Snake In The Barn

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Snake In The Barn: The Lazy Man’s Way

Our family lived on a small farm in East Tennessee.  We had a garden where we grew vegetables and we always raised a few calves to sell at the market and a cow for fresh milk.

My father built an electric fence around our property to keep the livestock from getting out.  He put the controls for the electric fence in the top of the barn far enough up to keep kids and cows from getting tangled up in them.  We also kept calves in the barn.

One day, a tree fell onto the electric fence.  My father told me to go to the barn and turn off the electric fence so he could remove the tree and fix the fence.

I ran to the barn. Instead of going to get a ladder I decided to climb up the wall of the barn. I did this by putting my fingers in the spaces between the boards that made up the walls of the barn and pulling myself up until I could stand on the wooden cross pieces.

There were three small calves in the stall of the barn where the electric fence controls were located. They had made quite a mess in the floor of the barn. The dirt floor of the stall was a delightful combination of mud, cow manure, urine and hay. On a hot day the smell of ammonia would knock you down. The calves stood placidly in the muck watching me curiously as I climbed up the wall of the barn.

I put my feet on a board that ran sideways about halfway up the wall of the barn.  I didn’t realize how far from the wall of the barn my father had put the electric fence control. To reach it, I had to put my left hand on top of the barn wall and lean way, way, way back. The first time I leaned back I couldn’t reach the control.  So, I leaned back close to the barn wall, moved my left hand a little and leaned back out again. I had almost reached the switch for the electric fence when I felt something move by my left hand.

I pulled myself toward the barn wall and came face to face with the head of a large black snake. I had put my hand right by a snake that was making himself comfortable near the warm tin of the barn roof. The snake’s tongue flicked out near my nose. I was very afraid of snakes so I let go with my left hand and, before I knew it, I was lying on my back on the muddy barn floor with three calves looking down at me.

Those calves had seen a lot in their lives but they had never seen a boy come diving down from the roof. Those calves started running and bawling and bucking and kicking all around that stall. When I went outside the barn my dad and my brother and my sister saw that I was covered with mud and cow manure from the floor of the barn.  They laughed and laughed and laughed. Years later a friend of mine said something that made me remember that day.  It would have a taken me a little longer to go get a ladder and climb up there and flip that switch on the electric fence.  I tried to save a few steps by climbing up the barn wall.

My friend said, “A lazy man will work himself to death.”

A daily newspaper

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Where I grew up, newspapers arrived like urgent messages from the outside world. A local newspaper, the Kingsport Times-News, arrived daily and was taken apart and read in sections by the entire family. As a teen, because my parents aided and abetted my thirst for knowing, I discovered newspapers from New York and even London in the Kingsport Public Library. I devoured them and felt deprived when I could not get to them.

For a decade, I made a living writing and taking photographs for newspapers. Never mind I started when I was 14, my profession felt vital and real. I left that life behind long ago, helped along by a publisher who employed me but did not share my craving for the truth at any cost, but I’ve never lost the habit of reading several newspapers a day.

My strange little family and I are “between houses” right now and living in an apartment with 350 units, about 500 people. Four newspapers get delivered here, two of them are ours. (A third one comes in the mail from Shelbyville for the mother-in-law.) The plastic-wrapped papers lie against the front doors of the apartment, huddling together as if for warmth. The staff brings them inside. Half of the newspapers that get delivered here don’t get picked up. The staff keeps them for a few days and then they throw them away.

There are televisions everywhere. Always on, usually muted. I would like to think that people are reading their newspapers online but I doubt that is the case. Maybe they read a story or two that shows up in their social media feed. I wonder, do they know about the two humanitarian aid workers who were murdered and buried in a shallow grave in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week? Do they know about the judge who resigned in this city yesterday? Do they know how much money the President’s daughter and son-in-law are raking off the table while supposedly serving our country? Do they know there are American soldiers in the Middle East who have stayed behind, unwilling or unable to stop fighting an abandoned war? Are they aware of the epidemic of opioid abuse that is killing whole communities in rural America? Do they realize that a foreign power, our oldest and most reliable enemy, has its hooks deep in several of the President’s men? Do they understand how important those stories are and how they are connected? Do they realize most of the stories in their news feeds were created just for them and delivered there for a fee? No, they don’t know.

The greatest threat to our nation is not common criminals we call terrorists, it is chemically assisted, entertainment enabled ignorance.

It’s a strange new world, so far from where I began. I understand it, I live in it, but it does not live inside of me.

Two Hearts, Two Libraries

Releasing well-loved books into the wild

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One of the best things my parents ever bought me was a $3 library card. I grew up in Mount Carmel, Tennessee and after I read all the books in the library there (it was a very, very small library) my Mom and Dad scraped together three precious dollars and let me get a card for the Kingsport, Tennessee library.

It was a magnificent place. A temple to reading. They would allow me to check out 12 books at a time. It was there I discovered that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were not the best books Mark Twain wrote. Not even close. I read them all, including Letters from the Earth, the book his estate would not allow to be published until all of his friends and family died. After plowing through Twain, I would find an author I liked, start with his or her first book, and read them all.

I didn’t know that in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, there was a young woman doing the same thing.

Long before we met we engaged in the same passions. We are readers. Challenging books. Travel books. Art histories. I read contemporary American fiction. She reads books about the great world religions and art history. We both take pleasure in reading. The sacred ceremonial art of it. A cup of coffee or tea. A cocktail or a glass of wine or port. A comfortable chair. Good light. On many mornings, long before we found each other, we would wake in empty beds with only the book we were reading the night before splayed out on the covers. Ravaged.

We were both farm-raised. These books have been our constant companions. Before we actually traveled the world, we traveled the universe in our own minds with books in our hands. She moved her library to college, Los Angeles and back and then to the home we share in Nashville. I moved my library to college, then to Nashville and from home to home to home there and finally to reside with her books.

Three years ago, we got married and combined our libraries. We didn’t go through the books then but, because we are moving, we decided to give away most of the books.

We read electronic books now, access quotes and do research online, listen to audio books. We both hate clutter. We kept about 200 books. Books we love. Family Bibles. The best Quran we had out of the multiple ones we had collected separately. Some classics. Thoughtful gifts from friends and family. We found two copies of several books we had both read before we met. I kept hardbacks by Hemingway, Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Ayn Rand and a few more authors. She kept books by her favorite writers and books that were particularly important to her.

Today, I took 580 of them to a place that buys and sells used books.

It occurs to me that because we have each other now, perhaps we are not as reliant on these silent companions as we once were. Maybe that’s why we were able to let them go. We didn’t discard them. We set them free.

Perhaps they will be a comfort to others. Those books need to go live out their lives as we will, in the company of good people, good books, good conversation and with the occasional glass of wine. We hope those books are loved by their new owners as we loved them and as we now love each other.

Finding Fletcher Ridge

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My people are from the rough and lovely mountains of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. Up in those hollows, where you hail from matters. Who your people are is also of considerable import. Some of my ancestors were from a place called Fletcher Ridge.

One Sunday afternoon, my Dad and I decided to try to find Fletcher Ridge. In the days before Google mapped the world, finding a place was more difficult that hitting a button on your phone. There were few street signs and vast swaths of unmapped area.

Directions offered by store keeps and gas station attendants usually involved phrases like “that big oak” or “a big red barn set back from the road” or “Junior Johnson’s place” or “where that big Chestnut used to stand.” If you didn’t understand those directions then, truth is, you probably shouldn’t be up in the mountains to start with and you might want to go back home before somebody gets the idea you are from the federal government and decides to run you in a ditch, or worse.

We drove from Mount Carmel, through Kingsport and on through the known world. We passed through Gate City, then up the valley toward Nickelsville, then a quick right up Big Moccasin, then up, up, up into the mountains. Unmarked roads. Some paved. Some with shot gravel. Some plain dirt.

We went up and down ridges, into dark hollows and through vast stands of virgin timber. We did not find Fletcher Ridge. We were both disappointed. As I drove, I said to my Dad, “Well, it’s not like we are going to come around a corner and there’s going to be a big sign that says ‘Welcome to Fletcher Ridge.’

He agreed and we decided to head home and in that moment, in that exact instant, we came around a curve and there, up in a guy’s yard, was a homemade wooden sign.

Fletcher Ridge

I got on the brakes hard and pulled over. We were stunned to silence. Then we started laughing. Fletcher’s love to laugh. I got out and took some pictures. We admired the guy’s handiwork including the wooden dog he carved with its own sign – Bad Dog.

A photo of that sign and dog has been on the wall of my office for some 20 years. It doesn’t mean much these days, except to me and a handful of Fletchers, Owens, Blevins, Cortners, Herndons and Jesses.

Fletcher Ridge. Perhaps now it only exists in my imagination. A high place in the mountains. A place where the truth matters. A place where people keep their word. A place of honor and justice. A place where you are expected to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. A place where almost everybody can tell a good story, or play a guitar or sing a pretty good acapella version of Amazing Grace.

One day soon I’m going to go looking for Fletcher Ridge again. Maybe Google found it. Maybe my brother will go with me, or my Mom. Maybe we will take some ham biscuits with us and have lunch by a creek. Maybe we will find it. Maybe we won’t. It will make a good story either way.

A Rumination On Silence

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Silence
Even the word is a rebuke to its meaning
Full of sibilance and a hard press of wind
between the teeth
Silence.
No.
Silence!
That’s better.
Is it possible to speak about silence?
Isn’t the act itself a rebuke to the subject?
I once read the words of a great jazz musician
who said
Writing about music
Is like dancing about architecture.
And so
Isn’t speaking about silence
like painting about nothingness
or sculpting about nature?
One of the most
devastatingly effective prayers
I ever heard
was on the subject of silence.
The pastor
a bit of a rogue
prayed a bit and then said in the hushed tones of prayerfulness
we were to be silent
but rather than the ten or fifteen seconds of silence
considered acceptable in a Methodist gathering
one long minute passed
and then another
and
well, it was awkward.
By the time his voice was lifted
into the rafters of the old church
I was having to suppress laughter
while coughing and sneezing and squirming in the pews
reached a fever pitch.
They were not amused
but he was
and I was
and we are still friends.

Saving Steps

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On the little farm in Mount Carmel we had a few chickens so that we would have fresh eggs.

Every morning one of the little chores that we would have to do before we went to school was gathering the eggs that had been laid by the chickens the night before.

We had a little chicken house about 100 feet down the hill from the back of the house. Every morning one of us would take a little straw basket down to the hen house and gather up the eggs. Usually there would be five or six eggs. Sometimes more. Sometimes less.

One morning I was getting ready to go to school and I was pretty excited because I had some brand new blue jeans.

New blue jeans were a bit of an event around our house. We didn’t always have enough money to buy new clothes and it really meant something when you got a new pair of blue jeans. I still remember those jeans. They were so dark and blue and had copper rivets at some of the stress points. I was real proud of those jeans and pretty excited to have them. I was so excited that I forgot to take the egg basket with me when I went to get the eggs.

When I got down to the hen house I had a real problem because there was a bumper crop of eggs that morning and I didn’t have the egg basket. I got all the eggs out and there were nine of them. I could get two eggs in each hand so I realized that meant two or three trips up and down the hill even if I got the basket.

Then I noticed the nice big pockets in my blue jeans. Ahhhhh. Problem solved.

I started stuffing the eggs in the pockets of my new jeans. Nine eggs? No problem.

I started walking up to the house pretty pleased with myself that I had solved my problem without having to make extra trips. What I didn’t count on was the steps leading up to the back porch. I went trotting up those back steps and I heard “pop pop pop” around my thighs. I immediately realized I had broken some of the eggs and big tears started coming to my eyes.

I walked into the kitchen and presented myself to my Mom who wasn’t upset at all about the eggs. She tried to make me feel better as she stripped those jeans off of me and started cleaning up the eggs. She said she would wash the jeans for me and I could wear them the next day. I was devastated. I went back to the room I shared with my brother, picked out some of my old britches and put them on and went off to school.

I wore my new jeans the next day but they weren’t quite as nice and new as they were the day before. I learned a valuable lesson that day about the consequences of trying to save a few steps.

Happy Birthday Jesus

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Happy Birthday Jesus. I love Jesus. I dig on Mohammed, blessed be his name, too. Pass the gefilte fish. Know that if you ever go to a meat and three with the Buddha, he’s going to have the pie. I am Shiva, the re-constructor (not the destroyer … bad translation.) Hare Krishna!! I embrace all religions … all faiths … and I believe that there are things in this Universe that we do not understand, and cannot understand. That’s why it’s called faith. I have been in the high temples of Europe and smoky houses of faith in the Orient and have felt a sense of awe in those and many other sacred places. Infinity is a thing. At the end of the day, higher mathematics and religious ecstasy are the same thing. Ones and Zeros. If you want to get strip searched at an airport, drop a Koran in your bag. I was once robbed with a Bible. Failing to embrace someone else’s faith is to deny your own. Good and Evil exist in the world. I’ve seen both up close. They both have bad breath. Which is to say … what we do in this life echoes in eternity …  what you do to the least of these you do unto me … love thy neighbor … thou shalt never eat anything bigger than your head…  thou shalt not do murder … these are all just as important as smiting the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. This is taken from my Book of Common Prayer. Peace unto you. And also unto you. Love one another. As it is written, so it shall be. Amen.

Now What?

And so now I return to my regularly scheduled life. 

Doing a big campaign like Foster Campbell is like going off to war except nobody dies and I don’t end up with PTSD. But now I want to sleep in my own bed. I want to take my wife to dinner and enjoy her making fun of my bed head hair when I get up in the morning. I want to play golf on Saturday mornings. I want to surprise my daughter when I pop in and have lunch with her. I want to take care of my clients. I want to be able to say yes when a friend wants to have a drink after work. I’m gonna go see my mother, and my brother. A friend of mine is buying a boat and, even though I don’t know anything about boats and I have a moderate fear of deep water, he wants me to go with him to get it and I think I will. 

All of that will be awesome. This campaign will become a memory. The adrenaline rush of trying to bend an entire state to my will, on a deadline, with strategies, words and pictures cannot be adequately explained to someone on the outside. We won a lot of races this year and I had the good fortune to elect the governor of Louisiana 25 years ago. But the world has changed yet again and Foster Campbell striding onto the floor the United States Senate is not to be. The world is a sadder place because of that because John Neely Kennedy will be a boring lapdog and Foster Campbell in the United States Senate … that … that would’ve been a hell of a damn show.

Baseball Brings Us Together

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I took this photo and wrote this more than a decade ago. Tonight, Americans will put aside their differences and watch a baseball game. This is why:

This has been a great year. A year of highs and lows. Of sweet memories and bitter disappointment. This picture is one of my favorites from the year … the hands of the JV squad joined together before a game. Such hope. Such promise.

When I think back to all the times I’ve spent with my children at ballparks over the years it seems like I’ve spent a lifetime there … and it’s gone by in the blink of an eye. I’ve eaten some great hamburgers and some bad hotdogs at the ballparks. Our children and our team have brought us together. Many of us would never have met otherwise.

 There is a timeless quality to a baseball game … a suspension of time. Baseball is the only major team sport without a clock. It’s the only major team sport where the defense starts every play with the ball. It is a game of finesse and power, of speed and deliberation, of individual effort and teamwork. One mighty swing, one errant throw can change the course of a game in the blink of an eye.

It has been such a joy to watch these young men grow and develop over time. One of the players from last year was at the ballpark today and it was like seeing an old friend. We shook hands and in that handshake were all the memories of last year and of this year and of all the memories yet to be.

We will never regret our hours at the ballpark. We will remember the wins and forget the losses. We will come across a picture in a box some distant day and we will feel the dust of the field in our mouths, we will remember our children standing in the closely-mown grass and we will remember these timeless days with sadness and longing.

Bill Fletcher

May 11, 2004