In Memorium: Thomas J. Jackson

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the tragic death of one who can truly be called a “Christian soldier.”

In the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederacy had not only one of its greatest victories but also one of its greatest losses. Although the Southern armies won the battle, they lost one of their greatest generals through the wounding, and ultimately the death, of Thomas J. Jackson.

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries considered him to be a rare bird, an eccentric, a fanatic. Many of them complained about his various personal quirks, but much of their dissatisfaction with him actually lay in their dislike of his strict adherence to his religious convictions. Some of them even blamed some of the South’s military reverses on Jackson’s reluctance to wage war on Sunday, or “the Lord’s Day,” as Jackson called it. At least one of them (Richard Ewell), however, later accepted Jackson’s Christ as his own, and his formerly foul and obscene life immediately changed for the better. (The story of Ewell’s conversion and the influence of Jackson’s life is portrayed in the movie Red Runs the River by Unusual Films.)

Jackson expert James I. Robertson called Jackson “a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith” (Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, p. ix). It was the courage that Jackson’s faith produced on the battlefield at Manassas (Bull Run) that produced his nickname “Stonewall.” Jackson said that he felt as safe on the battlefield as at home in his bed because he trusted in God to protect him until his time came.

But Jackson’s faith was not something that appeared just on the battlefield or on the Lord’s Day; it was part of his everyday life. As a young instructor at Virginia Military Institute, Jackson confided to his sister, “I have so fixed the habit [of prayer] in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment’s asking of God’s blessing. I never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal. I never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward. I never change my classes . . . without a minute’s petition on the cadets who go out and those who come in.”

Jackson became a Christian in 1849 when he was a major in the U.S. Army. And from the very beginning, he took his religion seriously, and he grew in his faith. Whenever he discovered something in his life that Scripture condemned, he sought to rid himself of it. Whenever he saw something that Scripture required but that was lacking in his life, he strove to add it. Shortly after Jackson’s conversion, the pastor of the Presbyterian church he joined in Lexington, Virginia, called upon him to lead in public prayer. Shy and ill at ease when speaking in public, Jackson stammered and stumbled through his impromptu prayer. After the service, he apologized to the pastor but said that if public prayer was his duty as a believer, he would work to improve his praying. “Call on me whenever you think proper,” he said. “My personal comfort is not to be consulted in the matter.”

That attitude of doing one’s duty regardless of personal cost was a trait that Jackson exhibited in not only public worship but also combat. “Duty is ours; consequences are God’s,” he declared. This was just one of many maxims that Jackson collected and sought to apply to his own life. Here are a few other examples of his maxims:

  • “Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company.”
  • “Endeavor to do well everything which you undertake.”
  • “Sacrifice your life rather than your word.”
  • “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful.”

Jackson was a stern disciplinarian. He did his duty, and he expected his men to do theirs. And they responded with alacrity to his demands upon them. He was a master of surprise and envelopment, and his First Brigade became known as his “foot cavalry” because they made so many rapid, forced marches, catching the enemy by surprise and often producing resounding victories for the Southerners. And his men loved him as troops did no other general other than Lee.

But Jackson was concerned with more than military victory. He was concerned about the spiritual condition of people, including both blacks and the men under his command. Even before the war, he sought the spiritual welfare of slaves as he taught the Bible to them in a Sunday school class for them that he started in his church. Some people laughed at him; others opposed him. Jackson was actually “on the perimeter of the law” of the times, which prohibited teaching of blacks. But he knew their spiritual need, and he taught them the Bible anyway.

During the war, Jackson encouraged his soldiers to attend worship services conducted by chaplains of various denominations. He continually sought more chaplains and did everything he could to support their ministrations among his men. He encouraged attendance at revival meetings. Yet, he forced nothing religious on them. His most severe requirements of religious conviction were those he placed on and expected of himself. He led in religion by example, and many an officer entered Jackson’s tent to find their general on his knees in prayer.

Yes, all that Jackson was seemed fanatical and extreme to his contemporaries, just as it does to his critics today. But his life holds forth important lessons for us.

Jackson was accidentally shot in the darkness by his own men in the waning minutes of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. When Lee learned of Jackson’s being wounded, he exclaimed, “He has lost his left arm but I my right arm.” Jackson’s wounds did not kill him; the pneumonia that set in did. His last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Jackson crossed over his final river at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, May 10, 1863, and rested in the arms of Jesus Christ. But he left a legacy and many life lessons for those who are wise enough to learn them.

[For more information on Jackson’s religious views and practices, see David T. Myers, Stonewall Jackson: The Spiritual Side, Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 2003.]

Playin’ Indians

Throughout much of my childhood, our family had no television. Although we apparently had been one of the first homes in the community to get a TV, a little disagreement between my brother and me over which of the two local channels we would watch resulted in one of us angrily turning the set off and on repeatedly until the tube blew. Daddy put the set into the attic and refused to get it fixed because of the animosity it had created between us boys. When I was nearly ready for college, he gave the set to my grandfather.

But during the short time we did have a TV, we watched a lot of “cowboys-and-Indians” programs. And, as kids are wont to do, after watching some of them, we ran outside and reenacted much of what we had seen, using our vivid imaginations in our play. Because our Uncle Dillon had given us cowboy outfits, complete with holsters and guns, that part of our costume department was pretty well stocked, but we were a bit lacking in the necessities for the Indian portion of our play. But that didn’t stop my brother from using available materials to create the proper attire and atmosphere to make our play realistic. As the younger, impressionable–and gullible–brother, I followed his lead.

One day, while playing Indians, my brother got a brilliant idea. He ran inside and soon returned with four of Daddy’s large work hankies.

“Take off your pants,” he ordered. I stood with my mouth open, but he was already stripping to his underwear. “And take off your shirt and underwear.”

In my innocence and trusting my all-wise older brother, I did as instructed.

“Now get your belt from your pants.” I did just as he was doing.

“Put your belt on.” He put his belt around his naked waist and cinched it tight. I imitated his every move. There we both stood, buck naked except for a thin belt around our waist.

“Now tuck these hankies into your belt–one in the front and the other in the back.” He demonstrated. I followed his example. And we were dressed like real Indians, complete with loin cloths. Near-naked savages.

“Something’s missing, though,” my brother lamented. He couldn’t stand for anything to be incomplete. For him, play was not real play unless you had everything just right. He didn’t want to leave anything to the imagination. That’s generally how it is when you’re buck naked–nothing left to the imagination.

“Indians wear war paint,” he mused aloud. “What can we use for paint?”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I stood by dumbly, waiting for him to come up with an answer. He always did. I could pretend that we were covered with war paint and have a grand time playing, but not him. He had to have the real thing. He thought for a long time about our dilemma. He looked through the garage. (Looking back now, I’m surprised that he didn’t use Daddy’s house paint.) He looked through the chicken house. (I’m really glad he didn’t try to make war paint out of chicken manure!)

He went back outside and stood thinking. I waited patiently for the answer that he soon would arrive at and dug my bare toes into the sand where we played with our trucks and road graders and where we called doodlebugs from their under-sand burrows.

Suddenly, my brother’s eyes lit up. “I’ve got it!” he cried. “Come on!”

Like an innocent lamb, I meekly followed him to the nearby fence row. He reached up and pulled a handful of plump, dark polk berries from the stalk that rose through the barbed-wire strands. He took one berry between his thumb and index finger and squeezed it. Out came a deep, reddish-purple liquid.

“Here.” He handed me some of the berries he’d picked. “Now, squeeze them and put the juice on your chest. See? It’s just like war paint!”

We both applied copious amounts of the liquid all over our bodies. We painted designs on each other. On our chests, on our arms, on our backs, on our faces.

“Now we look like Indians!” my brother declared.

Or like something.

We played Indians for what seemed like hours and had a wonderful time. There we were in all of our natural glory, running and jumping and whooping like savages–for all the neighbors and passing strangers to see. Just the two of us, our nakedness covered–or not–by those loin hankies and polk berry war paint.

My memory is blank about what Mother did when she finally saw us. She was probably mortified. I’m sure, though, that whatever she did wasn’t pretty, and it surely must have hurt us more than it did her.

The Bible warns us against following a multitude in doing evil. I would have been better off learning not to be led astray by one bad example! I shudder to think what would have happened if he had encouraged me to eat those poisonous polkberries! Wait, maybe he did do something similar with grapes that our dad had just sprayed with insecticide, but that’s another story.

Lessons from Doing Genealogical Research

I’m told that March 11 was Genealogy Day. (Yes, I know that I’m a little late in getting this date mentioned, but. . . . Better late than never!)

“Doing genealogy” can occur at several different levels, from hobbyist to obsessive compulsive. Over the years, I’ve done my genealogical research in fits and starts, so I guess that I’m more on the hobbyist end of the continuum, although some people think I slide somewhat nearer the other end. It’s all a matter of perspective–and how much time and money you have to devote to the pursuit.

My initial motivation was the result of a sudden realization that I didn’t know much about my ancestors beyond my grandparents and that the people who could best inform me were quickly passing from the scene. If I was to get the facts (more so, the human stories behind the facts) I needed, I had to act quickly. So, in the little time and few opportunities I had, I began interviewing those people.

That’s when I discovered that not all of the interviewees agreed on many essential details. My paternal grandparents argued with each other over many of those details, and, not wanting to cause a rift in an otherwise exemplary marriage, I changed the subject. They sometimes referred to the same people but by different names or nicknames, so I often got confused. And sometimes they got sidetracked telling interesting stories about some of the people while forgetting about the genealogical details that were my main objective. But the stories were so good, and my grandparents obviously had so much joy and fun telling them, that I dared not interrupt to press for mere data.

And mentioning getting sidetracked, the same thing happened to me while I was doing research on the maternal side of my family. I became so interested in tracing the steps of my uncle (Mother’s brother) through Europe during World War II that his story just about hijacked my entire time. (After all, history, especially the history of that war, is “my thing.”) But it just illustrates how easily sidetracked one can get while researching genealogy.

The benefits of doing such research, however, are great–even if (maybe especially if) one gets sidetracked while pursuing it.

The Bible says that genealogical studies can be “endless” (1 Tim. 1:4), leading us to get sidetracked from more important things in this present life. But the lessons to be learned from genealogical research are tremendous. We just have to keep our research properly balanced with the other responsibilities of life.

Perhaps the greatest lesson it has taught me is that I have what the psalmist called “a goodly heritage” (Psa. 16:6). I’ve discovered that my family tree includes a long line of Christian ancestors who were either preachers or teachers, and that line extends all the way to the present generation: an aunt and a cousin were teachers. My brother was a preacher. I was a teacher. And one of my daughters is a teacher. Seeing such continuity of calling in one’s heritage can provide a valuable motivation to make something of oneself, something of which his or her ancestors would be proud.

I can trace my heritage back only to 1735, when Charles Matthias Peterson was born in Kjolen, Sweden. One of his three sons, Tobias, was the first white settler of Poplar Creek in western North Carolina and is my direct ancestor. But those 282 years is far enough back for me to recognize the goodly heritage I have. That time span should provide enough information to keep my genealogical research going for the rest of my life, especially as sporadic as that research tends to be and as many rabbit trails as it leads me down!

I know that some of my readers are also doing their own genealogical research. I hope they enjoy the pursuit as much as I have.

 

Best Lessons from Worst Teachers

Sometimes the best lessons one can learn come from the worst teachers.

Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

As I recall the teachers I’ve had, from first grade through graduate school, however, I think that statement is absolutely correct. I’ve learned some of the most valuable lessons about how not to teach from teachers who taught incorrectly. (The bad teachers will go nameless in this blog!)

Knowing the subject matter is critical for any teacher. Students gain confidence and respect for a teacher who “knows his stuff.” But knowledge alone is insufficient. The teacher has to possess far more than mere knowledge. He or she must love the subject, and that love will come through to the students as enthusiasm, energy, vitality. The teacher must love the students, which means holding them to high standards of conduct and performance, making them work and exert themselves, and encouraging them to stretch their minds.

But an effective teacher must also know what he or she does not know and admit as much. Many teachers, when asked a challenging question, tried to muddle through an answer, hopeful that they would give the impression that they knew when really they didn’t. Apparently, such teachers thought that if they didn’t at least sound knowledgeable, the students would lose respect for them. Often, such teachers were evident by confusing, convoluted “answers” filled with a lot of meaningless jargon.

In fact, students respect a teacher who will openly admit that he or she doesn’t know an answer–but who works to find the answer and report back to the student what he or she has learned. A successful teacher is a perpetual student. No one ever knows it all about anything. Anything.

A successful teacher who is continually learning his subject matter will be eager to share that learning with the students. And that enthusiasm is contagious. An adage about writers is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” One could paraphrase that for teachers: “No enthusiasm in the teacher, no enthusiasm in the learner.”

We’ve no doubt all known teachers who just went through the motions. They came to class every day dragging their feet and dreading every moment in the classroom. They took advantage of every break away from students. They showed no desire to enhance lesson plans, lecture notes, and learning activities, preferring to do the same things year after year after year. They seemed to be putting in time until they could retire.

I once had a history teacher who often got so lost in his own world of history that he seemed to forget where he was. He sat behind his desk as he lectured. Sometimes he stared out the window, and we could see in his eyes that he was in a world far away, perhaps in ancient Egypt among the pyramids of the pharaohs. Suddenly, he stood up like a rocket being launched, raised his voice, and uttered some profound statement (maybe about those pyramids or pharaohs). Then he walked slowly around the room, continuing to lecture calmly.

Lecturing from behind one’s desk is not necessarily the best way to keep a class of high school students awake, but that teacher showed how deeply involved one could get in the subject he loved. When we saw Mr. Lakin staring out the window with that far-away look in his eyes, we knew that he loved (and lived) history and was lost in the past. He wanted us to catch that vision of the past, too. I don’t know about my classmates, but I did. When he stared out the window and saw Egypt, his verbal description took me with him, and I saw those same pyramids.

Mr. Booher had problems knowing how to deal with junior high class clowns, but he taught me a love for geography and map work through his quiet, knowledgeable encouragement of my efforts. But his lack of classroom discipline also taught me to set a standard of conduct early in the year and then stick to it consistently. I learned from his example that a teacher can always relax classroom rules if the students prove they can handle such freedom, but it’s well nigh impossible to “crack down” once one has permitted lax behavior to become the norm.

I also recall many teachers whom I saw come to class with only the textbook in hand, and I saw them go home in the afternoon the same way. No homework papers to grade and return to students. No lesson plan book. No extra materials brought from home or the library to share with the class. No interesting object lessons.

For some reason, the coaches were notorious for this. Many such teachers “taught” by simply assigning problems or readings to be done during the class hour while the teacher looked through Time or The Sporting News. They had us students grade our papers in class so they wouldn’t have any work to do after school or when they got home that night.

I had one math teacher who began every class by assigning a set of problems and then spent most of the class period smoking in the teachers’ lounge. Was it any wonder that the boys in the class got into trouble? No one but the teacher was surprised when they jury-rigged the door to open only with great difficulty for a week and then rigged it the next week to open too easily. The teacher, having acclimated herself to exerting great effort to open it that first week, nearly injured herself the next week when the door suddenly flew open with ease.

A few teachers, however, were always bringing something interesting to class. Their arms or book bags or briefcases were bulging with things they wanted to share with us. They believed in “teaching beyond the textbook,” in sharing with us some of the things they had discovered on personal trips or in their private reading. Quite often, the things brought in had nothing to do with the day’s lesson, but it was something extra that the teacher wanted to share, and it whetted our appetite for learning. A hornet’s nest. A geode. A thingamabob or a dowhichit. It was like “Teacher’s Show and Tell.”

It doesn’t have to be great, fantastic, earth-shattering things; it can be little, simple things. An old photograph with a story behind it. An old newspaper clipping. A letter from a soldier during the war. Or even a gun or bayonet (back in the old days when that was allowed) brought back as a war souvenir. An interesting story from an eccentric character. Or a short selection from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.

One can learn important lessons from even teachers with bad practices. But it’s always refreshing to learn from a teacher who does it right.

Remembering a Buggy Battlefield

olusteekaflThe largest battle of the War Between the States that took place in the state of Florida occurred on February 20, 1864. That historic location was also the site of another kind of combat that my family and I waged several years ago when we took a little side trip to visit the Olustee battlefield.

Although the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond, as it was known at the time) is today long forgotten by most people and little considered by those who do know about it, the official website of the battlefield (www.battleofolustee.org) says, “In proportion to the number of troops involved, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.” It almost became the site of my family’s own Waterloo.

The battle was the culmination of a move by Union troops from Hilton Head, S.C., to capture Jacksonville and then move inland, depriving the Confederacy of supplies of cotton, food, timber, and turpentine. Secondary motives were to recruit black soldiers from among the slaves that might be freed and to convince Unionist Floridians in the northern part of the state to form a separate government.

tseymourfineganjoseph63As the 5,500 Union troops under General Truman A. Seymour (left) moved into the interior of northern Florida with their 16 cannons, the Confederate forces under Brigadier General Joseph Finegan (right) put out a call for help and began preparing to force the enemy to colquittcivilwarfight on the Confederates’ terms. Southern troops from Georgia under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt (left) arrived to join Finegan’s force.

Finegan chose as his battlefield a place called Ocean Pond (today known as Olustee). He anchored the left end of his defensive line on the pond and his right end on an impenetrable swamp. He positioned his infantrymen in the narrow passage of dry land between these two points and supported the ends with cavalry.

The Union forces made first contact with Confederate skirmishers on the afternoon of the 20th, and the Southerners lured the Union troops into the preferred battlefield. It was covered with pine trees, but there was no underbrush and the Confederates had prepared no earthworks. The resulting battle raged until dark, when the Unionists retreated, leaving behind 1,861 dead. The Confederates lost about half that many (946).

The Confederate victory at Olustee allowed the interior of Florida to remain in Confederate hands for the rest of the war.

Several years ago, having read something about this little-known battlefield but wanting to know more, I decided that it also might be an educational stopover for my four daughters during one of our trips to visit their grandparents in South Florida. We got off of I-75 onto I-10 near Lake City and headed east toward Jacksonville. At that time, there had been no development along that route, and I was concerned about running out of gas or having car trouble in such a desolate place. And when you’re in unfamiliar territory, travel seems to take much longer than it really does.

About 15 miles east of Lake City, 50 miles west of Jacksonville, we found the exit for U.S. 90 and then traveled about 5 1/2 miles south to the battlefield. The only things we passed on the way were swamps, a prison (a desolate, swampy place is ideal for a prison, but don’t pick up hitchhikers!), and dismal-looking pine barrens. The entrance to the battlefield was nondescript and the battlefield itself was visually unimpressive. We drove up to a tiny, pine tree-surrounded building that seemed about the size of a POD or a shipping container. That was the welcome center and the museum.

Seeing a few monuments and cannons behind the building, we exited the car to stretch our legs and begin our educational tour. And what an education we got!

Gray clouds of mosquitoes attacked us as soon as we opened the car doors and followed us from exhibit to exhibit while being joined by reinforcements every step of the way. The girls got their exercise running and slapping and complaining. Even I, as focused as I was on gaining as much knowledge about this battlefield as I could, finally gave up trying to stay in one spot long enough to read anything. I was too busy retreating from mosquitoes. We found temporary refuge inside the tiny museum, but we could look at the few items housed there only so many times, then we had to dash to the car and hope that not too many of the enemy slipped inside with us.

The time we spent at Olustee was the shortest of all of the many visits our family has made to numerous Civil War battlefields. Granted, we were at Olustee in the summertime, whereas the actual battle occurred in February, but I still wonder how the soldiers of both sides stood it. Did they bathe in citronella before the battle? I also wonder how many of the 2,800 or so casualties in that battle were the result of mosquito bites! Maybe the mosquitoes, not Southern troops, were the reason the north-central part of the state remained in Confederate hands!

The Power of a Good Book Series

Never underestimate the power of a good book series, even if it’s not great literature, to spark an interest in reading. It might just develop into a reading habit that leads to great literature or even evolves into a career.

When I was in fifth grade at Halls Elementary School, Mrs. George conducted a contest in our class to see who could read the most books. She gave each student a small envelope inside of which were several ruled 3 x 5 cards. We each wrote our name on the flap of the envelope and thumb-tacked it, cards inside, onto a bulletin board. Mrs. George then took us to the library, where we selected whatever book(s) we wanted to read for the contest. When we finished each book, we recorded its title on the index card and chose another book.

I don’t know who won the contest (it wasn’t me), but in a sense I did win because that contest began for me a life-long habit of reading. The books I chose back then not only set me on the road to reading but also helped guide my career choice. I found through that contest that I enjoyed reading books in two particular series, one of which developed in me an interest in and love of history.

hardy-boys-mysteriesThe first series, the one that hooked me on reading, was the Hardy Boys mystery series. Of the 50 or so titles that made up the original segment of the series, I ended up reading about 44 or 45 of them. The titles are still vivid in my mind, as are the cover illustrations.

These books were not great literature by any measure; they were formula books. The basic plot line was always the same: the Hardy brothers are confronted with a mystery that baffles not only the local police but also their detective father, they set about solving the case with the occasional help of their “chums,” and they solve it after having some exciting and nail-biting adventures. When the publisher began revising the books and adding new, “modern” titles, and when the TV series came out, I was disappointed because neither the new books nor the TV version lived up to the standard that the original books had set. But the books in the original series kept me turning the pages under the bed covers using a flashlight long after I should have been asleep. And they made me realize that an entire world awaited me between the covers of books.

landmark-booksThe second book series that influenced me, the one that helped steer me into a career in teaching and writing about historical topics, was the Random House Landmark series of histories and biographies. I still remember the individual titles and cover illustrations on the books from that series. It was from those books, not my history textbook, that I really learned about the Pony Express, West Point, the military heroes of our nation, the battles they fought to win and maintain our freedoms, and many other topics.

landmark-alamoI remember that the title on the spine of a book was what first caught my attention. I lifted the book from the shelf and looked at the cover illustration–for a long time. Then I paged through the book, gaining an overview of what it was about and looking at any illustrations or photos that it included. If you study the accompanying photos of some of those books, is it any wonder that I became interested in American history? In those books was excitement, adventure–and I lived vicariously the events recounted in them.

During my early years of teaching junior high students, I bought several of the old Landmark books that I found in used book stores or at yard sales to stock my classroom library. Whenever students finished a test or some other seatwork, they knew that I expected them to be busy with some other constructive work until the rest of the class finished, andlandmark-pony-express one option was reading those books. Many of the students did read them and, most gratifying to me, they voluntarily discussed them with me. When I shifted careers and left the classroom, I donated the books to a school. I sort of wish I had kept them. Looking at the covers, reading the titles, and remembering the joy they gave me when I first read them, I sort of want to read them again.

landmark-flying-tigerslandmark-d-dayUnlike the Hardy Boys series, which used many mediocre ghostwriters under the pseudonym “Franklin W. Dixon,” Random House had some world-class authors and experts in history writing the Landmark books. They included such people as William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, John Gunther, Pearl S. Buck, F. Van Wyck Mason, Richard Tregaskis, Bob Considine, Robert Penn Warren,C. S. Forester, John Toland, and Ted W. Lawson. Lawson’s writing (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) really snagged my interest because he wrote from first-hand experience as one of the pilots on the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo in the early months of World War II.

Yes, these two series of books hold a special place in my curriculum vitae. They helped lay a foundation for reading that has served me well over the years. Do you have a similarly influential series that you would like to share? If so, I’d be interested in hearing from you about it.

 

Slow Learner

treadmillBy my age, you’d think that I would learn. But apparently I’m a slow learner. Only classes in Hard-Knock University seem to make enough on an impression to drive home the lesson. It all started with a routine that I’ve repeated many times before. But this time it didn’t turn out quite the way I expected.

I had hopped onto the treadmill to begin my regular 5:25 a.m. exercise session. Something to get the circulation moving after my time of devotions and before I started the work of the day. I usually watch the local TV news while running on the treadmill. Takes my mind off the aching joints and the tickling drops of sweat running down my back. Makes me feel as though I’m not wasting my time or running hard without getting anywhere. But that morning the volume on the TV was too low for me to hear clearly over the whine of the treadmill motor and the pounding of my feet on the belt. And I realized that someone had left the remote on the couch.

That had happened before. Or I had thought of a writing idea or something that I had to do. Rather than forget (and that happens a lot lately), I had often hopped off the treadmill, written down whatever it was that I didn’t want to forget, and hopped right back onto the treadmill without missing a beat. It was almost second nature to me by this time. So I thought nothing of hopping off and fetching the TV remote. But this time the treadmill was going faster. Much faster. And I didn’t think. I merely hopped back on as I always had done.

Suddenly, I was down on my left knee. The soft rubber belt of the treadmill had transformed itself into a belt sander and was chewing off skin right down to the meat. Then I flew off the back end of the treadmill and hit my rump and, as I tried to rescue myself, my wrist. And the insensitive belt kept going.

I extricated myself as quickly as I could and assessed the damage. A 3×2-inch rectangle on my knee was a bloody pulp and hurt like crazy. I could feel the pain in my rump and wrist, but the knee pain overshadowed those injuries. It didn’t, however, overrule the embarrassment I suddenly felt. I could hear my wife running up the stairs to see what had happened. She had just gotten out of her shower, which is directly beneath the treadmill, and she had heard–and felt–the tell-tale sound of trouble. Half-clothed, she came running. I hated to tell her what had happened.

As I’ve recuperated, I’ve had time to reflect on the incident. I was doing something that I knew better than to do. But I had violated the rules of treadmill safety many other times and nothing had happened. I knew what I was doing. I was young and agile enough to hop off a moving treadmill and hop back onto it with the greatest of ease and gracefulness. I was careful. Nothing would happen. Accidents on treadmills happen only to other people, those who don’t know what they’re doing. Until that day.

Oh, I’ll be more careful from now on! I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve recognized the fact that I’m perhaps not quite as agile as I thought I was. It won’t happen again. Or will it? Knowing myself as I do, I suspect that one day–after having been really careful for a few weeks–I’ll suddenly think while running on the treadmill of something I need to do or get or write down, and, without thinking, I’ll hop off, do what needs to be done, and hop right back on again. I’ll tempt fate yet again, thinking that I can handle it. And, no doubt, I will–a few times. But, eventually, I’ll take another fall. Unless I discipline myself not to do so.

More importantly, I thought about the bigger picture and the bigger lesson for me from this incident. The children of Israel got on a treadmill after they got into the Promised Land. They became distracted and sidetracked by the events of life and became ensnared in the idolatry of the Canaanites around them. Presuming upon the grace and goodness of God, they fell into the sins of the world around them. And God punished them. They cried out to Him for deliverance, and He raised up judges to rescue them from their oppressors. They enjoyed peace for a time but then fell back into their sins. It became a vicious cycle: sin, judgment, repentance, deliverance, peace, and then sin again.

Am I any different? How often do I run on the treadmill called life, oblivious to the dangers of my actions, and have to learn the hard way to beware of presumption and negligence? Oh, more times than I want to admit! You too?

We’ve all, no doubt, seen the video clips of people on treadmills and how things suddenly go wrong, sending them flying off the back or stumbling around. It’s funny when it’s not you–not so much when it is you! Why must we learn the hard way?

Random Sage Advice from Famous Writers

One learns to write by writing. But it never hurts to have guidance from someone who has already proven themselves successful at the task. Following are some random bits of advice by some of those people. I don’t necessarily agree with their political or economic opinions or condone everything they wrote, but they were successful and prolific writers, so they knew how to write and were successful at it. Their advice is instructing me; maybe it will help you, too.

IMG_0823Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Richard Bach: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

W. Somerset Maugham: “Writing is a whole-time job: no professional writer can afford only to write when he feels like it.”

T.S. Eliot: “Writing every day is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.”

James Michener: “Many people who want to be writers don’t really want to be writers. They want to have been writers. They wish they had a book in print.”

J.J. Rousseau: “However great a man’s natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once.”

Lewis Carroll: “I don’t want to take up literature in a money-making spirit, or be very anxious about making large profits, but selling it at a loss is another thing altogether, and an amusement I cannot well afford.”

John Steinbeck: “Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person, and write to that one.”

Alfred Kazin: “In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratifications, is a curious anticlimax.”

Montesquieu: “A man who writes well writes not as others write, but as he himself writes. . . .”

John Kenneth Galbraith: “There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.”

Burton Rascoe: “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”

A Dangerous Game

Ray_Chapman_BaseballIt was the top of the fifth inning, and 29-year-old Ray had only about twelve hours to live. But, of course, he didn’t know that.

He stepped from the Cleveland dugout swinging his bat as though he meant business and strode to the plate. He stepped into the batter’s box, shouldered his bat, and took his characteristic hunched-over stance, his head nearly in the strike zone.

Ray Chapman was the Cleveland Indians’ star shortstop and one of the most popular players in the team’s history. In his nine-year major league career, he already had led the league in put-outs three times. As a batter, his specialty was getting on base the hard way–by getting hit by pitches. That was as good a way to get on base as any, he reasoned. Anything to help the team win.

Chapman was on his way to a possible place in the Hall of Fame. In his nine years, he had scored 671 runs; gotten 1,053 hits, 162 doubles, and 81 triples; stolen 238 bases; and gotten 452 walks. His batting average topped .300 four times. And the Kentucky-born baseballer had gotten on base by being hit by pitches 19 times.

In the game on Monday, August 16, 1920, Chapman had failed to get on base his first time up, but the law of averages was on his side. After all, he was batting .303 as he stepped to the plate. His wife was expecting their first child. He would get on base for her.

As Chapman stepped up to bat, he faced another Kentucky-born player, the New York Yankees’ submarine fastball pitcher Carl Mays. Mays was also a Hall-of-Fame-quality player. Already half-way through the sixth year as a major league player, he had another nine years of baseball ahead of him. His career stats would show five years with 20 or more wins and only four years with a losing record. He would end the 1920 season with a record of 26-11 and follow that with a 27-9 record in 1921. He wasn’t a bad batter either, especially for a pitcher. He would end up with a career batting average of .268. In 1927, he would bat a career high of .406. In only two seasons would he bat below .200.

Carl_Mays,_1915But unlike Chapman, Mays was not a popular man. Not even his teammates liked him. A lot of it had to do with his pitching style. His submarine delivery made the ball hard to see. Sometimes his delivery was so low that his knuckles actually dragged the mound before he released the ball. And Mays was an infamous “head hunter,” a “bean-ball” pitcher. He was not at all reluctant to brush batters off the plate. When the batter inched away from the plate for fear of getting “beaned,” Mays ran the ball outside, yet just close enough to the zone to get the strike called. In 1917, Mays led the league with 14 hit batters. In his fifteen-year career, he would bean 89 batters.

Chapman entered the batter’s box second guessing Mays. He expected a curve ball that would look as though it was going to be a ball inside but would suddenly run outside and catch the outside corner. So when Mays threw a hard, straight fastball, Chapman didn’t bail out. He didn’t even flinch.

Fans and players alike heard a tremendous crack, and they looked this way and that to see where the ball had been hit. Babe Ruth, playing right field, later said that he had heard an “explosion.” Mays saw the ball trickle toward the first-base side of the mound. He leaped over and fielded the ball and flipped it to Wally Pipp for the out. But Pipp saw that Chapman hadn’t run. Instead, he had collapsed at home plate, blood streaming from his ear. The ball had hit him squarely in the left temple.

The Cleveland players raced to the plate to see if their teammate was okay. They helped him to his feet, and, in their supporting arms, he walked back toward the clubhouse, but then

he collapsed, unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors operated to relieve pressure on his brain. He never regained consciousness and died at 12:30 the next morning. Chapman was the only major league baseball player to die of an injury received on the playing field.

Baseball changed after that terrible incident. Umpires, who had been under fire for using too many balls during games, began requiring that game balls be changed more frequently. If the ball was scuffed or discolored in any way, they exchanged it for a new one. That made the ball easier to see. The assumption of baseball brass was that Chapman had not seen the ball.

The balls also were made differently thereafter. They were wound more tightly, which meant that batters hit them farther when they made contact. The era of the “dead ball” was over; the day of the home run had arrived. And with it came hitters like Babe Ruth, men who clobbered the ball.

And that led to changes in how pitchers pitched. Hurlers had to pitch more carefully; if they were careless, they might be watching their pitches fly from the park. That meant more and harder work for them, so they were unable to pitch as many innings. The number of complete games pitched by a starter dropped. Teams then had to beef up their bullpens with more and better relief pitchers. Whereas relievers had been used generally in the late innings, now they came into games in middle innings.

Some people wanted changes that were not so quickly forthcoming. Many players, including Ty Cobb, called for Mays to be banned from baseball. That never happened. He played for another nine seasons. Other people called for a requirement that all batters wear helmets. That didn’t happen right away, but today players at all levels wear helmets.

But another baseball event occurred on August 16: the great Babe Ruth, a teammate of Carl Mays, died in 1948. The Babe had retired in 1935, amassing a legendary record, especially with his 714 career home runs, a record that would stand until Henry Aaron surpassed it in 1974, and his 60 homers in a single season, which Roger Maris broke by one only in 1961. Ruth had started out as a formidable pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, but his years as a hitter for New York would be his legacy.

But Ruth was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1946. Despite treatments, little could be done for him. He last wore his New York pin-stripes on June 13, 1948, when he watched as the Yankees retired his number 3. Two months later, he was dead at the age of 53.

August 16 is a sad date in the annals of baseball history. It’s a day for thinking about the need for safety in the game. It’s sad that players get so caught up with the desire to win that they fail to regard their own and other players’ safety. It’s sad when great careers must end because of injuries, aging, or disease. It’s sad when players make mistakes and are robbed of the honors due them because of that one indiscretion.

But it’s all a part of that great game, America’s pastime–baseball.

Reflections on One Life

13886856_10153913069922545_592853808567662840_n[1]Two common themes that nearly always arise during discussions among historians are change and continuity. There is an ever-present tendency for things to change with time. But there is also something in mankind that strives to keep things as they have been.

Change implies vision, hope, forward thinking, improvement, betterment, advancement, movement. Change can be good, offering the very improvement that so many people yearn for. But it can sometimes be bad if it does not result in real improvement. In fact, it can sometimes produce the exact opposite than what is hoped for.

Continuity, on the other hand, implies stability, security, predictability, solidity, dependability. It’s what young children unknowingly want in their family lives. It’s what businesses want of employees. It’s what employees want of their jobs. It’s what peoples want and expect from their government and its leaders. The desire for continuity is what causes us to resist change.

These two yearnings–for change and yet for continuity–are in constant tension.

As I’ve reflected over the last few days of my Aunt Annie (shown on the left in the accompanying photo with her sister Jean) and the memories I have of her, I’ve realized that each of us who is part of the Summers clan remembers different things about her. And even if some of us remember some of the same things, we recall them differently.

But looking at general memories rather than specific details, I see above all else continuity in Aunt Annie’s life. I remember Nannie’s once recounting the number of different places she and Paw had lived–I think it was a dozen or more different “removes.” Yet, when I think of Annie and Ed, I recall only one house that they called home–the house on Depot Street in Heiskell, Tennessee. And I think that was generally true for most of her siblings. Dillon–the house by the railroad trestle. Mother–the house on Fort Sumter Road. Roscoe–the house on Tillery Road (I think that was the road). That’s continuity.

When I read Annie’s obituary, I was struck by the fact that she had been a member of the same church for 67 years. That’s unheard of today. Most people don’t even have what they can truly call a “church home.” Those who do usually have been in that church ten years or less. Sixty-seven years–that’s continuity!

Different generations and even different individuals within the same family can be so–well, different. Some are loud and outgoing. Others are quieter and more withdrawn. Shirley and I discussed this in an e-mail conversation a while back, we two tending to be among the quieter members of the clan. Like change and continuity, neither is necessarily good or bad. As a kid, I saw definite advantages in keeping quiet. But I now wish I had asked the adult relatives more questions about our family history.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of change, but I think that an important lesson we can learn and strive to emulate from Aunt Annie’s legacy is the stability of continuity. At least that’s my take on this microcosm of history.