Category Archives: Army Brat

Wichita Lineman

My young 18-year-old life was not going as planned in the spring of 1970.  Changing high schools in the middle of  your senior year is a sure way to make the last semester less celebratory.  Aside from leaving Germany, my girlfriend, my teammates, and a well planned course load designed to insure a fun final semester, I found myself in south Mississippi, a place familiar from previous short stays while my dad was in Vietnam, but following clearly a different cultural and philosophical trajectory.  It was not so much that the former place was inherently better, the new place was just dramatically different.  To be totally honest, I was depressed and lost as I began those last few months of high school.

Around late March or early April, Peanut and Mike, two of my new classmates, invited me to help them “load hay.”  It turns out, you could get out of school to help do essential farm work. Peanut and Mike lived on dairy farms and loading bales of hay was a very important part of their family farm enterprise.  Since I already had enough credits to graduate, getting out of school to do this hay thing seemed like a good idea.  At the very least, it would take me away from the doldrums of despair I was suffering in classes.  Of course, I had no idea what loading hay entailed.  I imagined it was like pulling watermelons, but that is a story for another day.

For the uninformed, grass fields are cut for hay several times each year starting in early spring.  The cut grass is mechanically raked into rows, left to dry for a few days, and then baled into bales weighing about 40 to 50 pounds each.  As the baler drove through the field, we followed behind in a long bed pickup truck throwing the bales up to a stacker on the truck.  Mike drove, Peanut stacked, and I was the thrower.  The first row was not so bad.  The hay would fit three across and three down the bed.  The second tier would be stacked perpendicular to the first with a center row down the middle.  This tier would hang over the side rails of the truck.  These first two tiers were basically a grab and snatch, with an underhand swing up onto the truck.  The third tier, arranged like the first was still grab and snatch, but now there was a little bit of a push to get it up to Peanut.  From the fourth tier on, it was a grab, snatch, and a full press with energy to throw the bale high enough for Peanut to grab.  It was not long before I realized I had the worst job on the team.  We got paid 10 cents a bale as a team to do this.  Our goal was to get 80 bales per load, which meant at least seven levels of hay on the truck. This meant I was throwing the last bales, from ground to stack, about 11-12 feet up to get it to Peanut.

Aside from the shock of coming face to face with the occasional snake or frog trying to wiggle its way out of the tightly compacted hay, the work was grueling but repetative.  We would do six or eight runs from field  to barn each afternoon.   Stacking the hay at the barn was a bit easier and involved all three of us throwing the hay.  Occasionally, we would swap jobs out in the field, but I was the tallest and we could load more with me throwing the hay.  My body would work to exhaustion and my mind would be distracted just trying to keep the body pushing forward.  Mike always had the radio blaring and the music of our time beat out a good rhythm for our work.  It was good therapy and I actually got in pretty darn good shape walking along side the truck and throwing those bales up to Peanut.

On one afternoon, and I remember this as if it were just yesterday, Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman came on the truck’s radio.  In that moment, everything for me seemed to pause.  My melancholic journey, moving from one place and finding myself in another, alone, empty, and fearful, was real.  For whatever reason, the pathos of the lineman in Campbell’s song reached into me and made me feel less alone, less despair, less fearful about my future.  Things were not as I wanted or imagined; still, this was my life and I had to keep going forward.  Like the lineman, I was “still on the line”.  In that singular moment, I resolved to live forward, to prevail over the cloud of gloom and despair that seemed to surround me.  That moment, that song, those days of throwing bales of hay altered my journey.

Campbell’s ballads are often incomplete and unresolved—like life.  Rarely do his songs offer “happily ever after” lyrics or triumphant songs of celebration.  Instead, he seemed most comfortable transforming a small slice of the human narrative into musical poetry and challenging us to imagine how the story (and maybe our own lives) moves forward.  Sometimes he embraced the paradoxical complexities of life allowing him, even at the end of his productive life, to write a song like “I’m not gonna miss you” and make it a beautiful while tragic love song.  No matter my thoughts on his art, for me, he is the person who wrote a song that reached through the airwaves in the spring of 1970 into the pained soul of an 18-year-old in a hay field in Mississippi and nudged him forward with hope.  I haven’t forgotten.

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Filed under Army Brat, Episcopal priest, farm life, Glen Campbell

Raindrops

This morning, sitting at the coffee bar, sipping hot green tea, and savoring every bite of lemon lavender pound cake ( at a favorite neighborhood bakery–Heirloom Bakery & Hearth), it is pouring down rain outside.  Some great 60s era music is playing and I am feeling remarkably tranquil.  I am reading a great book (Outlaw Christian ) published recently by a young theologian ( @JacquelinBussie ) I met at a conference at the University of Virginia years ago.  I am aware suddenly of a mysterious peacefulness filling me.  I feel surrounded by the peace of God, embraced in God’s infinite capacity for love (quite the opposite of the hopelessness I wrote of a few blogs back).  I am startled to attentiveness.  What is this?  My eyes wander over the room wondering what changed, what brings this presence of God?   Then I realize it is aural not visual. The rain is pounding on the metal roof!

Years ago, while my dad was in Vietnam and I knew my life could change in an instant, the only time I felt safe was at my grandparents’ home, late at night, tucked in bed, and the rain beating on the uninsulated tin roof above me.  Alone, in the dark, under a pile of handmade quilts, the rhythm of the rain pounding on the roof somehow made me know God knew my fear and was with me always.  I can’t explain it; but, I knew it.

This morning, amidst the occasional clap of thunder and the rain beating its rhythm on the metal roof, me and 14 year-old me shared a moment.  And God was there.  And I felt safe, and peaceful, and loved.

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Reunion

A tap on the shoulder

an embrace

a kiss on the cheek

a gripping handshake

a whack on the back

a smile

greeting you and you and you and you . . .

time loses its grip

Only a moment from so long ago

I slip through the wrinkle . . .

1969

all of you

I dreamed with you and I explored with you

I hoped with you and I imagined with you

I danced and played and made mischief with you

I ached with you and I cried with you

I suffered with you and I grieved with you

I revolted and rebelled and made mutiny with you

I wondered with you and I wandered with you

I loved you and I lost you

Now, two score and five years later–plus or minus, we were all moving around so damn much—together again

Through the looking glass

I see you and you and you and you . . . and me

gathering

celebrating

consecrating

sacred time

then and now

what would I change

undo

modify

remove

repair

replace

metamorphose

Nothing

Time grips again

you and you and you and you . . . and me

through (or with) the wrinkle of time

back to the present

scattered

then and now

Really

who knows where the time goes?

 

Note: My high school reunion was this past weekend in Atlanta.  Classmates from 1957 to 1992 joined in celebrating the special times and relationships we shared at Stuttgart/Ludwigsburg American High School in Stuttgart, Germany.  We are all children of soldiers or civilians who served the needs of the US Department of Defense.  BRATS we all and proud of offering our services to the country as children who followed our parents all over the world.  Of the over 300 in attendance,  at least a fourth of us went on to serve in one branch or another of the military.  It is an amazing group of people and I am honored to be a part of the community of Military BRATS.

 

 

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Viva la vélo

peugeotI do not recall my exact age, but I do remember the exhilaration of getting my first bicycle, even if fully equipped with two necessary “outrigger” training wheels.  Though a bit insulted by my father’s presumptive conclusion I needed these extra wheels, my first wobbly attempt down the sidewalk proved his foresight.  

The sidewalks in the housing area at Fort Ben Harrison outside Indianapolis seemed endless to me.  I realized quickly the training wheels were a drag on my speed and dramatically limited my range.  I longed to greater adventures than just wobbling down the sidewalk in front of our apartment.  It was not long before I convinced my father it was time for the outriggers to go.  I remember the moment clearly.  Dad removed the wheels and positioned the bike on a long, flat straight section of sidewalk.  I hopped on the bike and he assured me he would hold me steady as I peddled.  At first he trotted beside me, steadying me as I wobbled from side to side.  His encouraging words propped up my sagging confidence as I clearly could not stop the wobble.  He trotted along telling me I could do it.  I was not so sure.  I focused as hard as I could, looking straight ahead.  Something broke my trance, I looked to my side, and dad was not there.  I looked over my shoulder and realized he was about thirty feet behind me; I was riding without aid!  Of course, I promptly crashed—a heap of boy and bicycle in the grass.  Encouraged by the realization of my success, I popped up, raised the bike, stepped with confidence on the peddles, and off I went free to explore the “miles” of sidewalks all around me.

In a few years, I graduated to a larger, single-speed Huffy.  It was red and white with shiny chrome fenders and giant balloon tires.  It was an amazing set of wheels for a 7 year-old.   With this much larger bike, my range expanded tremendously, even beyond the boundaries established by mom and dad (which, of course, they never knew).  Not only did I become very familiar with all the neighborhoods around me, I even explored the military post where my father worked.  I loved to ride, the further the better. 

When it came time to move to France, the Huffy came too.  We lived in Chartrettes, a small village over-looking the Seine.  I learned a single-speed, heavy steel bike was no match for the hills around our house.  Nonetheless, I traveled the roads of our village and regularly visited my two Canadian friends who lived in small chateaus nearby.  They both had bikes with alien equipment, derailleurs.  Not sure what this strange set up was, I realized quickly I was working harder than them as we raced around the countryside surrounding Chartrettes.  

I saw my first bicycle road race on the country roads of Chartrettes.  I was amazed!  As the peloton zoomed by, I jumped on my Huffy and tore out after the race.  I learned two important lessons that day: 1) my Huffy was not a racing bike, and 2) jumping into a bicycle race, even at the end of the peloton, does not win friends among the French.

My eleventh birthday nearing, I approached my dad with issues I was having with my Huffy (it really was too small for me by this time) and the magical capacity of derailleurs.  I had done my research and when dad inquired what I thought the solution to be, I quickly replied, “What I really need is an 18-speed Peugeot road bike.”  I figured I would shoot for the moon since he was asking.  Even so, I was pretty sure the best I would get would be a three-speed Schwinn.  After some time passed (just to keep me wondering I suspect), Dad took me shopping for a bike.  I figured we were on our way to the Post Exchange to order a Schwinn.  Much to my surprise, we drove to the village and pulled up in front of a French bike shop.  There I was outfitted with a deep green, 18-speed Peugeot road bike! I was stunned!

We moved to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio from France.  Equipped with my amazing French road bike, my riding adventures took on an entirely new dimension.  Sometimes I would ride as far as I could in the morning and then turn around and find my way home by a different route.  In 1964 and ’65, in San Antonio, I knew the freedom of going wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted to.  That dark green, 18-speed Peugeot road bike took me to every horizon.

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Filed under Army Brat, bicycle, childhood

Another blue sky

baseball

I am listening to this on the radio while driving home in yet another snow.  I first heard Sam’s song ( link below) one summer Saturday on my way to do services at St. Paul’s.  The combination of Sam’s oddly soulful voice and the intensity of the memories and feelings his song resurrect in me is powerful .   The rich, earthy smell of a well oiled mitt, the clear blue sky, the rustling of the cicada wings all around, the dusty ball field, the poetry of body and bat swinging to met arm-launched ball and the crack of ball and bat connecting, the arc of possibility as the ball threads the air,  the dads in fatigues or khakis and moms in cotton dresses cheering in the stands as we played the summer game–All this comes charging up from the deep synapses, long dormant stories shoving their way into my present moment.  Maybe an endorphin rush, but as near to perfection as childhood memories can be.  Things were not always great in my family.  Dad and I did not always agree; sometimes the best we could hope for was to agree to disagree civilly.  But on the ball field, everything was different.  On the ball field magic happened, for father and son.

Sam’s song is nostalgic and simple.  In my youth, just before Vietnam became serious (Gulf of Tonkin), we never thought much about the “way of harm” attached to the soldiers.  In my memories, they were just our dads sitting in the stands in hard-pressed khakis or olive drab, cheering us on . . . yet I know some soon died and left their children to play the game alone*.   Still “another Saturday comes and goes . . . another baseball field . . . another bunch of boys and another blue sky . . . boys laugh, boys play.”  Yet, comes the sadness, comes the sorrow.

Oddly, I am not left in sorrow or sadness; Sam’s song leaves me hopful.   Always “another blue sky.”   Possibility and hope, if I embrace them, come and with them comes the laughter, comes the play . . . comes another blue sky.

*Sadly, something much more real  to the military brats of today who endure the repetitive deployment of their parents thanks to questionable political policies of constant war.

There is an amazing story about the artist, Sam Baker, and more of his great music; but you are going to have to find that on your own.

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Filed under Army Brat, baseball, Episcopal priest, texas music, Uncategorized