Creosote, like fresh-cut grass, has a distinct smell… that smell filled my lungs it isn’t chemical but it doesn’t seem natural either… maybe a dark and earthy smell… joining lawnmower exhaust, grass, and the dusty air of a Kansas plain. The darkness of the creosote… thick gobs of creosote… tar… push out from the pole’s cracks. I touched the tar… it submitted to my short stubby finger. My fingerprint left an impression in the tar. This creosote telephone pole towers… looms… above me. Ralph lies down and assumes the position of a guard dog… casually eyeing me and his owner, my father. In my child’s mind I think about the tar, contemplate the smell of creosote… it is a completely new smell… and I watch my father cut grass. This is my first memory… I try now as an adult to figure out if this is some analogy for life… my life specifically. Nothing comes, yet I know this is a significant moment.

Later, as a teenager on my family’s farm… my father has retired from the Army and settled in Tennessee… we build a catch pen for our cattle (polled Herefords). A catch pen is a circular or square fenced in area that farmers use to round-up their cattle. Here is wear you worm and cut bull-calf balls. Here is where you count heads, tag ears, and provide medical attention. Here is where you look at a living and breathing investment. After the Army, my father turned to animals and gardening… years of military services and constant human interaction had pushed him back to a time when he was young and growing up a sharecropper’s son. His father, my grandfather, had never been in a position to count heads in a catch pen… now my father could do what he had wished for his father. I don’t know this as a teenager… I know it now as a man… but it is a presumption on my part… my father doesn’t speak much of his thoughts or dreams. His horses hear his whispers though and I imagine he tells them tales of growing up poor and making a world for himself. 

We had to place creosote posts in the ground to anchor the catch pen. The creosote is necessary so the wood doesn’t prematurely rot. What I didn’t know as a toddler is that creosote can sting and burn the skin when mixed with sweat. As a teenager, assisting in the building of the pen that summer on the farm, I got a red nasty rash from man-handling the poles into the ground… fruits of my labor… the rash shined and burned on my skin.

I don’t know if our duplex at Fort Riley still stands… Fort Riley is still nursing men and equipment as they return from war though. I doubt the telephone pole still marks my father’s former domain. I do know that the catch pen still stands… it is grey and weathered nearly 30 years later. Today, my father keeps his horses in it… he feeds there and in the winter the ground is a nasty mixture of mud and horse shit… a muck that my father tracks in the house… my mother has scolded him for 30 years about tracking mud and shit in… for 30 years he continues to do it.

Creosote poles have become an unexpected icon in my life. I imagine princes have looked at thrones and crowns and pictured their fathers. I imagine men have looked at a lot of common things and thought of memories of fathers. Me… I look at creosote telephone poles as they tick by on the roadside and muddy… broken down… catch pens and think of my father. I guess I imagine there is a bit of creosote in him, slowing down the aging process and ensuring that he isn’t rotting as fast… Fuck who tears up about creosote?


Facebook doesn’t suck… People do

Deputy Daniel Ray Carter Jr. fucked up… he hit the “like” button on a Facebook page set up that supported someone running for sheriff… someone other than his boss… the current sheriff running for reelection. Deputy Carter was fired… blah, blah, blah… it is now a First Amendment case. Recently, CNN has run a couple of “articles” that state that Facebook sometimes sucks. Basically, everybody wants to talk about how Facebook sucks… even on Facebook… Facebook doesn’t suck… People do.

This one is about how Facebook inspires status envy… really, your life is so fucking meaningless that you allow your Facebook “friends” statuses to make you jealous. How pathetic and sad is your life that you allow some made-up bullshit on Facebook to make you envious… yes it’s made-up… I know cause I make up fake Facebook statuses all the damn time. Get a life…  If you are incapable of making shit up… get off Facebook and go out and do something… then when you are tired and blissful from actually participating in life… get back on and tell everyone how awesome you are (real or otherwise). People… this is a simple problem with a simple solution… this isn’t even a real problem… this is you being a drama queen… Your Highness… you be stupid. Facebook doesn’t suck, you do.

This one is written by a Facebook stalker who found out an old flame had gotten married. Boo hoo hoo… really??? You get on Facebook and find out someone you used to bump uglies with is now doing it with someone else, and you not only get upset (when on vacation!!!) but you then write an article for CNN about it? Number one… don’t stalk… you did this shit to yourself… you deserve no sympathy. Number B… if you know you have a pycho-hose beast personality lurking inside you… take some corrective action… upon ending a relationship… DELETE your former unskinny bop dance partner as a Facebook friend. If you have mutual friends… then let them know that your inner-Carrie might pour forth and let these mutual friends know that you would appreciate them not “accidentally” posting shit about your former lover… word to the wise: evaluate some of your mutual friends… some of them muthafuckers are posting shit about your ex on purpose… on purpose to upset you… because they know you are a crazy bitch. Facebook doesn’t suck, you do.

Wanna know why I don’t think Facebook doesn’t suck?… honestly, you do wanna know cause your reading this… My sister is seven years older than me… we weren’t close growing up. She was in high school when I was in elementary school… she was in college when I was in junior high… and married by the time I was in college. Because of our difference in age, my sister likes to say we were raised by two different sets of parents. There is some validity to this statement. She was their first and they were young when they had her… I came along as an accident… yeah, my mom calls me the accident that happened while they were living in Panama. I was born after my parents had seven years of child-rearing experience, plus I was a boy and my parents had stereotypical gender role beliefs. I was given a lot more rope to strangle myself with… I have the rope burns to prove it. Needless to say, my sister and I weren’t exactly the type of siblings that had a relationship that was built on years of living under the same roof… fighting the battle between children and parents. My sister pretty much allowed me to do my thing… and she quickly high-tailed her ass outta there.

Today, my sister and I communicate through Facebook. I had no idea of my sister’s love for photography until I started seeing her fantastic pictures on Facebook. I didn’t really get to know my sister until she started sharing her life through Facebook. My sister is quite nerdy… very absorbed in her role as mother and teacher… and I am proud of how well a job she has done raising my awesome nephew and niece. My sister is forthright and self-aware with me… she has admitted that she isn’t the warmest of individuals… but my sister, through Facebook, has offered her form of support and love. Without Facebook, I would have never known these things about my sister.

Facebook has allowed me to be part of closed and secret groups that are highly entertaining. My father’s side of the family has a Facebook group… that my mom set up and uninterestingly named “Family”… that has been a source of information that was unattainable prior to Facebook. My mom used to be the only way I knew what was going on in the family… my mom didn’t always provide what I considered pertinent information… family members would die and I wouldn’t know until after they were buried… my mom was unintentionally censoring my family information. As a child of a military father… I spent 13 years moving around the world, knowing cousins was restricted to limited visits of once a year if we lived in the States or more if we lived overseas. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I got the opportunity to spend time with my extended family. Now I get to interact with extended family through Facebook. This “Family” group… you would think my mother could have come up with something better… has been a conduit in which the hospitalization and deaths of family members has been communicated. Family marriages have been documented through photographs… young cousins’ karate exploits are revealed… Facebook has allowed me be connected… like my father, I have chosen to live both abroad and distant… Facebook keeps me grounded to those that share my DNA.

Yes, Facebook is full of douchebags. Yes, people use Facebook to claim that President Obama ain’t Merican and that Mitt Romney hates dogs. Yes, people use Facebook to rally people about stupid shit like Chik-Fil-A hating homosexuals… honestly… I don’t give a shit. I ignore or mock this stupidity. I know people like to wave their love and hate of religion on Facebook… Hell I use it to be annoying, condescending, and sarcastic. I don’t share my private shit publicly on my wall… if I want you to know something private… I let you know privately… this is how I interact on Facebook… you interact the way you want to. Remember though… Facebook is technology and a business… it isn’t a person… it doesn’t even fucking make you sign up and use it… you freely choose to get on and spread your shit for everyone to consume. Facebook doesn’t suck, people do.

Lunch with Benjamin Busch… author of the memoir Dust to Dust

Ben Busch… Marine, actor, artist, and author is a very likable fellow. His straight jaw and firm handshake exude a Marine’s confidence and his unassuming air would make anyone comfortable. His voice and vocabulary resonates with the gift of the storyteller… he easily mixes the word “fuck” with “dichotomy”… there is no doubt this is a man of letters and a man of manual labor… both done with obvious love. If you have seen HBO’s The Wire… then you know Ben as Officer Colicchio… yeah he was the pissed off muthafucka with the goatee. Here is a clip of Ben acting pissed off.

I had lunch with Ben today, along with several other men of my book club. We met at the Tune Inn on DC’s Capital Hill… it is an appropriate dive bar with history and character that sets a perfect environment for the pursuit of talking literature… plus it was fun to see President Obama’s former press secretary Robert Gibbs waiting on a table as we continued to gab about Ben’s book. Ben agreed to meet us for lunch because he is an old high school friend of one of the book club member’s wife… the wonders of Facebook allows the mixing of old friends and modern literary pursuits. Ben agreed to join us because we had just finished reading his memoir Dust to Dust and is on a book tour to promote it… seems the idea of selling books is not as easy as some would assume. Hitting the pavement, conducting readings in book stores… and meeting a bunch of goobers who work at the Library of Congress are all parts of his work day as an author.

It is not easy to pigeon-hole Dust to Dust… it is not a war memoir even though Ben writes and reflects on his combat experiences in the book… it is not an autobiography even though Ben tells us compelling stories from his childhood. Members thought it may be more accurately described as a metaphysical or meditational dialogue on life and the pursuit of understanding one’s self… Ben agreed somewhat but mentioned that using the words “meditation” or “metaphysical” on a book’s cover doesn’t lead to readership or sales… “memoir” seemed to fit both the book and the marketing. Political scientists, economists, and librarians aren’t exactly the best group to provide marketing information.

Dust to Dust is not linear… it is a book that categories chapters around physical elements such as water, metal, soil, wood, and blood. Ben is not only a man who works in letters and words, but a man who works in stone and wood… he is an artist. His desire for physical contact with the elements… a desire from an early childhood of digging, wading, and collecting the mish mash of these elements… permeates throughout the book. Ben stated the book is about looking at our life’s journey and trying to understand who and what we are. In this journey, Ben weaves… carves… builds stories and memories from different moments in his life centered around the elements in the titles of his book’s chapters. One would be grossly disappointed if one thought that a memoir… a story of an author’s thoughts and life… should be a step-by-step retelling of biographical material.

I believe a book is a dialogue between the author and reader. It is a very rare instance when the author and reader are allowed to engage in a real and face-to-face conversation about a book. Usually, this conversation is kept to a series of monologues that switch from author to reader. Author writes a passage, a paragraph, page, and chapter… providing a story… information… insight, and the reader, in turn, absorbs this information and then thinks and speaks back with thoughts and understanding. Each reader comes away from these conversations with their own personal recollections… their own personal take on what was just said in this conversation.

Ben talked about how his memories of building forts and participating in war play were more than just play but, in his mind, training for his future as a Marine and combat veteran. Obviously, he was unaware of his future as a Marine in Iraq… but he was able to reflect and reconcile. This discussion… this personal journey… of his childhood love for exploration and imagining the heroics of war struck a chord with me… I too have expounded on how my childhood of playing soldier had led me to a time in uniform.

Talk of parenting, deaths of parents, and the idea of remembering one’s youth struck a familiar chord with other book club members. The three fathers of the group nodded in agreement when Ben discussed how he sees his daughters and his responsibilities as a father… and reflecting on one’s life is important in parenting. A resounding chuckle went through the group when Ben talked about his own father, a published novelist, being a man who made shit up and told stories… who doesn’t have a dad like this?… and how his a mother, a librarian, was quick to provide the facts for any question. Fathers and mothers… truly a definition for dichotomy.

This lunch with Ben was unique experience to continue a conversation that each of us had begun with his book and completed at the Tune Inn. Very rarely do you stumble across a book that defies categorization in the typical literature genre-setting attempts by book publishers… even more rarely does one get the opportunity to sit down and ask the author about his book, his life, and his opinions. Interestingly, Ben understood that once we had purchased and read his book that the ideas and stories within its pages were no longer solely his… he had given a part of himself… he had invited us to go on a journey with him. No longer was the conversation singular… instead it had become one where reader and author got to discuss, in person, views and thoughts… for this I want to thank Ben for agreeing to sitting down with a bunch of goobernuts.

It was once Toto’s Africa… Now it is the slow and sad

Toto’s “Africa” was my favorite song for almost a decade. Sadly, looking at this video today makes me realize that mullets, beards, and racist undertones had a place in music videos at one time… this was the beginning of the video era and these snippets of visual songs were a vehicle to tell mini-stories. Fortunately, the video does nothing to kill my nostalgia… even though I do laugh at the shots of the band performing on a stack of giant-ass books. From approximately 1982 to 1990 this song was the one I would respond to when asked “what is your favorite song?”… this song… through a major generalization of using the name of a continent (Africa) to describe a specific place… a specific feeling… a specific story. Africa was Toto’s Narnia… their Wonderland… their mythical land where hot African librarians sported glasses and tight, pulled-back hair.Toto may have had distinct feelings for Africa… I had feelings for the tone, pace, and (what I assumed) meaning of the song. This song made me think of far off places and the idea of traveling for love… no specific love for a woman… but the place or idea of traveling representing a woman and the love for that travel.

Since my first run-in with music… music that I found for myself or introduced to by others… I have matured and found that music not only moves the mind to places never visited but moves the mind to places visited, remembered, felt, and craved. Human experience, as long as we have moved on two feet, has been filled with the peace… the pain… the joy… that music has wrought. I no longer have a favorite song when it comes to music. I do, however, have a collection of songs that are always listening to when they are played. There is no turning of the knob, no pushing of “forward” on the iPod… these are the songs that move me whether I am happy or sad… drunk or sober… in the midst of joy or the bowels of depression… or in the midst of a bowel movement. These songs are the ones that are part of the funeral fantasy… the songs one imagines being played as friends, family, and lovers mourn your passing with rivers of tears and the laughter of good times remembered. These are the songs that sing to my soul… these are the songs that make me wish I had some musical talent or the ability to string words together… running together in beautiful melodies… to express the inner part of my being. These songs make me shout in jubilation and cry in soul-shaking tremors.

Tear Stained Eye” by Son Volt. Son Volt is the sister to Wilco… both bands have former members of Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo was what many critics have called as the band that made “alt country” popular… there was even a magazine devoted to alt country music in the 90s entitled No Depression… a name of an Uncle Tupelo song. “Tear Stained Eye,” and Son Volt in general, is the Uncle Tupelo/alt country sound at its maturity. This song is about the 1993 flood of St. Genevieve, a Mississippi river hamlet that is about 70 miles south of St. Louis and had been settled since the 1700s. This song is also… to me… about lost love… about handling life’s tribulations… lamenting the loss… and learning to grieve. This song soars in my head and causes my own tear-stained eye when played… “like the man said, rode hard and put away wet, throw away the bad news, and put it to rest. If learning is living, and the truth is a state of mind, you’ll find it’s better at the end of the line.” This song is best listened to when one has consumed 3 bourbons and sitting around a campfire.

Anodyne” by Uncle Tupelo. Again with the alt country genre… and really a very basic song with simple lyrics and rolling guitars… a flat-top steel cries throughout the song. This, like “Tear Stained Eye,” is a real lost love song… “you threw out the past when you threw out what was mine…” Best consumed sober and traveling over a country road… the sun setting behind you… light bright in the mirror and shadows playing before you on the road. Songs that provide good driving atmosphere are ones that stick in my head a lot…

No Headstone on my Grave” by Esther Phillips. Originally written and recorded by Charlie Rich (another artist that is on the list of all-time best for me)… unfortunately there is no Internet link that allows me to provide the version sung by Ms. Phillips. Charlie provided the words and meaning… Ms. Phillips adds the soul. She cries… she wails… she feels this song. When she says “… just put me down and let me be… ” you know she means it. Ms. Phillips was known for her proficiency in cursing and heroin use… Ms. Phillips knew how to party. Ms. Phillips knew pain and loss too… it bleeds out in her version of this song.

Feel Like Goin’ Home” by Charlie Rich. I don’t know if Charlie Rich is referring to dying and going to heaven or the literal idea of going to some proverbial home. I know this song has been part of my life since the early 90s when I stumbled across it while going through my mom’s record collection… she is a huge fan of the Silver Fox (Charlie Rich). This song gives me the feeling of how home… wherever that may be… is a refuge… a place of friends and family. This is Charlie Rich playing solo on a piano, and like Ms. Phillips… Charlie Rich is singing from the heart… truly art and truly moving.

Why” by Annie Lennox. In 1995, I was a young 2nd lieutenant in the 1st Armored Division stationed in Germany and preparing for peace enforcement/keeping duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The end of a three-way civil war (Bosnian, Croat, and Serb) was nearing its end due to NATO bombings and the world’s public opinion. UNPROFOR (United Nation’s Protection Forces)… pronounced Oon-pro-fore… had been attempting to stop the madness of this war since 1993… completely failing with the Sebrenica massacre as the glaring example of UNPROFOR’s impotence. As part of my unit’s training for the Balkan deployment, British army officers, and former UNPROFOR members, briefed me and my fellow artillery officers. Part of their presentation to us was a quick video of their experiences in Bosnia… these experiences were displayed in extreme and graphic detail. This video of their experiences was set to this song by Annie Lennox. This song may be about not understanding the loss of a lover… for me this song will always be about the depravity and evil of men’s souls. I hear this song and I cry… unfortunately this song and UNPROFOR video were not graphic or extreme enough to prepare me for the reality of my stumbling across the killing fields of Bosnia.

One would assume that I am a dour and sad person considering my go-to list of songs are slow and sad… but just the opposite. I am a happy and somewhat mentally healthy individual… but the poet and sentimental person in my head is moved by this music. I appreciate when artists… especially musicians through their voices… soaring among the clouds of life… lift me as I travel through my days..

Playing Soldier

Flashlight beams cut across the hillside, weaving lighted patterns through the tall grass, limbs of trees, and broken mess of undergrowth. I was on my belly… trying to low crawl up the hill. The game was simple. A few boys would be the “defenders” armed with flashlights while the other boys… the “attackers” would attempt to sneak up and capture the objective. If a flashlight beam lit you up, you were dead and had to return to the bottom of the hill and attempt again the slow and low crawl up. The objective was an old stone chimney from a ruined… a heap of stones… farmstead, dated early 1900s, that sat on my family’s farm. The game could only be played at night… it is too easy to spot the attackers in daylight. The defenders sat in one place and the attackers crawled. Defenders searched the darkness with flashlights. Darkness assisted the attackers and rendered the defenders almost sightless… thin lighted beams… thin tunnels of light were the only way a defender could maintain his dominance by the objective… the chimney.

This game would last for hours… best played with 3 on 3. Six teenage boys playing soldier… we were always camouflaged. High school stars and studs we were not. Fascination with guns, war, and the military were not the ways to garner respect among peers. While I crawled forward, I did not think of what my teen peers were doing on this Friday or Saturday night, instead I focussed on staying low and attempting to conquer the objective. Singular in purpose… I moved forward and up the hill getting wet and dirty… I imagined myself some soldier with a wartime goal… winning all for God and country.

Later… following the bragging and denial of winning and losing… we would sit around a campfire and discuss different tactics… or the proper way to load combat equipment. We were bedecked in vintage military equipment and clothing. Weapon stats were discussed in heated exchanges… the argument always centering around the perfect assault rifle or pistol. For me, the AK 47 always won out… a durable and steady weapon that rarely jammed… a jammed weapon in combat could mean the difference in life or death… I had read this in a book. I had no loyalty to American or NATO made weapons… I prefered the weapon that was deadly and reliable.

If we weren’t attempting to capture 86 year-old stone chimneys, we were “patrolling” the farm… imagining enemy ambushes. Stealth movement became a vain attempt of boys with no military experience or training. What we knew was based on movies and books… we were continuing a type of game play that boys had been doing since the dawn of age. Imagined heroics at war is the dream of many a young boy. By the end of each patrol, we would become nothing more than a gaggle of excited talk and exaggerated movements… one tires of fake and ghostly enemies. Sometimes opposing sides would be drawn up and ambushes executed with the typical disagreement on who died, who survived, and which side won… this too was based on the typical boyhood nature of admitting defeat when obvious and denying death when the circumstances were questionable. There were no referees… an honor system was expected and executed.

Today, the smell of wet grass and the feeling of dirt on my skin make me feel emotionally mixed. I have crawled on my family farm as a boy and then crawled in places near and far as a soldier. Crawling in grass is not an imagined experience… but a real and powerful memory. Fall and Spring are better seasons for crawling… summertime heat can be overpowering… grass, dirt, sandy and loamy soil would grind into you. Winter is wet… the earth and grass soaks one’s uniform… either issued by the Army or bought at a surplus store. The soaking continues once the crawling is done… seeping deep inside and makes you chilled for hours or days. Regardless of the season… you remain constantly dirty.

With the mixed feeling of grass and dirt, there is the strange relationship with weapons. As a boy in Tennessee, I had fired shotguns, pistols, and deer rifles. I had a friend whose dad was a gun collector… this friend had numerous semi-automatic versions of standard military weapons. Nothing illegal… but close civilian versions… cold, dark, and sensual in their deadliness. I knew the kick of 7.62mm rifle and knew the procedure of correcting a jammed round in a 1911 .45 cal pistol. Learning these weapons as a teen seemed to equal other boys’ experience with cars… however, my lust wasn’t for automobiles… but for weapons.

Later, in the Army, I experienced the pleasure… delightful powerful pleasure… in firing powerful weapons… the M60, the hog of Vietnam… the SAW (squad automatic weapons), a lighter and more modern version of the M60… the M16 and M4… I learned how to set the head space and timing on a .50 cal machine gun… I learned that it took a lot of gun oil to ensure that an M19 40mm grenade launcher did not jam. From these smaller weapons to larger ones, I learned the deadly profession of large-caliber weapons. I felt the rush of firing a 25mm Bushmaster cannon on an M3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). I learned how to load and fire a 60mm mortar… and finally I learned how to load and fire howitzers. Pumping rounds downrange become a skill that I perfected… seeing those rounds go downrange is definitely a way to make a man a boy again… there is a rush… a sexual tingling of power.

This real and professional use of weaponry overshadowed my youthful play. It was no longer play. Gun oil became the smell of the office. The physical experience of loading and carrying a weapon… the presence of a weapon sitting in a holster or shouldered became the equivalent of a wearing a suit and tie. In conjunction of learning how to handle and carry weapons, I learned how to maintain and drive military vehicles… both tracked and wheeled. Driving military vehicles… the Army actually licensed me… over broken terrain makes any idea of going mudding in an ATV seem infantile. These things became my professional skills. All skills that one could put on a resume… but skills that left one wondering really what your professional experience was… what is the value in knowing how to load and fire a weapon in the civilian world.

Dirt, grass, gun oil, and military vehicles all have distinctive smells. Smells that immediately trigger memories. The memory of being cold, wet, and dirty are also distinctive. Senses associated with all of this gives me the mixed blessing of remembering a childhood of games and an adult life of professional military experience.

I often ponder if I would repeat my youthful play if I knew how my life would turn a game into a profession. I wonder if I would be so keen to assume that playing soldier is harmless fun. Societies require soldiers… young boys… and being a responsible member of society, I always assumed it was my role to be a soldier. Those other boys I grew up with… playing soldier with… have grown up and none entered the regular Army like I did… they too became responsible citizens… fathers… husbands… professionals in their own right… I wonder though, do they just fondly remember the game on that hill… the smell and feel of wet grass… the lure of weapons. I know that lure, smell, feel, and memory of these things no longer hold the immature fascination that once caused me to spend a weekend night playing soldier. I know that I grew up.

The South

*Charleston’s Unitarian Church cemetery

Pine trees grow so tall in the bright sunshine

A young boy steals his daddy’s fishin’ line

An alligator lays ont he banks of a river bed

And if you didn’t know any better you’d swear he’s dead

Now these are a few things I’m in love with

A small part of the reason I go back

To Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, gorgeous Georgia

Now if you think I’m happy down there you’re on the right track

– Bellamy Brothers “You Ain’t Just Whistlin’ Dixie

Charleston, South Carolina, is humid in late July… swampy hot… rivers of sweat hot… can’t breathe hot. Geographically, the heat is a result of being a southern port city along South Carolina’s coast where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean… moist air dances thickly. The heat and its location among the swamps of the low country make it one of those cities where one wonders why anyone would have lived here prior to the invention of air conditioning. Yet it has been inhabited since around 1670. It is a city moist with history… it is a city of churches. It is called the Holy City due to the large number of churches that decorate the colonial downtown area. It was known for its religious tolerance… unless you were Catholic… but Jews were allowed to practice their faith without restriction. Walking the streets and alleys… that in some cases double as streets… one feels the thick air and the stare of church steeples.

Charleston is called well-mannered, polite, and well-dressed. Some have even called it America’s sexiest city… this of course probably comes from the mixture of humid heat and religious air… everyone loves a little sweat and religiously taboo auras to their sex. Charleston mixes this religion, heat, and well-dressed shopping with colonial houses. It provides a waterfront walking area that has been manicured into a quiet park… this quietness disguises the loud roar that once emitted from it when the city’s guns fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Charleston is the epitome of what many would say is the South. Charleston is a pin point on the South’s cultural map.

Other pin points include Atlanta, Nashville, Savannah, Raliegh-Durham, Richmond, Biloxi, Birmingham, and New Orleans. Each grid coordinate, each spot on the map, representing singular characteristics… yet parts of a larger ideal of the South. All these locations, and all the other places we call the South, are described through centuries of language… a distinctive drawl fitting each location… food, literature, and music. Cornerstones to culture… these characteristics make us identify these places as truly Southern.

Arguably, the South boasts its own subgenre in literature and music. In an area that stirs the soul… writers and musicians celebrate their location through odes to home and place. Any description of the South will invariably include some reference to some book or song… even if it is unintended… Southerners have spent centuries describing the South in such a way that there seems to be no original way to celebrate its uniqueness.

The South brags on its food… its modern-day chefs making money by hawking recipes on the Food Network… recipes that prominently feature butter and sugar. Southerners like to tell themselves that they know how to cook and eat. We have coupled our love with food with our love for God… each religious or life event is mated with an abundance of food. Feel bad… eat, feel good… eat. Death and birth are celebrated through piles of casseroles and pies. Marriage and holidays have special cakes… we eat well in the South.

We tell ourselves myths in the South… we believe these stories as facts. Americans like to brag about its character… Southerners turn up the color on these stories. Americans believe in exceptionalism… Americans believe in the rugged frontier character making a living on his own terms… Southerners believe this to be true and we do it politely. We imagine that we have always been polite… we imagine that we know how to treat our neighbors and visitors. Historically, the South was not as populated as other areas… a traveler in the South was more apt to come upon a home than an inn. Families and homes in the South were a place were a traveler would find respite from the day’s movement through swamps, forests, and pastureland. When the country was young and being explored… when myths and characteristics were being developed… the South became the place where one could find refuge around a fire and a family’s dinner table. Southerners identify with this myth of hospitality… we can’t imagine not being polite.

Defining the South by geographical location is a tricky thing… is it any state below the Mason-Dixon Line? Is it only the states that joined the Confederacy? Are southwestern states like Texas southern? Interpreting the South seems more mental and cultural than geographic. Things we like to associate with the South… love of land, love of family, love of tradition… are not a monopoly that only Southerners can claim. History is full of locations and societies that claim these “loves”… any rural and agrarian society would claim these as its foundational elements. Upstate New York could easily claim all of these things… yet no one thinks upstate New York as Southern. It seems Southerners claim the idea of the South as an honor and others use the idea as a disparage. We want to believe we are unique… and this belief may be what truly makes us unique.

I have tried to define my Southerness, my South, by both geographic representations and cultural touchstones. I use literature and music to define the world around me and the South can be described through these artistic mediums… yet they fail to accurately describe the South. We feel books and songs are distinct and definable… they still stumble when they examine what the idea of the South truly represents. If I am standing in a pasture on my family’s farm in Tennessee, I would describe the South in one manner… green and rolling hills… cows and horses… trucks and rocky alfalfa fields… my view of the South changes when I am standing in an overgrown cemetery in Charleston… mossy… dark green vegetation that seems almost tropical. One reaches out to grasp the idea of the South and it slips through the fingers as soon as it has taken on a firm and tactile presence.

The South represents a lot of good and a lot of bad. The South doesn’t have a history that is clean of evil or wrong… it isn’t free of hypocrisy… it isn’t free of ideas and thoughts that makes one cringe. The South is also full of good feelings, memories, and vistas that soar along river banks. The South is both old and new… the South has become a marketplace where the history and ideal of the South are sold and peddled. We tell our stories and cook our meals and offer them up for consumption… we offer ourselves and the South to the world… we share the South.

Charleston feels Southern as one walks its streets… but those colonial streets are matched in beauty by Boston’s colonial feel. The natural feel of the swamps surrounding Charleston makes one believe the South owns nature’s beauty, yet the Pacific Northwest offers panoramic views that tremble the heart. I can’t define the South… but when I stand on Southern ground I know that the feeling is different from when I stand in some other place. I too believe in myths… I believe my ancestral home is special… I believe I come from a unique place. I stumble in describing it… let me invite you in, let me feed you, let me tell you story… hopefully then you will understand.