Traded for a Horse

George didn’t have much at all going for him. He was born a slave to a slave mother in Missouri. The two of them were kidnapped when he was only a young, sickly child. During their flight, the kidnappers separated him from his mother, and he never saw her again. Then they traded him to his rescuers for a broken-down old race horse. Not a good start on life.

Education

But thanks to his Christian owners, to whom his rescuers returned him, he received a Christian upbringing, and they allowed him to work in their kitchen rather than in the fields. The Moses Carver family didn’t object when George found a Noah Webster speller and began teaching himself to read. Neither did they object when he left them to attend a little log school in Neosho, Missouri, where he lived in a stable and worked odd jobs after school to earn food money.

George refused handouts. “Just give me a chance is all I ask,” he told people. They did, and he gave them his best. He graduated high school and enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa because he knew that he wanted and needed an education to get ahead in life. To him, getting an education made living in a kind lady’s woodshed (a step up from the stable) worth it. Acting on initiative, he started a laundry business, washing other students’ clothing to pay for schooling and food. And he studied hard, focusing on botany but also taking liberal arts courses, including art, organ, and vocal music. So good were his botanical drawings that he became known as “Iowa’s ebony Leonardo,” and his sketches were exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

After two years at Simpson, George transferred to Iowa State College, where he lived in the office of a friendly teacher. There, he studied agricultural chemistry and graduated with a B.S. degree (1894) and an M.S. degree (1896). That’s when Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute for $1,000 a year. He accepted, replying to Washington that he wanted only “to be of service to my people.”

Experiments

Arriving at Tuskegee, he set up the entire agriculture department and a lab, where he began the experiments that were to bring him world-wide fame. He called the lab “God’s little workshop,” and there he experimented with sorghum, the sweet potato, the Irish potato, poultry problems, and the uses of clay and developed many products during his search for practical uses for common things.

Religious Character

One day during his prayer time, he said, he asked God to show him the meaning of the universe.

“Said the Creator, ‘You want to know too much for such a little mind as yours. Ask for something your size.'”

So he asked to know what man was made for, and God answered him, “‘Little one, you are still asking too much. Bring down the extent of your request.'”

Humbled, Carver then asked, “Tell me then, Creator, what the peanut was made for.” Then the Creator, Carver said, taught him “how to take the peanut apart and put it back together again” in the form of many helpful products.” More than 300, to be exact. And from his studies of clay came another 300, and from his sweet potato studies more than 100. And he also discovered 250 medicinal plants of the South. And he did it all while teaching a full load and helping students with not only their studies but also with life generally.

The driving force behind Carver’s work was his Christianity, and he credited the Seymour family, devout Presbyterians with whom he lived in Olathe, Kansas, for introducing him to Christ. He combined his scientific studies with careful Bible study. He spoke to God as he would a person sitting with him in his laboratory. One biographer wrote, “When he prayed thus it was like being in the vestibule of heaven.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid Carver was the comment that “he so lived that men forgot his color.” He believed that God had planted in every person specific talents and abilities and that every person should do his or her best to use those talents for both God’s glory and the good of mankind. One’s race wouldn’t matter if he always did his best.

Carver refused to be sidetracked by materialism. Many wealthy businessmen offered him vast sums to work for them, but he always refused. He even turned down Thomas Edison’s offer of $175,000 a year, choosing to remain in his $1,000-a-year Tuskegee position. He also refused to capitalize on any of his discoveries or the information services he provided for farmers and housewives.

Carver traveled and spoke widely, and he especially enjoyed addressing young people. He always told them, “Prepare yourself to do something. Do the common things of life in an uncommon way.” And encouraging them to succeed in spite of problems and obstacles, he often quoted these lines from Edgar Guest’s poem “Equipment”:

Figure it out for yourself, my lad,

You’ve all that the greatest of men have had:

Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes,

And a brain to use if you would be wise.

With this equipment they all began,

So start from the top and say, “I can.”

Carver fell one day as he left his laboratory and was thereafter confined to bed. At 7:30 p.m. on January 5, 1943, “the ebony wizard” passed into the world of the God he served so selflessly.

George Washington Carver was a great man who helped others and, doing so, helped make America great. He sought no special favors, no advantages over others, no handouts. All he asked was to be given a chance. The America of his day gave him the chance to prove himself, and he, through commitment, diligence, and hard work, did so. The entire world has reaped the benefits of his work.

Carver’s Legacy–Our Challenge

I’ve often wondered why so few people, especially African Americans, have ignored his example and failed to lift him up as the exemplar he is. Instead, they point to flawed athletes, rock stars, rappers, drug dealers, and gang bangers. People today don’t like to be told that they have an obligation and responsibility to their Creator to discover, develop, and use their talents in hard work for the benefit of others. They are interested only in themselves and what others can do for them.

If Carver were speaking to young people today, I think he would still be saying the same things he told young people in the first half of the last century. Here are a few of his statements. Think of how much greater America could be if we heeded them.

  • “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
  • “It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”
  • “There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation–veneer isn’t worth anything.”
  • “No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.”
  • “When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”
  • “Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.”
  • “Human need is really a great spiritual vacuum which God seeks to fill.”
  • “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
  • “One of the things that has helped me as much as any other is not how long I am going to live, but how much I can do while living.”

Recommended reading: Basil Miller, George Washington Carver: God’s Ebony Scientist (Zondervan, 1943); Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver in His Own Words (University of Missouri Press, 1987); John Perry, Unshakable Faith: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver (Multnomah Publishers, 1999).

Builders of the American Dream

Our recent celebration of Independence Day set me to thinking about how many of our holidays focus our attention on what has made America great and how it came about. Independence Day, of course, emphasizes the colonists’ declaration of independence from the British king’s tyranny and the freedoms we gained by that independence. Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day emphasize the men and women of subsequent generations who served and often died or were wounded to preserve and maintain that freedom. Too often unsung, however, are the thousands of everyday people who have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by that freedom to improve themselves and others, thereby making America an even greater nation.

Common, everyday people like you and me invented the automobile, the airplane, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, and many other now-common time- and labor-saving devices. We think that people with names such as Ford, Wright, Morse, Bell, and Edison were somehow different from the rest of us. And they were in many ways. But they were, in the final analysis, just common people who showed initiative and ingenuity and took advantage of America’s freedoms to do extraordinary things. The aforementioned names are now household names that nearly everyone recognizes and can tell about to some degree. But millions of other people also contributed to America’s greatness.

Totalitarian and authoritarian “big brother” states have tried to control, regulate, limit, and even artificially induce such innovative people, but America liberated them, giving them the freedom to dream, to risk, to attempt, and then to succeed or fail. Many times, they succeeded, but even in failure they learned something–what to do better or differently, what not to do, etc. In the process, they became wealthy because they helped others through their efforts. Contrary to statist thinking, such people were not greedy oppressors. Rather, they were imaginative and innovative and sought to help themselves by helping and serving others in various ways. Those others were not forced to buy the good or services that they developed. Rather, they willingly chose to buy because doing so was in their own best interests. The innovators’ wealth was the reward for their serving their fellowmen.

A segment of society seeks to gain power and wealth and control over other people by turning groups against each other using mankind’s sinful nature: envy, jealousy, and covetousness. They strive to make the poor turn against the wealthy, the unsuccessful against the successful, the non-producers against the producers, and the laborers against the financiers. The instigators of such class warfare seek–with the ready complicity of the envious, the jealous, and the covetous–subsidies for the noncompetitive, handouts (“entitlements”) for the non-productive, and taxes on the successful. The only beneficiaries of such actions, however, are the demagogues and their cronies. Consequently, consumers are forced to buy inferior products. Innovation is stifled. Capital is dried up because those with money are less willing to risk its loss. And only government grows.

Absent such counterproductive, anti-freedom obstructions, however, growth and wealth increase across the board. Common people come up with great ideas; capitalists fund the development of those ideas, transforming them into useful goods and services; consumers are better off; and everyone in the process (design, manufacturing, marketing, transportation, and distribution) is rewarded. It’s a win-win for everyone–except the statists.

Oh, wait! Even they benefit because they use the same goods and services that they are trying to suppress. Some of them decry technology and those who make it possible even while they use that technology. Others rail against carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses while they jet around, emitting far more than the average persons, who will be heavily taxed if the dictacrats have their way. And legislators pass laws placing onerous restrictions on innovation while exempting themselves.

In several future blog posts, I’d like to feature the stories of some exemplars who sought no special favors or advantages, asking only for the freedom to try, and who developed ways of helping others. The names of some of them will be familiar to many readers, but they might not know the story behind their names, or, as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, “the rest of the story.” But all of them made invaluable contributions to their fellowmen. And in the process, they played important roles in making America great.

In this regard, I recommend several books for your consideration. One is James K. Fitzpatrick’s Builders of the American Dream (Arlington House Publishers, 1977). Beginning with Daniel Boone and going through Douglas MacArthur, Fitzpatrick tells the stories of the contributions of thirteen great Americans who realized for themselves and made possible for others the American dream.

Another good work is Thomas DiLorenzo’s How Capitalism Saved America (Three Rivers Press, 2004). DiLorenzo provides a definition of capitalism that demolishes collectivists’ efforts to broad brush all entrepreneurs and capitalists as greedy oppressors and sets the record straight. Beginning with the Pilgrims and proceeding to the twenty-first century, he shows that Americas has become great and individuals’ lives and living standards are the best in the world because of capitalism.

 

But two other books, both by Burton Folsom, put the argument for freedom and against statism on the bottom shelf where everyone can understand it. In The Myth of the Robber Barons (Young America’s Foundation, 2010) and Uncle Sam Can’t Count (HarperCollins, 2014), which he wrote with his wife Anita, Folsom shows how capitalism (“big business”) has contributed to American–both national and individual–greatness and how government has predictably messed things up. Folsom shows how Vanderbilt, Hill, Rockefeller, Mellon, Dow, and other innovators and capitalists became wealthy not by stepping on and robbing others but by helping others and lowering the prices of the goods and services to a level that the poorest could buy at affordable prices what they needed. In doing so, they helped those common individuals rise and made the entire nation better.

I look forward to sharing in future posts some snippets from these and other exemplars’ lives. Stay tuned!

Symbols of Our Independence

With the approach of this Independence Day, in spite of the many distractions and interruptions that are accompanying the lead-up to it, I’ve been thinking about how this holiday is rife with symbolism. Although many other examples exist, I’ve chosen to focus briefly on five that seem to carry special significance and meaning for me. At the same time that I’m proud of these symbols, I’m also disheartened by the seeming increase in people’s ignorance of them and what makes them important to our national and individual freedoms.

First, of course, is the document that declared our independence in the first place, the Declaration of Independence. Although many people can recite many of the phrases in the second paragraph, a lot of people don’t know what the opening paragraph and the rest of the document says, let alone understand the few phrases that they seemingly know. “We hold these truths. . . .” The truths that follow are the foundation of the rest of the document. “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This was the second time that the document mentioned God, the Author of our rights and entitlements. The document goes on to state the purpose and source of human government, which is to be a servant of the people, not their master. It also enumerates the colonists’ various grievances against the king and declares the reasons why they were declaring their independence from his rule. It would do us all good to read the entire document again carefully so that we will gain an appreciation for not only what the document means but also what the Founders risked to achieve our independence.

Second is Independence Hall. That building has a double meaning for me. It’s primary symbolism, of course, is political. But it’s also personal in my memory. The first time I toured the building was the day before my wedding. My groomsmen and I had driven to Philadelphia to pick up another groomsman from the airport, and we all decided to take a detour to Independence Hall on the way back. It was a hot and humid day. I was sleep deprived and anxious about the wedding and honeymoon details. I had not eaten good breakfast, it was well into the afternoon, and I had had neither lunch nor fluids, so I was getting severely dehydrated. I was standing in the Assembly Hall, intently trying to focus on what the National Park Service member was saying, when I suddenly found myself sitting on the step in front of the building. My groomsmen had caught me before I hit the floor in the Assembly Room and supported me out to the step and into the “cool” air. A drink of water and some lunch revived me, but I’ll forever know firsthand how many of the delegates meeting in that sweltering room in early July 1776 must have felt as they accepted Jefferson’s masterpiece.

Then there is the Liberty Bell. Too often, we forget (or did we even know) that this hunk of finely crafted metal has engraved on its upper portion the words of Scripture: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land.” Most people who do know that those words are there think that they refer to political liberty, but they are actually referring to spiritual liberty. Scripture also states, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Again, those words refer to spiritual truth, the gospel story. But the enemies of freedom are also the enemies of the Bible, from which those words come, and of Christianity because they know that spiritual liberty leads to political liberty. If they can enslave people spiritually and keep them spiritually ignorant, they know they will also be able to enslave them politically. When a nation forgets God, it will soon become enslaved to political dictators.

And there’s the Minuteman Statue in Massachusetts. It symbolizes the many men who were ready “at a minute’s notice” to come to the aid of the cause of liberty. And not just ready to fight but also to die, if necessary, that their posterity–we–could enjoy the blessings of freedom and liberty. I must ask myself how ready I will be if the need arises to defend freedom. How much would I be willing to sacrifice? At the very least, I must be eternally vigilant because the enemies of freedom are ever-present with us, perhaps never more than in the present day. Freedom is never free. As the slogan says, we are the land of the free because of the brave.

Finally, there are the fireworks, perhaps the single most used symbol on Independence Day now. Although many people have forgotten the content and meaning of the Declaration, and to many people the statues and emblems and symbols are merely relics, we all love a beautiful fireworks display on the Fourth of July. John Adams declared that the day should be marked by such fireworks displays, but I think that he would rather have people celebrating the meaning rather than the mere display. My family has traditionally set off fireworks every Fourth, and those performances have tended to grow larger every year, especially as sons-in-law have desired to add their funds to increase the boom and the beauty. But we should remember that we can enjoy the beauty of fireworks only because earlier generations suffered and endured the blasts of cannons and “bombs bursting in air” in a much more deadly way. But it was for the Cause, and we enjoy the fireworks today because of their sacrifice in wounds and death back then.

Take some time to reread the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July, and remind yourself of why we’re celebrating. And then thank God that you were born and can live in a country that affords us such freedom as our forefathers gave us. And why.

The Positive Power of a Mentor

Dr. Walter Fremont, the late educator who motivated me for my teaching career, once said during a class lecture that no one should write a book until he was at least 50 years old. He opined that until one reached that chronological age he had not lived or learned enough to write an authoritative book.

His life’s ministry was sharing with others, especially aspiring teachers, the wisdom and knowledge that he had gained so that they could, in turn, minister to still others. He exuded a positive attitude, a can-do spirit that was infectious. And that was what first-year (and even veteran) teachers needed even more than they needed materials and methods and curriculum development classes. It was what would keep many of them going when they had reached the point at which they were ready to give up and change careers.

True to his own stated belief, Dr. Fremont’s first published book came when he was 56 years old. He went on to write four more books, and they all dealt in some way with education and family living.

When Dr. Fremont was 62 and seemingly at the apex of his phenomenal and inspiring career, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Doctors gave him two to five years to live. But they didn’t know Dr. Fremont or the God he served.

Dr. Fremont continued to serve as dean of a university school of education for four years. Then he continued teaching for another year. He finally retired, but not to rust. Not Dr. Fremont. Not Dr. Positive Faith Attitude. No, he spent the next fifteen years working from a hospital room, authoring four more books between 1986 and 2002. In 2007, he finally succumbed to the disease that the doctors had thought would take him in two to five years. His God gave him 82 years during which to serve Him. And right up until the end, his life continued to bless and teach others. His life is proof of Jesse Stuart’s assertion that a teacher is immortal, living on for years through his or her students. And I was blessed to be one of Dr. Fremont’s students.

I was perhaps a slow learner in school, and I didn’t publish my first book (I’m trying to be positive by using that phrase “first book” and to assume that I will have others someday!) until I was beyond Dr. Fremont’s 50-years-old cutoff point and past even his own 56 by several years. But once published, I was inspired and motivated to keep writing. In fact, I have several books in the works. Whenever I get stuck or bogged down with one, I can turn to another, so that I always have something to work on.

But sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get beyond that one book. Can I do it again? By nature a melancholy person, I begin to doubt. But then I think of Dr. Fremont and how his most productive publishing years came after the doctors had essentially written him off. But God was not finished with him, and his work continues to influence people for good.

I don’t know how many years I have remaining in which to write. Who does? I might go in my sleep some night. Or my time might come in an accident on my way to pick up my son-in-law at the airport this very night. Or at some unknown (to me) future date to a dread disease–heart attack, cancer, whatever. That makes me want to live and work today as though it were my last. I want to do what I can with the time I have. And I pray that, like Dr. Fremont, I might have been able in the process to be a blessing to someone else.

May this be the prayer of each one of us. May we be faithful in the work we have while it is called today. May we be ready when we are called home to give an account of our life and be able to do so with joy. Until then, let’s keep serving!

Pleasant Distraction

While passing through our utility room on my way to the garage the other day, my attention was attracted to (or perhaps distracted by would be more precise) a shoe box on a shelf above the dryer.

Now what could that be? I wondered. Although I’d passed through the room many times a day, day after day, I couldn’t recall seeing the box there. I forgot why I was going to the garage and stopped to take down the box and examine its contents. What I discovered inside held my attention for the next hour or so. (I don’t think I ever made it to the garage for whatever it was I was seeking.)

Inside that box were old family photos from when our four daughters were infants and toddlers, when we lived in Pennsylvania and Tennessee and the kids were growing up–and when my wife and I were much younger.

Going through old family photos can take up a lot of time, but it sure can bring back a lot of memories! And it can make you think. As I perused those old photos, I was struck by several thoughts.

  • How much fun we had “back then.” We didn’t have much money, but we did enjoy the time with the children–and the photos show that they, too, were having fun.
  • How innocent and carefree life was for the kids. The problems of life–work, money, taxes, government intrusions into private life, etc.–none of that fazed them.
  • How much our grandchildren resemble our own children when they were young. (I can also see now how much like my grandfather my dad looked when he was a kid. And people tell me that I look like him.)
  • How much younger–and lighter–I was back then. The cares of this life, the ravages of time, and overindulgence at the table can sure change a guy’s appearance!
  • How fun-loving my own parents were, such as the Christmas when Daddy got all of us men–my brother-in-law, my brother, and me–overalls and bandanas. We never understood why.
  • How organized I kept the old photos–in contrast to the jumble of files and flash drives I must study to find the image I’m seeking today. I once was super-organized, so much so that I could feel my way through the closet and find just the shirt I was looking for–in the dark. But ever since we moved from Tennessee to South Carolina thirteen years ago, organization seems to have vanished from my list of skills.
  • How glad I am that I can revisit those times with a hard copy of the memory and not have to rely on an electronic gadget–and risk losing the images to a crashed hard drive, an accidentally deleted file, or a lost flash drive.

Technological advancements surely have made it easier for us to capture memories as images. The passage from 35 mm film and flashbulbs to Polaroids to Instamatics and from slides and prints to digital images has been wonderful for picture taking. The quality of photography possible today is phenomenal. And you don’t really have to have an expensive digital camera with all the bells and whistles to get good photos. Sometimes photos taken with a cheap cell phone today rival anything the professional photographers could produce “back then.” (Well, my wife still cuts off people’s heads, and her shaky hand produces some blurry images, but that’s not the fault of the technology.)

It certainly is less expensive to take pictures today. In the “good ol’ days,” I had to send my exposed rolls of 35 mm film out to be developed, and even the cost of sending it to “economy” companies like Clark and York got pricey after a while, especially if you, as I did, ordered double prints of everything. But now I’m glad that I ordered those double prints. As the kids married and moved away, I noticed that our photo albums’ contents seemed to dwindle as the kids expropriated their favorite pics for their own albums.

But even that purloining is good because it shows that they, too, have valued the times and memories of their past. Those old photos ensure that the memories will live on and the girls will tell their children stories of what life was like when they were little. Their heritage will continue to future generations.

Now, if I could only recall what I wanted in the garage before that box of old photos distracted me!

Writing Instruments I Have Known

It’s funny how the anniversaries of certain historic events make you reminisce. Today, I’ve been reminiscing about the typewriter, a writing instrument with which I’m almost as familiar as I am a pencil or pen. On this date in 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes patented a typewriting machine, a giant leap forward for his time.

Inventors had been working to develop a typewriter since as early as 1714 (Henry Mill) and then to “reinvent” it, making it something practical and useful. Sholes was successful in developing one of the first commercially successful such machines.

Sholes was a newspaper editor in Milwaukee. His newspaper’s compositors went on strike, prompting Sholes to try (unsuccessfully) to build a machine that would set type. He and printer Samuel Soule later were working together to develop a ticket-numbering machine when lawyer and inventor Carlos Glidden suggested that they might be able to make a machine that produced not only numbers but also letters. They began with a machine called a Pterotype, developed by John Pratt, and tried to simplify it. The result was the typewriting machine, which is shown to the right of Pratt’s machine.

The men received a patent for their invention on June 23, 1868. Their machine sold for an average of about $250 each, not a paltry sum in those days. Remington, a company better known for its firearms, bought the patent in 1873. The inventors continued, however, to improve on their original design, the most lasting improvement being the QWERTY keyboard arrangement to reduce jamming of the keys, and the arrangement is still in use today (although with computers it is no longer necessary).

The first typewriter that I worked on wasn’t quite as old as Sholes’s machine, but it was old. It was my mother’s Remington portable with a small suitcase-sized carrying case and a ribbon that allowed one to type in either black or red ink. I used that machine before I even took a typing class; I used the hunt-and-peck technique instead.

Then I took typing in high school. (My “wise” guidance counselor tried to convince me that I wouldn’t need to know how to type for college, but my father convinced him otherwise!) We learned on heavy Smith-Corona manual machines that required a heavy hand. To this day, I still pound the keyboard although it’s no longer necessary. (I guess I just enjoy both the feeling of strength it gives me and the sound of the keys being struck. It makes me feel as though I’m actually accomplishing something.)

I enjoyed the typing class so much that my parents bought me a refurbished but very functional Royal typewriter for Christmas that year. I took that machine to college with me and used the carbon paper, erasable bond paper, and hair spray to bond the ink to the erasable bond so it wouldn’t smear when the professors read my papers. I used that machine not only throughout college and grad school but also during much of my teaching career–typing mimeograph and ditto stencils–until I decided (foolishly, I now realize) that I needed an electric machine to be successful as a writer.

The electric machine that I bought was a Brother Correct-O-Ball, which had a golf ball-sized ball in the center where the letters used to be on long, curved arms. The ball would spin around to the letter that corresponded to the key one struck. The idea was that the keys would not get jammed when one typed too fast. I liked that idea because my writing was slowed every time I had to untangle the keys, and that happened often to me. The only problem was that I was so enthralled by watching that ball spin around that I ended up watching the ball rather than writing. And before I knew it, it became hard–and expensive–to get the ribbon cartridges for the machine. I decided I needed to upgrade.

A friend told me that the wave of the future was in word processors, so I bought a used Magnavox Video Writer word processor. It had an ugly yellow-on-black screen display about the size of the modern iPad screen. It also had a neat feature whereby when you began to type a word, the machine guessed what you meant and completed the word for you. When I began one day to type one of my daughter’s names–Tisha–the machine changed it to Tissue. For a while, that feature provided some interesting entertainment, but eventually it became frustrating because I had to proofread even more closely, and that slowed me down. For all the hype about speeding up my production, I found that I was wasting even more time.

Then I pursued a full computer, something that I could use for multiple functions, not just word processing. That’s when I bought and paid for the Tandy computer–and then the franchise went bankrupt before they could deliver it. Then they refused to deliver it. I was called as a witness in the resulting bankruptcy proceedings. When the franchisee lost, I won my computer, but by then I had bought another (a Gateway desktop). I didn’t need and couldn’t afford two computers, so I had to sell the Tandy at a loss.

More recently, I joined the laptop trend. I’ve had Gateways, Toshibas, and now an HP Pavilion. And I’ve suffered through crashes of hard drives, obsolescence of the 5 1/4- and 3-1/2-inch floppy disks, and constantly required upgrades to software and hardware. While this rapidly changing technology has had its advantages, I still look back upon the days of the old manual typewriter with fond memories.

Man’s Best Friend?

Groucho Marx reputedly quipped, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

I can recall many a night when, as a youngster who had been told to turn out the light and go to bed, I dutifully obeyed but then pulled the covers over my head and finished a riveting chapter (or even an entire book) by flashlight. And I’ve been an avid reader ever since, usually having multiple books in progress at once.

I just started another book, this one for instructional as well as inspirational purposes. It’s Writing with Quiet Hands by Paula Munier. Some of its contents promise to be welcome and much-needed reminders and maybe even a few gentle (or not so gentle) rebukes for not minding what I already know. But much of the contents are offering additional instruction on how to improve my craft, and there’s always room for improvement.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that there are no know-it-alls in any field. Oh, there are a lot of people who think they know it all (and they’re the ones who are eager to let everyone else know that they do), but in reality, no one knows everything there is to know about anything. One of my favorite quotations is from Will Rogers: “We’re all ignorant–just on different subjects.” So I’m reading this book to learn something new.

But I’m also reading it with the hope of being inspired, and we all occasionally need that, too. We sometimes tire of doing what we know we should be doing to be successful in our professions and callings. We often hit the proverbial brick wall when we don’t know what to do next, or we can’t seem to make things work just as we want them to. So we risk stagnating, and we need a little spark of inspiration to motivate us to persevere. Eventually, that brick wall will crack, and we’ll break through the impasse. But that won’t happen unless we’re motivated.

It’s sort of like when you’re just about to your last gasp on the treadmill and then you look over at the 93-year-old man beside you, and he’s running faster and for a longer time than you, and he’s not even breathing hard. Suddenly, you tell yourself, If he can do it, then I certainly can, too! And you get a second wind and press on, achieving more than you thought you could.

I haven’t even started the first chapter of Writing with Quiet Hands yet, and I’ve already encountered some interesting statements. Here’s one of them: “Books are our friends–and that friendship becomes a happy marriage when we sit down to write our own stories.”

In my office are two plaques. One reads, “Write your own life story.” The other says, “Home is where your story begins.” Whenever I read those two statements together, a small voice inside me says, “Now get busy!”

My lesson for the day: Read for information. Read for inspiration. But don’t just read; write. And that’s what I have to get busy doing right now! Time’s a-wastin’!

By the way, if you haven’t yet decided on your next book to read, may I suggest Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries? It might just surprise you!

 

Reflections for Father’s Day

Albert, Prince of Belgium, visited the farm.

President of his high school senior class. Officer in the Halls Community Club. With his father, a productive dairy farmer whose farm was selected as a TVA test-demonstration farm for the education and improvement of farms not only locally but also nationally and internationally. Successful small businessman as a local brick mason, known for his honesty and work quality. Deacon and Sunday school teacher.

This is a worthy resume for any man. But one other entry that could be added to those achievements is much more important to me: that man was also father–my father. Daddy.

Daddy was not a perfect man. No man is. But he was a godly and dependable man. If he said something, you could count on it. If he told me that I’d get spanked if I disobeyed, I knew–from experience–that it would come to pass even as he had said it would. (Yet, I got far fewer of his spankings than I deserved.) If he told a client that he would do a job for a certain price, that’s exactly what he charged, even if he had to “eat” expenses that pushed his costs beyond the stated amount. He refused offers of additional money to push one client’s project ahead of a project of another client on which he was already working.

Daddy was not only a man of his word but also a man of the Word. Although he was not a good reader (his mother had to read his high school reading assignments aloud to him or he never would have finished them), he read his Bible faithfully. (His pastor, O.V. Edwards, wearing a black jacket in the photo of the church project to the left, taught him to lay brick while constructing their new church building. Daddy is to the far left in the photo.) From his own Bible study and the preaching and teaching he received in church, Daddy accepted Christ and developed his doctrinal beliefs and convictions. And he was firm in those convictions, come what may. He sometimes faced opposition over those convictions, but he stuck to them, even at the price of loss of friends. Although those former friends disagreed with him, they secretly admired and respected his commitment to his convictions.

Daddy was not without humor, although it was often dry or bent toward good-natured pranks and teasing. He once told a laborer who had forgotten his jacket on a chilly morning to stuff scraps of fiberglass insulation into his shirt sleeves. The uninitiated worker quickly became initiated by the itching that the insulation produced. Daddy also loved to tease his children when they were young and especially his grandchildren. But teasing was his way of showing people that he liked them. If he didn’t tease a person, it was a sign that he was ambivalent toward the person.

From the time my brother Dale and I were old enough to get into trouble at home, Daddy made us go to work with him, where he kept us so busy carrying bricks, mixing mortar, and either building or tearing down scaffolding that we didn’t have time to get into trouble. If we didn’t have anything to do, he found something, even if it was cleaning out the tool box in the bed of his truck. At home, he kept us busy mowing the lawn, weeding the strawberry patch, removing pruned grape vines, or hauling off wheelbarrows full of our garden’s greatest crop–rocks.

Occasionally, Daddy would find time to “pass ball” with us, throwing a baseball back and forth–on the ground, in the air–to help us hone our skills. He even tried to teach us to throw a knuckleball, a skill that Uncle Homer, a part-time St. Louis Cardinals scout, had taught him when he was a child. His knuckler was easy to see (because it rotated almost none, the seams were clearly visible as it came toward me) but hard to catch. When I did catch it, it stung my gloved hand as much as a hard fastball did. I never did master that pitch, but it increased my appreciation for the skill of such great major league knuckleballers as Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro.

Other boys might have had fathers who were easier on them, letting them do whatever they wanted and not spanking them when they did wrong. Others might have had fathers who sought to buy their affection with material things. And others might have had fathers who taught them by their example how to get ahead in this world and to gather to themselves wealth or fame. But Daddy gave us kids something much more valuable. He taught, by his example, a love for God and His Word and the character qualities that befit someone who claims the name Christian.

I will forever–on not only this Father’s Day but also every other day–be grateful that God gave me him as my daddy.

 

A Busy Day in History

June 13 was indeed a busy day in history.

On this date in 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in the American colonies to help the colonists in their fight for independence from England.

In a precursor to the later Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate troops who were on their way to Pennsylvania clashed with Union forces in the Second Battle of Winchester. They came away victorious.

In 1912, pitcher Christy Mathewson (left), a Christian who refused to play ball for money on the Lord’s Day and is credited with helping to clean up the then ill-reputed game of baseball, won his 300th game.

In 1943, eight German spies launched Operation Pastorius, an effort to commit sabotage within the United States, attacking economic targets, such as electric plants, water facilities, and railroad shops, and launching terrorist attacks against civilian targets. The submarine U-202 landed some of the spies about 115 miles east of New York City on Long Island, and U-584 landed more three days later at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville. All of the eight spies had lived at one time in the United States, and two of them were actually American citizens.

But an unarmed Coast Guardsman, John Cullen, discovered one of the Long Island spies, George John Dasch (left), on the beach. Dasch grabbed Cullen and shoved $260 into his hand in an effort to buy his silence, but the loyal Cullen reported the incident to his superiors anyway. By the time a search was begun, however, the spies were gone.

Dasch, dismayed at being discovered, concluded that the gig was up and the operation was doomed to failure anyway, so he decided to turn himself in and seek asylum. He convinced another of the spies to join him, and they reported to the FBI. The authorities, however, thought that he was just a crank and didn’t believe him–until he dumped the spies’ $84,000 operations money onto the FBI agent’s desk. Within two weeks, the other six spies had been apprehended before they could do any harm.

In 1948, the great Babe Ruth (left) uttered his final farewell at Yankee Stadium. He died two months later on August 16.

And in 1966, the Supreme Court issued its now-famous Miranda decision, mandating that arresting officers inform the accused of his or her rights. This ruling made famous one of the most frequently uttered phrases on television: “You have the right to remain silent. . . .” (The longest word uttered is the one that follows the words “And now a word from our sponsor.”)

And that’s how it was on June 13 so many years ago.

Memories, Memories

It’s happening with greater frequency nowadays. At least it seems to me to be more frequent.

I’m downstairs and need something (say the stapler) that is upstairs. I fly to the stairs and climb them as fast as my arthritic knees will allow. I reach the landing, step a few feet to the right, and enter my office. And then I stand there wondering what it was that I came up to get.

Failing to dredge that fact from my memory, I turn and trudge back down the steps. About three steps from the bottom, I suddenly remember. I turn in mid-step and retrace my steps back to the office. As I pass through the door, I spy a book that I had meant to reshelf yesterday when I finished looking up a bit of information but, sidetracked by something else, had placed on my wife’s school supplies cabinet. I grab the book and return it to its proper spot on the bookcase shelf. Then I walk over to my oak roll-top desk, shuffle a few papers, and stare into space wondering why I came upstairs.

Again failing to recall the purpose of my ascent, I begin the trek back down. Entering the kitchen, I again remember, and I make a third trip up the stairs, muttering under my breath, “Stapler! Stapler!” I repeat the word over and over until I put my hands on the stapler sitting on my desk. I then take it back downstairs and staple whatever it is that needs stapling.

That happens several times a day, it seems. It happens so often that it has long since ceased to be the topic of humorous, self-deprecating conversation.

Memory–or the lack of it–can mess with one’s mind, especially if he or she is a writer. Even moreso if one writes memoir or history.

Two or more people can experience or witness the same event, and yet each will have a slightly (or maybe even a vastly) different memory of it.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when my nieces and nephews came to visit us and asked, “Uncle Dennis, Dad told us that when you two were kids such and such happened. Is that really the way it was?”

Then I felt obliged to set them straight on what really had happened in the anecdote my brother had told them. Somehow, in his accounts, he was always the innocent victim, and I was the guilty party. In my account, it was the reverse; he was the instigator, and I was the gullible victim. Each of us remembered the same incident in dramatically different ways. And each of us is adamant that our rendition is the true and only reliable account.

The truth is that each of us tends to remember only certain details in a decidedly individualized way. We don’t remember some details at all. And we often misremember the details we do retain. That’s why it’s so important that we writers, especially those of us who are attempting to write memoir or history, study multiple perspectives before we write. Even then, we must recognize the fact that our flawed and failing memories and our biases or prejudices can mislead or deceive us as to the truth of our subjects.

Too often, historians (especially those whose writings are motivated or driven by a political or philosophical agenda) present a complex event or issue in an oversimplified way that ignores certain facts that do not fit into their scheme and present their myopic view as the only right view.

Take, for example, the issue of slavery in America. Too often, that issue is simplistically presented as a uniquely Southern institution for whom only Southerners bear blame and responsibility. In reality, it was a national issue. Had it not been for Northern shipbuilders, shipowners, and ship captains and Northern textile manufacturers who profited from the transportation and sale of slaves and used the cotton produced in the South as raw material for their goods, there would have been no demand for cotton and therefore no demand for slaves in the South. Besides, in the colonial period, there were slaves in every American colony, including those in the North. And not only black slaves but also Native American slaves. And little Rhode Island was a big supplier of slaves for the trade. The same problem is evident in the recounting of the treatment of slaves. Many slave owners and overseers were indeed Simon Legrees, but many others were not.

Too many historians also present slavery as the only cause of the war that soon engulfed the nation. They conveniently forget–or ignore–the many other issues that contributed to the eruption: the tariff, state sovereignty, the debate over federally financed internal improvements, regional disparity in representation in Congress, etc. In reality, there was no one cause of the war but many. To present it otherwise is sloppy history at best and intentional deceit at worst.

In memoir writing, memory can put one in a nostalgic mood and win the plaudits of relatives, or it can cause life-long rifts between family members who remember events differently than the writer presents them. The key is to present memories as clearly as one’s mind will allow but to do so as kindly as possible. As John Leax wrote in his book Grace Is Where I Live, “I take the stories of my people, I give them shape, and hand them down. What I pass on is truth made new–half-truth spun through kind invention.”

Now let’s see. I had one other point I wanted to make about this topic, but I can’t seem to remember what it was. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have remembered it by the time I sit down to write my next blog post–or not.