Category Archives: Springdale

Ramblings About Immigration & The Wall

When I was younger, I tried to get deported -and failed.

I cobbled together shorter versions of stories I never seem to finish. Please accept my apologies for the weird combination of words to describe people and processes. I know that “legal vs. illegal,” or “undocumented” or “alien” have specific meanings and ramifications. My heart is openly liberal about this issue, so please forego assumptions if I use any of the words or their synonyms lazily. Even though I will have passed from this place before it happens, one day the Latinos will surpass the other demographics and became the majority in the United States. They will win by sheer numbers. They’ll write the history books and look back on our insistence on blaming the lowest denominator for the issues in society. As is always the case, those that froth for deportation and border walls are going to look quite different in the lens of history.

I spent many years working in the poultry plants in Northwest Arkansas. When I started, the Latino workforce was already rapidly growing, even 30 years ago. The rapid growth of our local poultry industries owes much of its success and growth to the exploding Latino population. Most people nod their heads in polite agreement with this statement; just how true it is depends on whether you worked the productions lines of a poultry plant in Arkansas. NWA’s construction boom certainly owes much of its success to the immigrant population.

For years, though, we played the ‘wink’ game of pretending that a staggering percentage of our workforce wasn’t undocumented to work in the U.S. This, of course, was fine by me. I could plainly see that these Latinos were much more willing to work and certainly more willing to submit themselves to excruciatingly difficult work to improve their lives. I learned their language and acquired a love for some of their music and most of their food. (Except for that horrible Banda/Norteño style that I couldn’t acquire a taste for!) I never understood the tendency to fear other languages and cultures, whereas being surrounded by such diversity seem to amplify the opportunities of life.

Given the nature of the majority of the work, the most important attribute for anyone was the ability and willingness to submit to relentless work, regardless of country of origin or skin color. It’s an obvious statement to mention that prejudice ran rampant in the poultry plants; many non-Latinos hated their Latino counterparts, and not just because of the language barrier. Most of the towns in NWA were quiet and isolated until the late 70s, when industry and modern highways opened up as arteries to explosive growth. As with most isolated agricultural towns, our towns tended to exhibit the expected prejudices found in such places. Some have urban legends and real anecdotes to demonstrate their previous insistence on small-mindedness; I won’t list them here. Prejudice tends to blossom anywhere there is a need to create excuses for problems or where education fails to keep pace with the preached dominance of the majority group. There were plenty of Latinos who hated Americans, too – and many who hated me, especially when they realized that language wasn’t a barrier for me. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to see that many of them earned that resentment, after needing to come here unwillingly out of economic necessity and forge a new life, many of them working at a level I would never have survived. Even today, decades later, many U.S. citizens still lump all Latinos into one group to disparage them and their contributions.

Aside from the low-key compliance paperwork visits that Immigration would make to the facility, we experienced rare raids, one in which federal agents magically appeared, followed by long buses to transport suspect undocumented workers to a holding facility prior to being deported. For anyone who has never witnessed such a spectacle of fear, I can’t describe it without resorting to hyperbole. As word that Immigration was entering hit the production lines, these lines that NEVER stopped suddenly swung to full stop as knives and work tools were dropped or thrown everywhere, as human beings fled in terror – some of whom were here legally and some who were citizens. Work smocks were left billowing across bird shackles, trampled on the greasy, wet production floors with bird parts, and across the large back fences at the rear of the facility property. People hid in blast freezers at temperatures below zero, inside holding bins, and across railroad cars adjacent to the facility. One man ran from the plant almost all the way to Rogers, for fear his children would be deported, too, although they were citizens.

During one raid, I was stupid, marching across the holding truck docks, watching as workers were zip-tied with their hands behind their backs or pulled from poorly-decided hiding spots. I was asked in Spanish if I spoke English and would only reply, “Abogado.” (Lawyer.) As with any job, some of the agents were exemplary professionals – while others were better suited to bite the heads off chickens. I was detained for a short duration until the agent yanked up my smock and extracted my wallet by way of half-ripping off the pocket of my pants. My crazy name threw him into confusion, which amused me.

“What country are you from?” the agent asked. I sat back down on the dirty, oily floor with the other detainees and ignored him. I hoped he was going to tie me and mark me for the bus to Forth Smith for processing. Instead, he threw my wallet at me and stomped away.

I walked over to a small cluster of agents and told them it was a bad idea to keep people zip-tied inside refrigerated trucks backed up to the dock. They told me to mind my own business and that it wouldn’t be for more than 30 minutes. Since I was playing the role of clever person, I replied, “Is that what I should tell the TV station when they show up to do interviews?” They escorted me out the back shipping door by the office. I walked around and came immediately back inside from another dock access door.

As I passed those being detained, I asked anyone I could talk to if they needed me to write a phone number down with a name and call it for them. If the agents told me I couldn’t do that, I ignored them. I knew that the agents were not supposed to interfere in any way with people talking to those being detained, provided distance was maintained. If an agent didn’t speak Spanish, I would offer to translate for them.

I walked up to another agent and held out my hands in front of me. “I’m ready to go,” I told him in Spanish. I was ready to get on the bus and be sent to Fort Smith. I knew it would be a great story: “American Citizen Deported” the headline would have read. As the agent started to turn me and put on the zip-tie, another agent who heard me mouth off in English told him I was yanking his chain. I got a general warning about interfering with the duties of a federal agent. I went to check on the upstairs supply storage mezzanine, and as I walked around, I casually noted who was hiding ineffectively. As I could, I whispered that I could see them.

During the next raid, I left my wallet in my locker to better play the role of someone concealing his identity. I still couldn’t manage to be held for questioning.

Mostly, I was in a haze of surprise. It was an angry, disillusioned moment. While some of those detained for processing and/or deportation were without legal permission to be in the country, the reality is that none of them would have been there without the economic necessity driving both them and employers all across the United States to find ways to hire them. In my mind, the employers were the bigger problem and I knew no matter how big any unlikely fine they might pay, nothing could eclipse the sum of the human suffering I was involved in. When you factor in that the particular employer I was working for then was the biggest private company in the entire world, the problem became a little more ridiculous.

As the millennium came to an end, the government offered a voluntary program called E-Verify, but few employers wanted to actively participate. Meaningful fines or actions against employers were as rare as prancing unicorns.

I always resented the attack on individuals, ‘legal residents’ or not. I’m quite sure had the Immigrationsagents arrested everyone in the management hierarchy, changes would have been much more immediate and lasting. It’s easier to detain, harass, and deport those doing the menial jobs for the benefit of national and international corporations. The lesson that needed to be taught, if any were needed, should have been one of accountability on the part of those knowingly taking advantage of a massive workforce.
During another raid, I was stunned when a man I knew very well took off running as the agents swarmed in. His paperwork was impeccable and had he not run, he would have been passed over. But he ran and agents caught him inside the huge industrial cook ovens on the west side of the plant. By the time I caught up to Francisco, he was zip-tied and in tears. I too became upset, knowing that the careful accumulated life he had made in Springdale was lost forever. He had walked across the border with nothing, having spent everything to get here. He walked everywhere until he could get a bicycle. He worked with the ferocity and dedication of two men. And he was a warm, compassionate person who often gave his money to people for rent, food, and clothing. He worked all overtime offered and literally didn’t know how to say “no” to anyone asking for help. Despite being told to never return to the United States, he decided to return less than a year later. He came back to work through a temporary agency, with a new name and new set of documents. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the system we had. When he returned, he didn’t ‘take’ anyone’s job – we had more positions than we could keep filled. This same story was told by the millions across the United States.

One of the great stories of these Immigration raids on the poultry plant is that one of the workers brought his bags to work on the day of the raid. He was ready to go back to Mexico and decided that the trip might as well be sponsored by the United States government. I didn’t witness it but it’s one of those stories that is still told. He proudly boarded the detainee bus to Ft. Smith, because even he knew he could come back anytime he wanted and get another job at the same plant whenever he wanted.

The days following those raids were filled with stories of children without parents, fear at being caught or fear of losing one’s family members. With time, however, people returned, eager to earn money for a living, even with the shadow of an unlikely deportation looming over them. The need to work usually trumped the fear of getting caught or deported. So, the cycle would continue, from Washington D.C. to the plants and industries all over the country.

In my job, I later interviewed hundreds of applicants, and looked at what seemed like an infinite number of IDs. We were supposed to just note if the IDs appeared to be legitimate, an extremely low standard if you think about it. I quickly learned that no one would second guess me if I said it looked legitimate. Applicants could have handed me a picture of Donald Duck and I would have almost laughed to myself and accepted it. I got more than one lecture about not looking too closely at documents for compliance – the minimum was the standard and I lowered mine relentlessly. I found it hard to believe that in a country with so much technology that we couldn’t devise a simple way to avoid employing undocumented workers if we really wanted to. From there, it was even easier to realize that no one wanted such a system, as it would cripple entire industries.

When I legally changed my name, I was offered thousands of dollars for my old birth certificate. It was hard to turn down that offer. I turned it down out of fear of being held accountable, which is idiotic looking back on it. All I had to do was leave it on a table and walk away. I almost gave it to the person at no charge, just to be amused to know that even as I killed off my former self, a Latino would rise from the ashes using my old name. The forged document industry still exists, available to anyone with sufficient interest in discovering it. As long as employers aren’t held accountable, no amount of enforcement is going to change anything.

So, here we are, with an administration hell-bent on deporting everyone who is here illegally. We are going to be forced to spend billions of dollars erecting a wall which will be totally ineffective in its goal, and those advocating its construction know this already. The symbolism of doing something, anything, regardless of effectiveness, is paramount to them. A wall will not address the underlying issues of immigration, nor will it improve our society. But it seems fitting that the same people who hate social programs to help the lesser would divert billions of dollars from helping people in need toward erecting a wall without necessity, against a problem that is much more easily fixed.

PS At least 1/3 of all those without credentials came to our country on airplanes, which tend to ignore walls. And 1 in 30 of every person in the United States right now is here without proper credentials.

For anyone unfamiliar with the United States’ history of dealing with Latino immigration, it’s as shadowy and unsavory as you imagine. In the 1930s, we blamed Latinos for the depression, so we deported a few million in the 30s and 40s. During WWII, we suddenly needed a massive workforce, so we looked the other way – until the early 50s when we actually launched an initiative the government titled “Operation Wetback.” Reagan, among others, wanted to grant amnesty to all who were already here, all of which has once again been reduced to blaming immigrants for all manner of societal nonsense.

The reality is that we are going to have to come to terms with the real consequences of our borders without succumbing to emotional or political pressure. We need most of those who came here for employment to continue to live here, no matter how we define their immigration status. We could devise a system of employment verification that could almost eliminate the presence of those not legally able to work here. We could do the same for housing, public assistance, education, and all other areas affected by immigration. But – many of us don’t want such a system, just as the employers relying on immigration can’t survive without the presence of a massive workforce willing to fill positions that would otherwise go understaffed.

The wall is one of the biggest stupidities ever devised, just like the raids I experienced at my employer years ago. It was exactly like the old adage of someone putting their hand in a bucket of water and then removing it. Without a unifying resolve to act, which we don’t have, and a plan that address the economics of immigration as well as the logistics, all efforts will fail. But we’ll spend dollars on things instead of people, symbols instead of human needs and suffering.

In years to come, when the wall is no more, we will look back at the sheer ignorance of Trump and all those who believe a wall is the solution for any problem in our country. Even as we reach for our wallets to pay for their stupidity, we’ll shake our heads in wonder, waiting until the next wave of stupidity will infect our country.

As someone who spent years immersed in the patchwork of our system, I can see a path that could address most of the real issues with immigration. Most of it will never occur, though.

So we’ll continue to point the finger instead of fixing ‘us’ first.

And the ‘wink’ continues…

A Springdale Grocery Review From a Lunatic’s Perspective

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For anyone tempted to try the new “10Box” food store, my review is: “Don’t.”

I’m going to get some flak for this satirical review, so cut me some slack. You’ll have to decide just how much levity and tongue-in-cheek I’m applying to my words.

Springdale recently lost its PriceCutter grocery store, after we collectively realized the place had lost its soul several years ago. Over a year ago, I wrote a story about entering PriceCutter as dusk neared, in search of a pecan pie. In all honesty and without satire, I still remember the strange angst and melancholy that visit bestowed upon me.

10Box took the zombieland of PriceCutter and managed to make something equally weird. Don’t be mistaken, though, Harp’s Foods owns this new incarnation. I think it will do quite well, but for none of the reasons that the management believes to be the case. There are certain aspects of retail grocery which Harp’s excels at, especially when using stores such as the one on Gutensohn Street in Springdale as the comparison. None of the things I love about Harp’s Food Stores seem to be involved with this new business model, however. It is the NASCAR of gourmet foods.

If you have ever wondered what suffering from agoraphobia feels like, combined with the glee of being trampled by crazed shoppers training for pre-Xmas layaway triathlons, this emporium is for you. I went in the early afternoon during a weekday, not expecting to be hurled into the midst of the equivalent of a crumpled map, written in Korean and interpreted by a yodeler. If you want the full experience, I would recommend that you visit on a Saturday, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. It helps if you come when you haven’t slept or grabbed your first cup of coffee yet. If you have a concealed-carry permit, believe me, you will want to leave any weapons at home.

Shopping at 10Box was like waiting my turn at an intersection, except all the other drivers are told to ignore all normal social norms as they careen around the interior of the store. (And they get bonus points for filling their carts via the most erratic shopping routes possible once they are inside the store.)

Before I forget, all the workers wear purple shirts. You’ll never guess which color I had on after work today? Yes, that’s right. I’m accustomed to fielding questions from shoppers at other stores, especially Wal-Mart, but several of the patrons almost hurled themselves at me, begging me for any general information they could gather regarding an alleged 85-lb. roll of turkey sausage. I shared a couple of laughs with people, as they realized I didn’t work there. I still offered to help them find whatever item they were searching for, though. I’m not a total barbarian.

The gimmick with 10Box, other than the fact that you feel like you might actually stumble upon Rick and Michonne from “The Walking Dead” just around any aisle, is that the items in the store are already priced at cost, with a 10% unilateral charge added to all items at the register. This system is pure genius. As you all know, it is surprising how many people can’t do fractions easily. At some point, some people simply start weeping at the idea of math and being hurling every possible selection in their cart – all to avoid the admission that they don’t know if the box of shrimp they’ve collected costs more than the national debt of Peru.

10Box gets points for décor – or lack thereof. As already mentioned, they’ll get the “Walking Dead” crowd, in the literal sense and entertainment sense. When they say they don’t waste money on presentation or optics, they aren’t kidding: you can almost feel the breeze of the flea market as you peruse the aisles.

For the fans of the TV show “The Middle,” 10Box is the model I now have in mind when I picture the Heck family careening through the canned goods and produce at the mythical “Frugal Hoosier” grocery chain, where nothing gets thrown away, except your expectations.

Don’t take my word for all of this, though. I can’t be trusted as a reliable source. Please go visit 10Box yourself. Take all your kids, as many as you can find, and drive over for a visit.

A Few Words About Tom Cotton and Immigration

As you read these words, please remember that I’m a liberal, the kind that Tom Cotton would like to invite to Guantanamo Bay for an unplanned vacation.

Several days ago, I wrote about progressives failing to understand the fight about the Department of Education. Northwest Arkansas residents heard first-hand from Senator Tom Cotton last night that he still strongly desires to break the Dept. of Education. I’m certain that this will happen, absent a huge change in government in the next year.(Although, as one of my friends told Tom Cotton in the Town Hall last night, it’s difficult to trust the State of Arkansas to do the right thing, given we had to have the federal government come in with troops simply to integrate our schools.)

Today, I’d like to offer a few words about immigration, ones which will be music to conservative ears.

Tom Cotton has positioned himself to take over the work of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Tom is staunchly conservative and will continue to carry the torch for conservatism in the senate. He has already sponsored immigration legislation under the Trump administration. I’m certain he will insist on strong immigration action in the next few years. He has connections in the military, congress, the intelligence community, and the new administration. He’s been clear about his views on almost all the immigration arguments. For him, they boil down to security and economy, which are two of the GOP’s most important themes.

Absent a miraculous bolt of lightning from the heavens, those who disagree with the GOP and Senator Cotton have a painful road of incremental losses ahead of them. Cotton wants to reduce legal immigration and to remove all undocumented foreigners, including Dreamers/DACA. He’s got a Harvard education and a head for logistics. He artfully argues away the statistics showing the benefits of a foreign workforce. In his mind, his views are justified and supported by his voters. Senator Cotton does not hold his views on immigration loosely or lightly – they define his worldview. Being reasonable won’t work to change his mind – but then again, neither will shouting at him.

I predict that some of the attempts to implement immigration action will be stymied by cost and the courts. Much of it, however, will pass scrutiny and occur to varying degrees. The courts will step out of the way once the administration sharpens its overly-broad attempts to shape policy.

Given that NWA has a large population of Latinos, I predict that Senator Cotton will use his pull in the administration to orchestrate one of the first waves of ICE sweeps in our corner of the state. It will not only serve his penchant for retribution for the ocean of protest he was handed last night, but it will be a cost-effective publicity-fueled way to kick off the effort.

In short, Senator Tom Cotton will use his considerable intelligence and pull to target the Springdale area first. Having observed him, I see that he knows trying to ease into such an effort will cause a greater resistance effort than simply striking hard and first where much of the resistance has grown.

As satisfying as it was last night to see Senator Cotton be told the harsh realities of those he disagrees with, I can see the coming backlash already forming.

We can’t rely on public sentiment to dissuade such an effort. The truth is that many citizens want absolute control of our borders and of who is allowed to stay here. We have underestimated the sentiment of branding undocumented foreigners as criminals who should suffer the consequences of being here without permission. Most will not join the shouts of protest as people we know are dragged away. It’s a hard thing to say, but I can see it coming.

Tom Cotton is going to be that firebrand who will not be afraid to step into the fight and deliver action. We can angrily thank Donald Trump for liberating people like Senator Cotton.

I can see all these things because although I disagree with much of Tom Cotton’s agenda, he has consistently held firm to his ideals as the country has shifted to meet him in the middle. Just as we looked away for a moment as the country elected Donald John Trump, I am certain that we’ve also looked away just long enough to miss the subtle change in commitment from the GOP to finally take decisive immigration action.

We are going to suffer and it is best if we prepare for it.

A Lesson in “Taking Care”

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Recently I briefly wrote about an English teacher who trusted me with his original novel. His name was Harold McDuffie, an unassuming-looking man with what I would call a policeman’s mustache. While his teacher style was dry, I could see that he appreciated literature. His love for words didn’t translate well, not in terms of enthusiasm or charisma. I think in part this might be because high school students weren’t his ideal audience. These opinions are all mine, of course. For all I know, he might have anticipated each day to interact with young people. Works by Melville or Faulkner, however, tended to be at the bottom of the playlist for the average high school student.

One day, without much fanfare, Mr. McDuffie stopped me and asked me if I would be interested in reading a novel he had written. He warned me that it had some mature content and that I needed to be careful with that aspect of it. I think he knew that my home life had exposed me to things beyond the contents of his novel but he was smart enough to know that it was a risk, one that I would not expose him to. I was flabbergasted and honored. Reading the words someone chooses to put on paper inevitably lets us get to know them better and connects the mechanics of translating ideas to words and content.

After I wrote a lengthy interpretation of a book, Mr. McDuffie had asked me why I had not shortened my homework. I told him that I thought writing was easy. All one has to do is to put pen to paper and not stop. (Later, Steve Martin stole my idea for the New Yorker and one of his books.)  “What about the mistakes?” Mr. McDuffie asked. “There aren’t any if you refuse to see them that way.” It turns out this is a common life theme for many of us.

Later, he brought in a printer’s box full of several hundred linen sheets of paper. I had never held an original unpublished work before and effect was mesmerizing. The title of the book was “Taking Care,” and the main character’s name was Budd Clevenger. The plot involved a drunk-driving death and the cycle of vengeance that followed. Drunk driving was a topic woven all through my childhood: my father had killed a cousin of mine while drunk, I had been in a few accidents involving alcohol, and my parents had each been rewarded with multiple DWIs. They were also involved in the DWI “fixing” scandal that sent a notable lawyer to prison.

As many things as I’ve forgotten, I will never forget the excitement of taking the novel home, opening the box, and starting on page one with the inside cover sheet. I had to carefully pick out sheet, read it, and lay it face down on the other side of the box. Despite the book’s length, I read it in one evening. One thing about the novel that caught me was that it was one which took place in Northwest Arkansas, traversing places I might have known.

Even as a work of fiction, Mr. McDuffie did as so many authors had done before him: he secreted away little slices of himself into his novel. While I had no way to know which pieces might be fiction and which might be truth, it opened my eyes to him as a real person struggling with the same life issues that everyone else had. He was a descriptive and gifted writer.

Over the years, I have done deep web searches to see if McDuffie’s novel ever made it to the shelves or to a screenplay adaptation. His novel deserved such a chance. While it was no work by Faulkner, it was worthy of being shared and read; because it wasn’t Faulkner, though, it would have appealed to a broader range of interested readers.

That I remember the title of the book and so much about it should indicate the level of attention I gave to the novel. While I read many books in Mr. McDuffie’s class, I read those with a casual indifference granted to schoolwork; as for his original unpublished novel, I gave it the reverence it deserved. It would have been sinful to have not shown appreciation for the gift of sharing that my English teacher granted me.

Beyond the act of sharing the book, he shared a moment with me. It turns out to be one which lingers. Thanks, Mr. McDuffie.

(PS: I also have some stories about good and strange times I had in his wife’s classes, too)

…Unfondly Remembered

A personal story. It’s not an accusation – it’s just a few words that I’ve had in outline form for a long time. I’m tired of seeing the draft go through various digital incarnations, from Lotus to Word.doc to Word.docx. I’m pushing it out the door, taking away its leftover power. The errors are all mine, embraced and sent out into the world.

I’m writing this, neither to spoil the legacy of someone who others hold dear, nor to complain about sunsets long past, but to remind people that sometimes we know different versions of the same person. Words of praise are deeply worthwhile; sometimes, though, words conveying truth that all might not embrace are equally important. My little story will have no lasting impact on anyone who had a different experience. People can say they had a different experience but not that they disagree with me, because the words herein are true and these experiences are mine to share.

After high school, I wrote letters to all the teachers who I thought were deserving of a kind note or word. There were many. Many of you who know me have read some of my individual words of praise. I’ve written a lot of them to the dear people in my life before they’ve passed, so that they can be warmed by knowing that someone remembers them and cherishes that part of our lives that overlapped.

For me, Mrs. Creighton was not someone I admired. I tried to like her, to look past her scowl and directness. After a few interactions, though, I discovered that I wasn’t imagining things and that she simply did not like me – and for no reason I could discern. I was mostly a quiet student, usually scared and frightened by life, and didn’t give her a reason to lash out at me. Maybe if I had known her when her teaching career was younger or if she had simply voiced aloud why she detested me immediately, maybe then I would have had an opportunity to understand her.

Before taking her class, I had heard the rumors. I had also heard all the larger-than-life stories about her, of her military background, of her personal eccentricities. I went in prepared to pay attention and stay off her radar. (Please note that I am paraphrasing words in my story. They aren’t exact quotes but the content and feelings elicited are accurate.)

After one of the first assignments in her class, one in which I poured myself and creativity into over 5 extra pages of writing, she responded with this: “C student. Some are not destined to extend their reach. Quantity doesn’t replace talent.” She had only red-lined two words out of the entire body of my assignment. The girl on the right of me had a paper that looked like a chicken has scratched it for an hour. She had a large “B” across the top of her paper, however. When Mrs. Creighton had announced the assignment, I was one of the few in class who didn’t dread it. Writing was easy for me. Maybe not grammar or syntax, but the act of writing was effortless and I tended to write something each day. I was stunned by the C grade, especially given the extra writing I had done. But the words justifying the grade punched me directly where I lived. They seemed irresponsible, almost hateful, coming from a teacher.

I reluctantly waited after class and asked her what I could do to not be on her bad side. She laughed a staccato burst as she so often did and said, “Nothing. There’s nothing you can do. Now run along,” waving her arm dismissively toward the door.

As quiet as I was, I told her that it was unacceptable for her to give me a “C,” and not just because I was afraid to get a lesser grade. I told her that if I couldn’t stop her from disliking me even though I had never interacted with her that I could object to her grading my assignments with an unequal eye compared to my classmates.

“I don’t take kindly to threats, young man, and if you persist you’ll find yourself in the principal’s office explaining your behavior.” She stood up from her desk as she said it.

To which I replied, “If I’m going to the principal’s office for some personal reason on your part, I might as well have him take a look at my work. And if you think you scare me, I’ll tell you stories about my dad.”

“The grade will not be modified. Now please leave.” She once again pointed to the door. I left, shaking my head at the idea I was going to endure a semester of that sort of treatment.

I should point out that I wasn’t afraid of getting a bad grade to make a point. While my final GPA was about 3.6 (when 4 was the highest possible), for example, I deliberately flunked trigonometry in my senior year, after getting over 100% in a previous semester in Geometry. My problem is that Mrs. Creighton needlessly used her words to squash me. Had she given me a “C” without comment, I would have been perplexed, but would have never said a word to her. My personal life had beaten into me the idiocy of expecting fairness; she was simply another example.

I was a voracious reader, writer, and loved the power of words. She gave me one assignment that I simply didn’t understand. I told her that I honestly just wasn’t getting it and needed guidance. With the iciest of looks, she told me, “I can’t make you understand. Read the instructions again.”

Toward the end of my term with Mrs. Creighton, my dad had punched me in the face after coming home drunk and finding me practicing my French horn for band. It always angered him that I loved band. He hadn’t warned me or said a word to me. He simply sat the bottle of whatever whiskey he was drinking on the table and punched me while I was playing. I dropped the horn, which was school-owned, and I fell to the floor. Luckily, my dad had drunkenly misjudged and his fist had hit me on the outside of my right eye. By the next morning, the black eye was mostly confined to that side of my eye, although my ear was still ringing and my face was sore. I got a pair of broken sunglasses that had belonged to my brother and wore them to school. I put them on in each class to cover the dark smudge on the side of my eye. I had never covered such bruising or signs before, not really. Dad was usually very careful to conceal his brutality, a habit I learned later that most abusers share in common.

When Mrs. Creighton came in to the classroom, I had forgotten to take the glasses off. She shrieked at me in front of the entire class. “Take those foolish glasses off now! You are no Tom Cruise by the stretch of anyone’s imagination!”

After class, I approached her desk to apologize.

“Don’t apologize to me. You know the rules.” I pointed at my eye and said, “My dad sucker-punched me when he came home drunk, Mrs. Creighton.” She held up a hand to stop me. “Perhaps if you’d behave your father wouldn’t see the need to discipline you.”

It was that moment when I knew that her heart was stone to me.
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I took being tardy seriously when I was in school. One day, I had walked back across campus to return a personal book a teacher had loaned me. Mrs. Creighton had semi-shouted from quite a distance down the hallway “Where do you think you are heading?” I heard her but didn’t turn, because I couldn’t imagine she was addressing me.

“Mister, I asked you where you are heading?” Something in her voice caught my attention.

I turned and politely said, “Back to the band hall.” I wasn’t being snarky, funny, or impolite. I was just answering her question. I kept walking.

“Stop!” Mrs. Creighton seemed miffed at this point. “Are you trying to be humorous? If so, you are failing.”

“Just answering your question. Another teacher loaned me a personal book of hers and I just returned it. I have no class now, so I’m not tardy, and am going to go practice in the band room.” I answered without any rancor, as I wasn’t in the mood to get into any trouble.

“Next time, don’t be in the halls after the bell rings.” It was a command.

“Thanks, the bell hasn’t sounded yet, though.” I said and turned to get away from her.

“Did you hear and understand what I said?” Mrs. Creighton had decided that I was being impertinent, if the icicles hanging in the air were any indication.

“I understand where you are coming from, yes.” She knew the deeper intent of what I had said.

I saluted her and walked off, putting her dislike of me out of my mind. I expected to be hit on the head by a thrown object or to hear a screaming demanding that I stop again.
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PS: The book I’m talking about in the scene in the hallway, that novel was loaned to me by the teacher who had written it. It was an unpublished novel with mature content. He had trusted me enough to want to share it with me, to see how much work goes into writing a well-crafted book. And I had read his book, turning the unbound printer’s copy of his book one sheet at a time as I read them. His goal was to always remind me that grammar could be learned but creativity and inspiration were things that had to be nurtured. He encouraged me to stop worrying so much about the process and instead develop the habit and love of reading and writing. I read his book at home, getting a glimpse of his mind, and of another world of possibilities. The example of my other teacher who had authored a book and shared it with me to encourage whatever hope or ambition I might have- his example is a testament to what a teacher can and should strive for. I was the same student, the same person in each teacher’s class. In one, I was a waste of time and nuisance. In the other teacher’s classroom, I was a nascent mind needing some guidance. (Sidenote: the subject of the teacher’s novel involved the consequences of a man drinking and driving, which is a strange coincidence when aligned with my life.) I remember Mrs. Creighton being so mean in the hallway precisely because I felt a little magical, being trusted enough to have the printer’s copy of an author’s book in my hands.

But, through the years, I read kind words offered by ex-students of Mrs. Creighton and think of her. I wish I could recall her brusqueness with warmth; instead, I picture the look of scorn on her face when she interacted with me. Whatever caused her to dislike me before she knew me was obviously something outside of my control. Perhaps she saw someone she once knew in my eyes or thought I was someone I was not. After her passing, I discovered that her anger wasn’t a secret, just as much as her wry sense of humor. I felt a little vindicated that others shared on the receiving end of her sharp tongue. Whatever demon that possessed Mrs. Creighton to be so angry toward me luckily was one she didn’t apply to many students. It lifted a little of my burden to know that I hadn’t been crazy – that she had disliked me without cause and the burden of ‘why’ was entirely on her shoulders.

You might ask, “But what good does it do to share criticism of her now?” Firstly, because I am still here and it’s my story to tell. Each of us navigates through life and leaves a history in our wake. Not all of it is to be admired and the stories might not be ones we’d like to be recalled after we’re gone.

That might be the point of it all, though. We are the sum total of our moments. There are so many I’ve forgotten, even important ones. Whatever my motivation, this story is mine to share, just as it is for those who had a different experience.

A Dollar Afternoon

Friday afternoon, I reluctantly pulled in to the Dollar General, as it is mostly an excuse to expand into outright hoarding. I complained about the necessity of stopping there. Not that my wife had a gun to my head, of course, but I could smell the gunpowder from the last time I defied her.

When we pulled in to the lot, a small gaggle of motley individuals was standing unsafely in the entrance of the parking lot. It would have been easy to accidentally run them over, especially considering that every road construction worker in the state seemingly was working on the road in that area of Springdale.

My wife expressed a little uncertainty as she looked around and said, “That guy is huge. He could tear you in half,” to which I replied, not joking, “Anyone half his size could just as easily tear me in half, honey.” We laughed, acknowledging the truth of it.

I’m fearless around some situations, mostly because it doesn’t occur to me that anyone would want what I have – and they certainly don’t need to use force. I would gladly hand my entire wallet to anyone desperate enough to believe they needed to threaten me to get it. Running away isn’t an option for me unless there’s a good pizza place in the direction I need to run. But, if a good story emerges from a fracas, I’m in favor of it.

As we got out of the car, the group blocking the parking lot entrance dissipated and one of the older men ambled haphazardly behind my car. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I recognized an old familiar face.

Out of the recesses of my mind came his name. “Steve!” I yelled, and he turned, gladdened by the sound of his name. He quickly made his way toward me.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked, half-smiling, shifting back and forth on his feet. He smiled, but with an edge of nervousness.

“No, you’re not in trouble, at least not that I know of. Are you ready to admit your crimes?” I thought I was being witty.

After a few seconds, I could tell that life had beaten him repeatedly, probably long after he had begged for a reprieve. I was sure he now suffered worse with some form of mental impairment. Many of his teeth were missing and what remained was painful to see.

I offered my hand and after an initial hesitation, he shook my outstretched hand as if I had given him a free beer. “Steve, I worked with you. My name is X.” It took him a few tries to admit he remembered my face but not my name. Usually, my name sticks out like a stubbed toe – and usually with the same contorted face that accompanies stubbing one’s toes in the dark of the night.

I motioned for my wife to go ahead of me into the palace of Dollar General / Hoarder’s Emporium, then turned back to Steve and told him that he and I used to poke incredible fun at one another back in the day. I didn’t remind him that a few of our co-workers bullied him; I remembered getting pissed more than once at the mean-spirited things several of the workers did to him. Steve had been a very hard worker but he couldn’t grasp nuance in conversation. It cost him dearly with people who thought they were superior to him.

A memory caught up with him and he laughed. “Yes!” The laugh and smile took me back across the span of intervening years, momentarily washing away the sullen recollection of people misbehaving. “X! Lord yes, you were half crazy,” he told me.

I asked him if he still lived nearby and he told me that yes, he lived in housing toward the airport. After I asked him how he was doing, he paused, not wanting to say anything troublesome. I pulled out my wallet and gave him the $20 I had. I told him if he needed anything from the store, I would buy it for him to celebrate the new year. He hugged me and we laughed for old time’s sake.

Despite the cliché of it all, I teared up as I so often do.

I no longer felt irritated for being forced to stop at Dollar General. For a second, it seemed as if I was supposed to stop and intervene for a moment in Steve’s life. Or, more likely, he in mine.

It’s also true that within 90 seconds of being inside Dollar General, I was cursing my fate and ready to dive out a window to escape that place. Life lessons fade quickly, it seems.

The Old Mill – ‘Run Of The Mill’

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I found out today I didn’t win the Old Mill logo contest. This means I should have submitted one of my 340 other ideas, I suppose? Not only did I have a litany of photo/vector ideas, but a plethora of slogans as well. I was limited to one entry, which in hindsight seems odd to me. Next time, I’m going to enter on behalf of a dozen friends and family members. If I win by such skullduggery, I undoubtedly will have to explain how they won a contest they hadn’t entered. I still am amused that people had trouble coming up with more than one idea. I had to stop myself. Writer’s block isn’t something I’m familiar with most of the time.

I thought using black and white effects on the Old Mill building itself was a nice touch. The judges evidently thought I was completely mistaken. I do wonder what exactly happened during the judging and how much happenstance occurred while it progressed.

 

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One of my other ideas had been to use a pair of glasses, with one side being black and white and the other in color to juxtapose past and present. I would have also used a variant of “Come see us,” as a play on the visual aspect of tourism. Since I didn’t submit that version, I instead used it for a much more important reason: social media profile pictures.

I still think my ideas for Springdale were wasted, though. We’re still stuck with a waffle fry of some sort as our official logo. (see below…) I see it on city vehicles and some other places but it’s certainly not anything memorable.

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The one that I made to conform to design rules (aka “the serious one”) was this one:

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And the funny one, the one that pissed off the establishment folk in some places:

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Springdale is nick-named Chickendale, primarily because of it being the nexus of so much poultry business over the last few decades. We are finally getting past it. Springdale is a spectacular place to live. The logo design initiative, though, was not handled nearly as well as it should have been. That’s just my opinion, of course, and should in no way be a focus of criticism.

I’m glad I had the chance to enter the Old Mill logo contest this year. I’m definitely cheating next time.

 

So, if you win a graphics contest you never entered, please let me know, okay?

 

 

 

 

A Screen Door & Porch Swing Mentality

 

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I don’t miss the ‘easy days’ of what Springdale used to be. The relaxed attitude toward life and the neighborly instinct to wave hello is still yours for the taking. Increased population diminishes your life only if you see it that way. You can still have a screen door and porch swing-mentality in the city if you choose to. Be that person who waves, who gestures for the next person to proceed, and who understands that most acts of frustration aren’t intentional. Stop insisting that all the new faces and new adventures are an assault and instead see them as a new way to experience the same places you’ve always loved.

We survive and evolve only because we take turns at being idiotic in our own way.

More people equates to more potential friends, a bigger perspective, and a richer life. Better roads should mean wider hearts and sidewalks along which we can amble as we live our lives. One thing that most hometown memories have in common is that we could imagine saying “Hi” to anyone passing by our house, whether they were familiar or not. It is that attitude of casual acceptance that is important. Anyone could be a friend; what was true yesterday remains so today.

Other languages grant us a keener mind, an openness to others and a more interesting life. Other cultures enrich us.

I can’t imagine a life without equal parts biscuits and gravy and pico de gallo.

I am the ‘other’ to those who have moved here to share our little corner of life.

A good education comes with the premise that change is the only constant in our world and that nothing that makes us special is reliant on the external to flourish. You can live your life sitting on the porch swing of your youth if you wish it to be so. Springdale might have grown but we’ve lost nothing in the transition that hasn’t been substantially replaced. That feeling of belonging can be recaptured if you choose it. If you look out your window in frustration and imagine a return to what once was, that shimmering and comforting memory is simply that – a memory. Make some new ones.

Pat Ellison, A Living Eulogy

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Perhaps it is a macabre thing to eulogize the living; yet, it’s oddly satisfying. It’s the chance to softly whisper “Thank you for what you did for me.” As we recognize the truths that others attempt to reveal, our eyes and hearts will turn inward, sharing similar memories and thoughts. Recognizing a person through other eyes is a precious joy in life, and I am sure that as other people who shared time with me in band read this, they will be held captive for at least a brief moment, recalling days long past. Trying to pick the words that convey the march of time and emotion is both a chore and an act of respect. All too often, we hear speakers exhort others to plant the words of appreciation and respect into the lives of those who are still living, so that they might feel the soft comfort of being remembered. As much as I have written about a soul named Barb who pointed the way for me, Pat Ellison was her counterpart for me in school.

If we are lucky, we each have a few people who define our nascent ideas of character, intelligence, and charisma. While we might not even recognize them as such at the time, as we grow older, life tends to grab our shoulders and turn us back to them, teaching us, revealing things that should have been manifested earlier in life. Perhaps those students lucky enough to have amplified homes with loving parents will not see the past as I did. After having known so many people who were in the military, I’ve discovered that some elements of my respect for Ms. Pat Ellison are exactly those that allow recruits to grow to love their drill instructors. No matter how irritated she would sometimes be, it was a frustration rooted in things I could understand, which was markedly different from what I might experience outside of school. I know for a fact that she wanted to throw a tuba at me a few times; if she had, I would hope she would have extracted the tuba player from inside it first. She told me that she remembered my sweet smile and I joked that I remembered the time she was vainly trying to teach me to play a solo for a concert in the park. (Hint: neither one of us was smiling for the first hour.) One year, she picked a marching song with “Malagueña” in the title. That song was more complicated than calculus. The only reason I learned it was so that she would not throw me off the marching observation tower. I’m not sure I’m kidding. Any honest student will tell you that Ms. Ellison had her moments of intense frustration. In her defense, I’m not sure how any teacher confronted with 1 to 200 students might not claim criminal insanity multiple times a year. Let’s not even start considering the lunacy of trying to be a calm, rational person on a bus ride to Washington D.C. with hundreds of kids intent on finding the most fun possible.

I sat and talked to Pat Ellison on a Monday morning last year. Even though I see her from time to time, I haven’t interrupted her regular life to share moments and memories. As is always the case with her, she hugged me and talked as if the intervening years were a figment of our imaginations. She told me she had heart surgery a few years ago and back surgery later; at 71, her pace might be slower, but she is still a force of nature. She uses a flip phone and is not a fan of technology. She loves golf, but I don’t hold that against her. I did my best to convince her that so many of her former students would love to share with her as adults and that she was a huge impact on all of us. She humbly denies that any of my flattery could be true. Even though her eyes still light up when someone makes her laugh, you can tell her humility isn’t false. I can only imagine how full her memory must be from the countless people she’s known or how sore her knees must be from the million hours of marching and standing at the podium exerted upon her.

We have Pat Ellison at a great disadvantage: almost everyone remembers her. She has touched so many lives that her list of students and friends must be at least as long as a metropolitan phone book. Her connection to us and to others is immense and monumental. (For any teachers reading this, you at times have the best shot at immortality, being etched into your student’s minds and words for decades to come. Many of us are merely memory footnotes to others; some teachers are the thesis and anchors in so many kids lives.) Undoubtedly, there must be people who didn’t appreciate her – because I’ve also learned that good people must accumulate those who don’t understand them. Being great necessitates not being appreciated, too. I’m glad that I fell onto the side of right in regards to Ms. Ellison.

I told her that I was at a graduation a few years ago when she gave the “Tag-You’re-It” speech. She admitted to being terrified at the idea of giving such a speech. I would have never suspected her to experience stage fright. She was surprised when I told her that I had seen her speech on a blog a few years later, from someone who only knew her through another band member. While she thought her speech was uninspired, it had, in fact, reached many more people than she had imagined possible. Her legions of students and admirers hadn’t forgotten her. Even if her efforts hadn’t been inspired or creative, her commitment and persistence at showing up and working toward a goal, day in, day out, year after year certainly would’ve earned her recognition. I had also seen her at a British Brass Band concert many years before and the familiarity of her expressions took me back a couple of decades.

She genuinely is both unaware and humbled at the idea that she sits at the nexus of several thousand people who have such great memories of her. For those who know me well, you know that band is one of the few things that allowed me escape from my home life and opened the world up to me. Without band and without Noel Morris and then Pat Ellison, I am certain that my life would have taken a more sinister turn. I stayed in band through the generosity and kindness of both Noel and Pat. By being in band, I stayed connected to the world at large and remained able to convince myself that I was more than the circumstances of my youth. Unlike the cases of many of my contemporaries, band was almost my sole window to the world. I learned things in band that dwarfed the concept of simple musical notes or technical ability – that is what a good teacher and great human being seems to do naturally.

It was Mrs. Ellison who told me that the only thing keeping me from making All-State band was ‘me’ and to set aside who I was going into the audition room. It worked. “They don’t see through the curtain. Play like you just did for me and you will leave smiling.” She was right. Noel Morris had said, “Practice, you fool!” when I said I’d never even learn how to make a sound emanate from the mouthpiece. (It took me 2 or 3 days just to ‘buzz’ the mouthpiece, a bad omen. I think Mr. Morris thought I might have been soft in the head.) Between the ritual of books and practice, I advanced. Ms. Ellison told me the same thing over and over: practice. When I failed my senior year, it was her I let down. But I had those 2 years of All-State, all because even if Ms. Ellison didn’t really believe I could make it, I believed her when she told me I could. That confidence from her propelled me. Even though I didn’t take advantage of either, it was Ms. Ellison who gave me the option of both a music scholarship in college and a free pass into the U.S. Army Orchestra.

It is one thing to ponder in abstract the moments from over 30 years ago, reminiscing. It’s another to sit and share moments that Monday morning with someone who has lived such a rich, full life. It was a pleasure to share time with her and I think we all might be missing the chance to continue to learn from someone who probably could teach us all a few lessons in compassion and hard work. (All of these things are held in common by great teachers, of course.) Pat Ellison’s impact seems to echo and flourish as I age. The primary lesson I come back to is one of insistence on looking toward the goal and practicing enough to see it move a little closer. So much of what we excel at is due to simple persistence. Ms. Ellison certainly believed in persistence; at times, we played certain bars so many times I felt as if we were in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

When I was younger, there were times I didn’t understand Ms. Ellison. All I wanted to do was the play music, interact with people, and avoid being the center of attention. I didn’t enjoy some of the monotony of group practice, especially marching. (I still believe marching might be the only genuinely demonic force in the universe.) However, band allowed for travel and banter, though, and those things are what melded us into a loose group. I was able to be in a group of people and enjoy a huge slice of life that would have been otherwise mysterious to me. Maybe no one will understand it when I say that a great deal of life would have been hidden behind the curtain if it weren’t for band and Ms. Ellison. I’m certain that she had been exposed to enough of life to suspect how severe my circumstances sometimes were, yet she was also able to not press too closely. That’s another skill that is probably difficult to hone as a teacher and even more unlikely for the average human being.

Ms. Ellison had her own reasons for the things she did, some of which we weren’t invited to be a part of – and with good reason. Times were different and things that are easily accepted now weren’t met with the same casual indifference. Ms. Ellison was a complex person and not understanding those complexities back then diminished my ability to look past any frustrations I might have had. She made choices and did things precisely because of her own life exerting its pressures.

Now that I’m older, I can appreciate her as a music teacher and as a person – and my heart grows a little. For so many of the people in my list of notables; among them, Barb, Willie, Pat, or Nellie, they all share one thing in common: I wish I could live a part of my life again, as their contemporary, to see who they were and what made to be the individuals they became by the time I came along. Pat is now in her early 70s. Just thinking about how many people she grew to know in life since she graduated college in 1966 makes me feel both old and tired.

If she were standing here listening to me read this aloud, she would shift her weight from one foot to another, looking toward the ground and smiling. As I finished, she would deny that she had done anything special, other than work and try to finish what she started. But the flicker in her eyes would belie the notion that she probably does see the incredible line of students standing in single file behind her, all looking back to the times they shared with her. It is the earned legacy of a great teacher.

Thank you, Ms. Ellison.

 

 

Memory Day Each Day

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Starting the day with a gift of 5 lbs. of wild birdseed to Jimmy, scattering it for the birds to feed on noisily. The birdsong isn’t Metallica, but I would imagine that it is as close to heavenly as could be devised. There were no muffin-fetching dogs to scamper about, nor cacophonous, mischievous laughs to startle passersby – but there were echoes of these, fluttering in the late May breeze, above the creek, below the sky, observing us all. Memorials aren’t events; they are memories of daily life, shared moments that fade into whispers as we recall them. With love to Jimmy and the world he ineloquently slipped away from.

 

“If you say these words aloud, in soft awe, you may summon the times you would ask to revisit.” – X