Livin’ the Blues

Mississippi Delta Morning

Cheating. Grudges. Abandonment. Shootings. Woman trouble. Man trouble. Too much whiskey. Not enough whiskey. Flophouses and fixin’-to-die. The blues has it all.

Blues can provide I’m-down-here-in-the-ditch-and-I-can’t-get-out resignation, if that’s your preference, but there’s more to the blues than blank despair. As much as anything, the blues tend toward travel; they overflow with highways and journeys, crossroads and railroads, picking up, leaving town, heading home, or wandering off to Chicago, Memphis or Helena.  If you’re ready to make a run to Anywhere-But-Here, the blues will be happy to ride shotgun.

Robert Johnson went down to the crossroad. Tab Benoit’s night train is rollin’. R.L. Burnside did some rollin’ and tumblin of his own while grandson Cedric, along with his buddy Malcolm, bought a lemon of a car and ended up having to hitchhike home. CeDell Davis, who liked to say he intended to “live as long as I can and die when I can’t help it,” finally couldn’t help it and moved on, but before he left he suggested we might want to heave ourselves up out of our own chairs and get packing, since sitting around isn’t going to get us anywhere.

James Lewis Carter Ford — T-Model to his friends, admirers, and detractors — did the last of his worldly traveling in 2013, dying of respiratory failure at the age of 88 — or 83, or 93, depending on who’s doing the calculating.  Davis outlived him by four years; he died at age 91 in 2017, thanks to complications after a heart attack. That either man lived so many decades may prove the old saying that the Lord protects drunkards and fools. On the other hand, it may have been sheer luck.

I met Davis and Ford in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the annual Juke Joint Festival. On Saturday afternoon, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside were scheduled to play in the alley behind the Rust Restaurant; most people had no idea T-Model and CeDell were planning to join them. When the men appeared, shivers of excitement and anticipation ran through the crowd.

While friends helped CeDell get settled in his wheelchair, T-Model worked the crowd, shaking hands and grinning. Slowly, the crowd began to transform itself into a house party. While family and friends made a little music, the gathered crowd would glimpse shared roots and shared lives in a way impossible at concerts.

Cedric Burnside

Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside and son of drummer Calvin Jackson, has played for years with a variety of musicians including Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, and the North Mississippi Allstars. After teaming up with Steve “Lightnin'” Malcolm, another young Mississippi native who lived for a time with CeDell Davis, the pair began writing and composing.

I don’t just sing about the blues, but I live it, too,” they sang, with a straight-faced irony probably lost on the blues tourists surrounding them:

Some people say they read about the blues,
been readin’ about it for a while.
Well, I don’t have to read about the blues —
been livin’ it since I was a child.

CeDell Davis, a native of Helena, Arkansas, certainly began livin’ the blues as a child. After contracting polio at age nine while living with his brother near Tunica, Mississippi, he was forced by his disability to give up the harmonica and re-learn his guitar skills. He grew creative, telling an interviewer:

I was right- handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn the guitar around. I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kinda swiped one of ’em.

Later, he told David Ramsey, in an interview for The Oxford American:

Almost everything that you could do with your hands, I could do it with the knife. It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.

It was the perfect solution for someone unable to put a slide on a finger and use it conventionally. He wasn’t the first to use a knife, but he was in good company. In a famous autobiographical passage, W.C. Handy remembers his experience in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station around 1903:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages.
As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ to where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

“Weird” is an apt description, since a metal knife handle on metal strings produces a sound akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. Robert Palmer, the late New York Times music critic, called Davis’s guitar style “utterly unique, in or out of blues.” As Palmer put it:

Some people who hear CeDell’s playing for the first time think it’s out of tune, but it would be more accurate to say he plays in an alternative tuning, because the way he hears and plays intervals and chords is consistent and systematic.
The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic, gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.

Having mastered his own style of playing, Davis began showing up in various nightclubs across the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, he teamed up with Robert Nighthawk, considered to be the Delta’s finest slide guitarist by no less than the great Muddy Waters.

For ten years, from 1953-1963, Davis and Nighthawk worked the juke joints and clubs until, in 1957, Davis was trampled after a brandished gun led to a stampede at an East St. Louis bar. What polio hadn’t accomplished, the bar brawl did; multiple leg fractures put David into a wheelchair. Still, he continued to play, until a stroke in 2005 forced him into a nursing home.

Although the stroke left him unable to play the guitar, he still could sing, and sing he did: encouraged and assisted by a variety of musicians and supporters. After a return to live performance in 2009, he released two more albums: Last Man Standing (2015) and Even the Devil Gets the Blues (2016).

Debilitated by polio, confined to a wheelchair after a barroom stampede, unable to play the guitar and left with only his voice for music-making, he remained one of most positive people in the world.

As he rolled through the gathered festival crowd in his wheelchair, he was living large, with a word and a handshake for everyone in his path, including his old friend T-Model Ford.

Cedell Davis and T-Model Ford at the Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival

T-Model, a man with as much hard living and bad luck behind him as you could have and still be alive, was a bit of a wonder himself. Writing inThe Guardian, Richard Grant lays out the highlights:

T-Model’s life reads like a horror story. At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat.
He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table. He woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again.

He began playing guitar at age 58, on the night his fifth of six wives left him. She’d presented him with a guitar as a parting gift and Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues in Clarksdale recalls, “He stayed up all night drinking white whiskey and playing that guitar. He kind of went on from there.”

Indeed he did. Unbelievable as it seems, T-Model wasn’t especially eager to apply words like anguish, tribulation, or despair to his own life. As he said,

“I play the blues, but I don’t ever get the blues. After my sister died I prayed to God to please let me live like a tree. Tree don’t care if them other trees is dyin’. Tree don’t care about nothin’. When they raped and killed that white lady [an 88-year-old white woman who was teaching him to read and write] I felt bad – she was a good old white lady – but I didn’t let it get me down. I don’t let nothin’ get me down.”

As Grant notes in his article, most people aren’t able to stay happy because they’ve decided to be happy, regardless of circumstances. Still, it seemed to work for T-Model. “He plays the north Mississippi hill-country hypnotic boogie-groove like nobody else on earth,” commented Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, producer for Ford’s album Bad Man (2002). “His music is not a complaint of self-pity, but a celebration of life.You could see it in his smile.”

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys noticed the smile himself after driving to Greenville on a whim, just to see if he could find T-Model and play with him.

We jammed all afternoon and played a juke joint that night, then slept on his floor. He was nothing but nice – all smiles. There’s nothing like T-Model’s smile, and boy, he’ll use it! He’ll find the prettiest girl in the audience and just smile all night.
Left to right: Lightnin’ Malcolm, Cedric Burnside, T-Model Ford

Certainly he seemed happy enough in Clarksdale. Basking in the palpable affection surrounding him, firm and straightforward in his singing, he clearly enjoyed playing with Cedric. As the set finished, T-Model rose, steadied himself on his cane and bantered a bit with the musicians around him.

Then, a model of graciousness, he took his place in the crowd while CeDell and Malcolm, the old and the young, the black and the white, the root and the branch, began to edge through another song, just as they would have done when they shared the same house .

CeDell Davis and Lightnin’ Malcolm

As he watched and listened, T-Model casually reached down, picked up his cane, flipped it under his arm, and began ‘playing’ it in rhythm with Malcolm.

Look at that,” the fellow from Chicago sitting next to me said. “Just look at that.” Next to us, a photographer stopped in mid-focus to stare, before saying to no one in particular, “Can you believe that?”

We watched, transfixed, as the old reprobate, the ol’ tail-dragger, a man with a checkered past and the sweetest smile in the world, seemed to breathe in life and breathe out blues in a process as easy and natural as CeDell’s table knife slicing chords into a plateful of music. He just couldn’t help himself, and everyone saw it.

The Old Tail-dragger

When Lightnin’ saw what T-Model was up to, he caught Cedric’s eye and they grinned at one another across the crowd. Seeing Lightnin’s amusement, CeDell looked over at T-Model, who responded with a deep, elegant bow. As one song ended and another began, CeDell’s voice strengthened, the rhythms intensified, and the chattering, admiring crowd began to grow quiet.

It was then, in a small Delta town nearly hidden from the world, that travelers from Rotterdam, Rochester, and Rolling Fork leaned forward in anticipation, feeling the blues itself begin to travel. Pitted against the low mumurings of a threatening storm, the music rolled and tumbled from one guitar to the next, from one singer to another.

As clouds heaped up and chords grew heavy in the air, CeDell sang on, while Lightnin’s guitar flashed and the music poured down, running like an unbanked river across hearts flattened and scoured by life, flooding out into the streets, spreading and leveling as it flowed.

Washed clean of inattention, the fellow from Chicago stopped talking, leaned back and closed his eyes. Surprised by an unexpected surge of joy, the photographer from Jackson lowered his light meter and set his camera aside.

Smiling back at CeDell, T-Model winked, folded his hands over the crook of his cane, and lightly tapped a foot over the fine, raspy grit of the pavement. Off to the west, the rain rolled down and the great river tumbled on, sluicing and singing through the Delta, the source and the life of the blues.

 

To hear my favorite cut from T-Model’s “Jack Daniel Time”, click here for “Red’s House Party”
For a taste of CeDell Davis’s music, try “You Got to do the Boogie-Woogie”
.
Click here for a list of upcoming live blues events from Clarksdale.
Comments always are welcome.

 

 

 

The Re-Resurrection of Dale T

Lydia Ann Channel Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas
Since Easter’s the time for re-telling one particular story, I thought I’d re-tell one of my own favorite resurrection tales. Some of you will remember it, but a good story’s a good story, and the best ones deserve being dusted off from time to time.
Happy Easter!

 

None of the roustabouts, deck hands, or dock workers along the middle and upper Texas coast seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his nickname, and Dale wasn’t telling.

Gracie, who’d given up life on an oil rig to put her cooking talents to work in a land-locked café, served him breakfast every morning. She insisted his name came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. No matter how oblivious, uninterested, or irritated the object of his attentions, Dale’s confidence was absolute. Sliding into a seat next to an unaccompanied woman, he’d murmur, “Hey, darlin’. I’m here to improve your life.” Most didn’t feel the need for improvement, but Dale remained optimistic.

A prissy live-aboard in his marina claimed to have named him Dirty Dale because he rarely indulged in a shower, but that wasn’t true. Like his dock-mates, Dale trotted down to the bathhouse with towels and a change of clothing every day. His scruffy beard and fly-away hair led to an unkempt appearance, and you could see traces of his current projects in the grease or oil smudged across his shirt, but none of that added up to a lack of personal hygiene.

Friends who boarded his boat for drinks and conversation assumed his nickname reflected conditions below deck. Living aboard a boat is complicated at best, and the old adage “a place for everything, and everything in its place” may have been born on a boat. A particularly unpleasant set of woes betides the sailor who gives up the struggle to stay organized, and Dale’s ship had become significantly out of shape.

It wasn’t that he’d surrendered to the forces of stuff; he never engaged the battle. His boat’s interior held the history of his world: layered, crammed, and filled to the proverbial gills. Occasional gaps in the walls of stuff were the only evidence that piles of spare parts or second-hand books might have been heaved off the boat during the odd impulse toward organization.

On the water, he approached sailing much as he did housekeeping, with a style both improvisational and weirdly creative. Years after the fact, astounded sailors still told of the day he won an offshore race by anchoring in the Galveston Ship Channel, pouring a couple of fingers of good Scotch, and sitting back to watch as the fast-running tide swept his less savvy competition back to sea.

Everyone agreed that it was a validation of sorts. If God truly cares for fools and drunkards, there’s no question Dale was twice-blessed. Despite his disregard for common sense and common sailing practice, he never met the unhappy fates that befell his more prepared, cautious, and law-abiding friends. From time to time, he even got the ladies. At least, he got them once.

During the years I knew him, Dale’s most famous escapade involved a weekend voyage down the Texas coast with his newest love. Because of time constraints, they cruised the Intracoastal Waterway to Freeport, where they spent the better part of the weekend. Then, as they were traveling back toward Galveston on Sunday afternoon, the boat sputtered to a stop. The little Atomic 4 engine had run out of gas.

Suspecting she was stuck on the marine equivalent of a country road with a guy who’d planned the whole thing, the lady-friend grew irritated. But this was Unprepared Dale, not Predatory Dale, and he truly was out of gas.

Later, he told us she pitched a fit that would have done his second ex-wife proud. More confident of his old Atomic 4 than of his ability to endure the rantings of a furious woman, Dale concocted a gallon or two of home brew. Combining acetone, nail polish remover, a little kerosene, a bottle or two of booze, and who knows what else in a plastic bucket, he gave it a swirl and poured it into the fuel tank. After an explosive cough from the cylinders and a rattle or two unlike any he’d ever heard, the engine fired, and they were underway.

By the time he ran out of fuel a second time, they nearly were back to port. Thanks to a local shrimper, they reached home under tow and safely docked, just before the woman disappeared into the night and out of Dale’s life forever.

Shortly after the infamous Freeport voyage, Dale found yet another woman: one who found the boat charming and Dale amusing. She moved aboard, and eventually they married. After a short stint as shrimpers, they moved to Florida; took up chicken farming; tried their hands at long-haul trucking; and then divorced.

Ever the survivor, Dale remarried for the fourth or fifth time, came back to Texas, and moved his boat to Florida. No one was surprised by another divorce, but new gossip drifting back from the Keys became worrying. Not merely lovesick, Dale had become physically ill, and it was serious. Details were sketchy. Some said it was an intestinal problem. Others claimed it was cancer. There were reports of medical complications, and financial difficulties.

In those days before email and cell phones, it was hard to get solid news, but reports still traveled, and we learned the bitter truth. Another surgery hadn’t gone well. Dale was expected to survive, but didn’t. When word of his death arrived on the Texas coast, everyone paused, and swallowed hard. If death could come to Dirty Dale — blithe spirit and survivor extraordinaire — it could come to any of us.

Months passed. At the marina where Dale had lived, new boats arrived, skippered by sailors with their own tales of life on the sea. Occasionally, the return of cruising friends or the simple urge to party found old-timers gathering for long evenings of nostalgic story-telling.

One particularly languid summer night, stories flew. We laughed again at the man who imbibed a bit too much and fell off his own boat, only to have his panic-stricken girlfriend call his wife for help. We remembered the salt-encrusted, slightly crazed live-aboard who varnished his decks with a mop, and the braggadocious tech savant who took out a channel marker by ignoring his own electronics. Eventually, stories about Dale would surface, and those, too, were retold with relish.

During a beautifully embellished version of the infamous Freeport cruise story, maudlin sentimentality had begun to flow as freely as the wine when the door to the clubhouse flew open and an unkempt, disheveled apparition stepped into the room.

“Whatnhell’s a guy hafta do t’ get a drink around here?”

As perplexed by our silence as we were stunned by his presence, Dale tried again. “Whatsa matter wi’ you guys? You drink it up already?”

At last, someone blurted it out. “Dale! We thought you were dead!” Looking around, Dale must have seen the shock and astonishment in our eyes. “Dead? Me? Well, if I’ve been dead, I’m sure as hell glad to be back. Now, somebody pour me a drink.”

Clearly, the gossip had been wrong.

Each year, as the season dedicated to another remarkable story rolls around, I think about Dale.

He’s well and truly gone now, having succumbed at last to the same disease rumored to have killed him in the first place. I miss his teasing, his larger-than-life persona, his ability to charm and hornswoggle anyone he met, but most of all I miss his generosity.

Of all the gifts he offered so willingly — his receptive spirit, his humor, his determination to explore the possibilities of life outside the bounds of normal society — perhaps his greatest gift to a surprised few was an experience akin to resurrection. Whatever happened on that first Easter, no disciple could have been more astonished than those of us who thought — if only for a brief, irrational moment — that Dale T truly had risen from the dead.

During the Easter season, whether you’re Christian or whether you aren’t; whether you believe Jesus walked out of his tomb or whether you don’t; whether you dismiss the rabbits and eggs of the pagans or embrace them with the joy of a child, Dale T has a message for you:

Keep your eyes open. Be attentive. Listen.

You don’t know what forces are abroad in the land, and you can’t predict what’s going to happen next. You never know when someone might roll away your stone, and you never know who’ll be the next to come sashaying back from the dead.

Comments always are welcome.

 

Remembering Goliad ~ Again

 

If you’re a native Texan, you’re already laughing. If you’ve adopted the state as your own, or know some Texas history, you’re probably laughing, too. This adaptation of one of our most well-known state symbols — the so-called “Come and Take It” flag — is flying free these days: amusing, yes, but also a cheeky bit of inspiration for those who remember its history.

Only last month, I visited a site intimately connected to the original “come and take it” event. About a mile east of the unincorporated community of Cost, the first shot in the war for Texas independence was fired on October 2, 1835. Alongside the highway, an impressive monument commemorates the event. Dedicated by Governor James Allred on March 14, 1937, its inscription summarizes the tale:

Near here on October 2, 1835, was fired the first shot of the Texas Revolution of 1835-1836, the shot heard round the world. At Gonzales, the Texians defied the Mexican government and refused their demand for the Gonzales cannon with the Come and Take It challenge, until reinforcements arrived from other parts of DeWitt’s colony and from the colonies on the Colorado and Brazos. They then pursued the Mexicans from Gonzales to near this point and fired upon them with this cannon, driving them back to Bexar.

If, after admiring the monument, you were to take the road winding away from the highway into the country, you’d first pass some local ranches paying their own tribute to local history.

Then, in the midst of live oaks and pecans, you’d find another monument to that “shot heard round the world.” Funded by Gonzales school children in 1908, it’s thrilling in its simplicity, and a fine reminder of a story that’s assumed mythic proportions over the years.

Long before the 1835 skirmish broke out between Mexican soldiers and Texian militiamen at Gonzales, tensions among various factions in the area — Spanish royalists, Mexican revolutionaries, Anglo settlers, and waves of independence-minded and land-hungry immigrants — had led to remarkable changes.

Before formalizing Mexican independence with the signing of the Treaty of Córdoba on August 24, 1821, Spain granted Moses Austin permission to found a colony of Anglo settlers in Texas. Austin died on June 10, 1821, but before his death he charged his son, Stephen, with the task of continuing the work of colonization.

Reluctantly, Stephen agreed, only to find himself  himself embroiled in a series of complex events.

First, Agustín Iturbide, chosen by the Mexican revolutionaries as a military leader, celebrated independence from Spain by dissolving the Mexican Congress and declaring himself August I, Emperor of Imperial Mexico. Despite reaffirming the legality of Austin’s colony on January 4, 1823, Iturbide was forced into exile on March 19 by a group of army officers, including Antonio López de Santa Anna.

After Iturbide’s abdication, the colony law was annulled, but Austin once again managed to have it reinstated, and his three hundred family colony became a reality. By 1832 Austin’s colonies included 8,000 people, despite Mexico’s imposition of immigration limits in 1830 after hearing rumors that the United States was considering annexation of the region.

In 1835, a caretaker government headed by Valentín Gómez Farías eliminated the law limiting immigration to Texas, and lifted restrictions on land speculation. As the number of new settlers increased, so did the level of discontent. Taxes and tariffs were a point of contention, and the re-opening of customs offices at the ports of Velasco and Anahuac was particularly offensive.

The history of the battles, surrenders, retreats, and trickery at both ports is complicated. When Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos made known his intention to arrest William Barrett Travis for his role in the Anahuac Disturbances — an uprising of settlers — in June of 1835, and asked the Texans to hand Travis over, they were unwilling to do so. Needless to say, their refusal irked the Mexicans.

Two months later, Stephen Austin returned to Texas from his own stint in a Mexican jail.  After presenting President Santa Anna with a proposal to grant Texas separation from Coahuila, he’d been imprisoned for inciting insurrection among the colonists; he was able to return to Texas via New Orleans only after being freed by a general amnesty in July, 1835.

Upon his return, he found many had come to favor a clean break with Mexico, partly because of Santa Anna’s annulment of Mexico’s 1824 Constitution. Federalist in nature, it had guaranteed certain rights to the states, and its annulment caused many to believe their rights would be further curtailed.

On August 20, the the citizens of the Jurisdiction of Columbia circulated a broadside calling for a Consultation to be held at Washington-on-the-Brazos on October 15, 1835 to discuss the escalating friction with Mexico, and consider options for more autonomous rule for Texas.

Fully aware of restlessness among the Texians, Mexican authorities began taking steps to prevent further trouble, including the reclamation of armaments which had been made available to the colonists.

On January 1, 1831, Green DeWitt had written to Ramón Músquiz, political chief of Bexar, requesting a means of defending Gonzales colonists against hostile Indians. On March 10 of that year, James Tumlinson, Jr., a DeWitt colonist at Bexar, received and signed for a bronze cannon meant for Gonzales, given with the stipulation that it would be returned upon request. When the Mexicans asked for the return of their cannon in September, 1835, the colonists declined.

This either is, or isn’t the actual “Come and Take It” cannon, displayed at the Museum in Gonzales ~ Opinions differ.

After learning that Gonzales refused to surrender the cannon, Domingo de Ugartechea, military commander in Texas, dispatched Francisco de Castañeda and a force of a hundred men to retrieve it. Castañeda’s meeting with the Texans was less than successful. When he requested the cannon be returned, the Texans pointed to the gun, about 200 yards behind them, and said, “There it is. Come and take it.”

After a few days spent maneuvering, the Mexican forces skirmished with the local militia, led by John Henry Moore. Though Castañeda and his men retreated, the event was reported across the country as the first battle of the Texas Revolution. While hardly a significant battle (two Mexicans were killed, and one Texian suffered a bloody nose after being thrown from his horse), the encounter did serve as a potent symbol of the final break between American colonists and the Mexican government.

For their battle flag, the Texians adopted a design created by Cynthia Burns and Evaline DeWitt: a single black star, an image of the disputed cannon, and the phrase “Come and Take It.” There are suggestions the flag may have been carried by Stephen F. Austin’s volunteer army to the siege of Bexar. As DeWitt colonist Creed Taylor recalled:

About this time, on the tenth, I think, Stephen F. Austin arrived at our camp and was given quite an ovation. All looked upon the great man as a wise councilor and a safe leader, and so he was unanimously chosen as our commander-in-chief with the title of general.
To heighten the excitement and arouse further enthusiasm, at this juncture the general received a message from Colonel Cos, at Bexar, saying that he was coming to Gonzales with a large force to recover that cannon. When this news was circulated among the boys their enthusiasm was raised to the highest pitch. “Let them come and take it,” became the cry.

Like Goliad garrison commander Phillip Dimmitt’s “bloody arm flag,” raised in the quadrangle of Presidio La Bahia in December, 1835, both the “Come and Take It” flag and the cannon eventually gave way to other symbols of the new Texas Republic. Even so, the spirit they represent lives on; in Texas, it’s hard to escape the battle cry, or the symbols of that early history.

Over the bar at Frank, Austin, Texas ~ Photo by Seth Anderson
As a personalized Texas license plate
The speckled sea trout, Texian style
I wasn’t born Texan, but I got here as fast as I could ~ with the help of Come and Take It Movers
A yard sign of solidarity during the great Blue Bell ice cream disaster

And now, Texans are defending their stashes of toilet paper with the same verve and determination that once marked their defense of a cannon. It’s hard not to wonder what heroes like Austin, Fannin, Travis, Seguín, Houston, and Bowie might think about this new adaptation of their revolutionary symbols.

On the other hand, those of us who’ve come to love HEB, that most Texan of grocery chains, and who also love Davy’s Crockett’s famous declaration after his election loss in Tennessee — “Y’all can go to hell, and I will go to Texas!” — easily can imagine him saying to his pals, “Toilet paper? Y’all can go to Costco, and I will go to HEB!”

 

Comments always are welcome.

Seeking Distance

Lake Hyatt ~ Tyler County, Texas

As conditions around the world have changed and phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become more common than any of us would like, I’ve found myself thinking again of a well-loved poet.

For Mary Oliver, social distance wasn’t imposed. It was freely chosen, and the solitude it offered became a cherished part of her life. Perhaps my favorite of her poems, “How I Go to the Woods” always makes me smile. It stands as an affirmation of one of life’s deepest truths: when in nature — whether that nature be woods, prairies, or a backyard garden — we’re never truly alone.


Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not
a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to
the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have
my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become
invisible, I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an
uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can
hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love
you very much.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Calculating a Limerick

1896 Bichet schoolhouse ~ Marion County, Kansas

Just for fun, I recently asked several people if they knew the meaning of the phrase, “the three Rs.” Most gave me blank looks. A few remembered that it refers to “readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic,'” and one sang the old song about school days perfectly. I couldn’t have sung the verses, but the chorus has stayed with me for decades, evoking not only my own early classrooms, but also the wonderful one-room schoolhouses still standing across the country:

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
‘Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your bashful barefoot beau,
And you wrote on my slate,
‘I love you, Joe,’
When we were a couple of kids.

Given that the song was written in 1907, the words of the second stanza seem remarkably modern:

‘Member the hill, Nellie Darling,
And the oak tree that grew on its brow?
They’ve built forty stories
Upon that old hill,
And the oak tree’s an old chestnut now.
‘Member the meadows so green, dear,
So fragrant with clover and maize,
Into new city lots
And apartment block plots,
They’ve torn them all up since those days.

Unfortunately, skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic have degraded over the years as surely as that old oak. School buildings may be fancier now, but I’d willingly bet that graduates of the Bichet schoolhouse shown above could hold their own against many of today’s students, particularly when it comes to the basics.

I will admit that, during my own primary school years, I loved reading and ‘riting, but ‘rithmetic was the bane of my existence. Eventually I learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but by that time I was old enough to be faced with accursed, anxiety-producing word problems. For example:

Devon is going to make 3 shelves for her father. He has a piece of lumber 12 feet long. She wants the top shelf to be half a foot shorter than the middle shelf, and the bottom shelf to be half a foot shorter than twice the length of the top shelf. How long will each shelf be if she uses the entire 12 feet of wood?

Faced with something like that, I’d wonder why Devon didn’t just go to the store and buy some shelves, saving herself the aggravation of all that calculating.

In truth, I wasn’t being practical. I was exhibiting behavior typical of what’s come to be called a math-phobic: stymied as much by my conviction that I couldn’t ‘do math’ as I was by the equations themselves.

There always have been  teachers able to recognize and cope with the condition, even though I wasn’t lucky enough to have one during my school years. When I read about Michael Gallin, a high school math teacher in the Bronx, I envied his students, and wondered how differently my relationship to math might have evolved had I been in his classroom.

In an especially interesting article about his approach published in the Washington Post he say of his students, “They are afraid of being wrong, and that fear of being wrong cripples them.”

I might have used ‘paralyzes’ rather than ‘cripples,’ but the dynamic he describes is familiar. Eventually, it was sailing that overcame my paralysis. Forced by my sailing instructor to learn navigation as well as knot-tying and engine-bleeding, the revelations came swiftly. That speed-time-distance formula? Algebra. Triangulation as a means of determining position? Geometry. It all was so useful, and best of all, it was understandable.

In time, thanks to math-savvy friends who actually enjoy playing with numbers, I began to understand that math not only could be useful, it could be fun. When one of them passed on a little gem of a puzzle to me recently, my first amazement was that I could do the mathematical calculations and arrive at the answer.

The twist, of course, was that the formula also could be expressed in the form of a limerick. For once, figuring out the words was harder than doing the math. Once I was given a clue — read the first three numbers not as numerals, but as descriptions of ‘things’ — it got easier, and the limerick began to emerge.

If you’re inclined to give it a try, I’ll give you a couple of clues. The limerick begins with “A dozen” and ends with the phrase “and not a bit more.” Once you click on the solution, it’s unbelievably obvious, even though it takes some creativity to get there. Have fun!

 

 

Click here for the solution

 

Comments always are welcome.