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Death on David Dr.

Violent crime is a rare thing indeed in the quiet middle class neighborhoods of my hometown. I have to think it has happened. Surely, from time to time the ugly viciousness of brutality makes an appearance around these parts. But except for once, when I was a small child – probably about 8 years old – I have never been aware of it. That once, though, produced a trauma from which I still suffer.

I don’t remember the exact date (and I dare not look it up) but it was early spring, shortly before Easter. I’m guessing it was spring break of that year, because my cousin, Erik, had come over to spend the day with us. His Mom and Dad worked at offices. My Dad worked for a company, but my Mom worked making a lovely home for our family (and she worked hard, too). I imagine this is why Erik was over – Mom was watching him for Aunt Marilyn. It was on this occasion that I was witness to a triple mass murder, in my own home, in our dining room.

I don’t remember all the details – it was so terrible and so long ago. Thankfully, time has a way of softening the horrors of our past. But I will share as much as I am able.

I remember it was a pleasant day, warm but not hot. I remember this because the kitchen window over our sink was open, and I had on short sleeves. (funny, the odd details we can remember, and those we forget) Erik was by far my favorite cousin. We were close to the same age (Erik’s about a year older than me), both boys, we shared a common history, and mostly enjoyed doing the same sorts of things. We liked playing Army and riding bikes and making skate boards by tearing up my sister’s little metal strap on roller skates and nailing them to boards my Dad had laying around. And speaking of my sister, Erik enjoyed making his sister miserable as much as I enjoyed tormenting my own sister. So we shared that, too. We liked James Bond, Rat Fink models, plastic models of any kind really; So all in all, I was really happy Erik was coming over. I was happy that is, until a little after lunch.

Actually, things started ‘going south’ a little bit during lunch. As weirdly random as this memory is, I think lunch that day was the first time I noticed that Erik and I ate differently. I remember Mom asked what we wanted. I wanted the usual, highly normal I would add, Peanut Butter and Jelly with Potato chips. Erik said he just wanted a Cracker sandwich. That’s right! A Cracker Sandwich! I was totally distracted as I watched him eat that. I mean I liked Crackers and I liked Bread, but crackers between two slices of bread and nothing else? What kind of freak was this kid who I liked so much? The sandwich shook up my world, but what was to follow would shatter it, end my childhood, and annihilate my innocence.

Lunch being over, Erik and I had gone ‘round the corner and were messing with something in the living room while my Mom was standing by our kitchen sink, cleaning things up, and putting things in order. Erik and I, a room away, were playing and talking. I began to tell him about how excited I was for the Easter Bunny’s impending visit. All that candy, chocolate, those little marshmallow ducks were just a few days away, and I have to add I LOVED it the way -unlike Santa who just put everything out under the tree -the Easter Bunny played a game with us by hiding that basket. I loved the Easter Bunny.

Then in an instant of diabolical cruelty Erik killed the Easter bunny. Just like that he whispered, “Hey Mike, you know there isn’t an Easter Bunny, right? I mean, you know that’s just your Mom and Dad giving you all that stuff, right?” He had to know he was doing something deeply evil, else he would have said it out loud.

I was stunned. I had barely recovered from watching him eat a Cracker sandwich and now he’s speaking such blasphemy. At first I argued, tried to reason with him, “YES THERE IS AN EASTER BUNNY!! Who told you there was no Easter Bunny? Of course there’s an Easter Bunny.” I don’t remember him getting upset, but with the coldness of an assassin he just icily said, “Nope. Karl and Mark (his older brothers) told me. No Easter Bunny, sorry man.” I began to tear up. I ran to my Mom in the next room. Mom’s word was way better than Karl or Mark’s. She’d set Erik straight. “Mom, Erik said you and Dad were the Easter Bunny. He said the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. Tell him, Mom. Tell him,” I snorted between gasping, snotty sobs.

I’ll never forget the look on her face. Erik and I were both looking at here. My Mom was so pretty, so good, so calm. She stood there, looking first at me, glancing at Erik, then back to me. She paused, took a deep breath. An eternity passed in seconds. (Looking back, I’m certain she wasn’t entirely sure what she should say. Was I old enough? Would I ruin it for my sister? Was the truth going to rob her of something she loved?) She looked at me deeply for a fleeting second, and then the Easter Bunny who was lying mortally wounded before my shattered reality was euthanized by what she would next utter. “Michael, Erik is right. The Easter Bunny is a fun thing that parents and small children enjoy.”

“AAAAAAAHHHHHHH” I don’t remember if I screamed aloud, or only in my thoughts but the Easter Bunny had breathed his last. Dead. The Easter Bunny was dead. I stood there and sobbed, ashamed I would add, that I was crying like a little baby in front of my older cousin, but I couldn’t help it. I suppose I should have resented him for this murder, but so overwhelmed was I at the moment, that who killed Peter Cottontail seemed irrelevant. The murderer was made meaningless by the crime itself. But even worse, almost simultaneously, another, even more horrible thought occurred. More Death. “What about Santa?…was that a hoax, too? And and and and the Tooth Fairy? Is that a lie? And and and and Jack Frost? Oh Dear GOD!! ” Mom never said another word. It wasn’t necessary. I knew the answer as soon as I asked. They all died, right then and there. I thought I’d never be the same.

And so it went. Adolescence soon came around, followed by youth, then High School and college. The next 12-15 years the world, my life, my friends, teachers, the academy, all systematically went about the dutiful deconstruction of the magical world my parents had lovingly built for me. Reason grew, and the ability to be delighted came harder and harder. The Adventures of Huck Finn and Peter Pan and Johnny Tremaine and Call of the Wild would soon be shelved in a seldom visited book case. They would be replaced over time by various text books and authors with names like Hesse, Castaneda, then later Hume, Locke, Aristotle, Socrates, and Sophocles.

Indeed a mass murder occurred that Early Spring Day on David Drive in Lexington, KY. It traumatized me, but I think a happy ending may be in my future. (but who knows the future?)

Anyway, I believe it was Sophocles who first said something like, “Once a man, twice a child.” Most of those real smart guys were right, most of the time I have found. That’s why we still read them, or at least we did when I went to college. By any account I am entering my second childhood, or about to enter it.

Just as there is an innocence to one’s nonage, I am beginning to feel that one’s dotage may restore to me something even more magical than what was lost that spring morning so long ago. In retrospect, it’s likely that the process has been under way for some time. I just didn’t notice or called it something else. Maybe it began that first moment I saw the little girl that would one day be my wife, and I remarked to my buddy sitting next to me in Room 17 of the Fine Arts Building, as I watched her come in the room with a nice pair of jeans and a rather tight green and white striped sweater, “Hey Dean, thatlooks pretty good.” Not long after that, that girl and I were sitting atop an rocky arch in the wilderness of my homeland viewing the beauty God laid before us. That was a magical moment. A few years, but just a moment later, I watched in wonder as that girl created something out of nothing right in front of me and brought another beautiful little girl into this world. Then, through this new creation later, those that Erik slayed for me were resurrected as Santa, Peter Cottontail, Tooth Fairy, jack Frost and all of them began again to visit my house and the new little girl. Yes perhaps reconstruction began almost the moment the deconstruction was complete.

Now, a half century later, much of it, maybe all of it, seems like a dream, a happy dream, mostly. The reason that replaced the magic, seems less and less reliable now. It also seems less necessary. It seems at times, as if the me I once thought I was certain of is being lost in a song, or maybe a dance, but I am so enamored with my bandmates and dance partners, that somehow, magically, this is how it seems it should be. Perhaps the trauma was worth it. Someone else real smart also said long ago something like, “For something new to be born, something old must die.” I now officially pardon and forgive my cousin. He killed something old, that something new and more wonderful would be born.

With What Fire Shall We Burn?

 

“Burn, Baby, Burn.” – Slogan chanted during the 1965 Watts Riot

“The real fire within the builders of America was faith. Faith in a provident God whose hand supported and guided them; Faith in themselves as the children of God.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 4, 1952

It seems that for nearly two years now, maybe longer, but at least since the onset of the 2016 political season, America has been at war with itself. “She’s crooked.” “He’s an orange buffoon.” “She’s ill.” “He’s unfit.” “Thief.” “Liar.” “Leftist, Rightist, KKK, Antifa, Democrat, Republican, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Xenophobe, Fascist, Snowflake, Femi-nazi, Patriarch, Homophobe, Trans-this, sis-that.” ENOUGH ALREADY!!

I could take a side. I have taken a side. I have argued, tried to persuade, tried to allow myself to be persuaded, but not much has changed, in me, or anyone who would listen to me. I haven’t seen anyone else change either. We talked at first, and then began to yell. Yelling eventually gave way to violence. It led finally to what we have collectively lived through in the last few months. Both of us, you and I, sitting apart in our separate bubbles of selective information, we watched in horror the aftermath of the congressional baseball practice, Charlottesville and the Berkeley Riots, both of them. We saw the same events. We interpreted them differently. We each saw the other as the cause of discord. We each blamed the other, and silently or aloud, hoped for the other’s demise. But we were both terrified, at least to a degree. If you had never seen this sort of thing it might be debilitating. My terror at all of this was slightly diminished by being able to see it from the distance that having lived a while can give. But I was scared nonetheless.

I’ve seen something like this before, so there is at least small comfort in recognizing patterns. Yet evenso, it is scary. I barely remember hearing of the Watts Riots, but I do a little. I’m not sure what caused them, but I remember parts of Los Angeles were burned by folks chanting, “Burn, Baby, Burn.” I most definitely remember crying myself to sleep as a child one night, as demonstrators set fire to the ROTC building at the university in my most provincial town of Lexington, KY. I don’t remember why they rioted, but I do remember that my cousin was caught up in it. He was mercilessly beaten by the police at that event. They broke his arm, bloodied him up good. I remember my nearly hysterical, tearful aunt, being called away from a family dinner to retrieve him from the police. I remember her anger. The National Guard was called out. For a couple of days my hometown was under martial law. Scary stuff for a kid.

Perhaps it is this scar from childhood that make the recent events, seem more troublesome, sort of like picking a scab. Maybe this is why I feel a bit panicked by the current civil unrest, if you can call it “civil.” But again, having lived through these things once, my panic is somewhat checked. I suppose those earlier times were, in fact, much worse. But even so, even having the gift of age and a historical perspective, I still HATE all of the rancor. It is as if I can hear a legion of ghosts chanting, “Burn Baby Burn. Burn Baby Burn. Burn Baby Burn.” I feel the frightened child clinging to my leg. The nation may not be on fire, but it has felt that way for nearly two years – maybe longer – that the nation is smoldering, ready to burst into full flame. But today, something seems different.

Perhaps it is an illusion. Maybe this is just wishful thinking; It is certainly not a prediction. Maybe this is just a hope, but today, as I write this, in Houston Texas, African-Americans are rescuing European Americans. European-Americans are rescuing Mexican Americans. Mexican Americans are saving European Americans. Coon-ass boys from Louisiana are pulling Texan Cowboys to safety in John Boats. Christians are helping Jews who are helping Muslims. Women wearing Cowboys Jerseys tending to other peoples’ children wearing Texans gear. A Republican President and a Republican Governor are standing shoulder to shoulder and side by side with a Democratic Mayor, all doing the best they can to help everyone.  The petty rivalries and labels we use to divide and define each other, are laid aside, because we can see that they really are more harm than good.  But there they are, all of them, all of those people who days before put great stock in those labels, there they are, there we are, working vigorously and tirelessly to save tens of thousands of people, not from each other, not from fire, but from water. And you know what? It seems to be working.

As I have said before, I am a person of faith. I have known Jesus, or at least known about him, for my entire life. He became very real to me on Sept 2. 2008, in a place, for a reason, and in a manner that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, though, that since that moment, that very real moment, and perhaps even before, I am predisposed to look for the Divine Hand in the course of human history. I believe God does intervene, even if we misinterpret what is what, and what action is God’s action. It is precisely because I long to see God working in the world, that I am led to recall a story in the book I use as a pattern for my life. (There is great comfort in recognizing patterns. I think I have already said that.) It is the book most of you own, and most of you have read at least a little of this book. But if you haven’t, my book is a book about how, in the past, God has acted in the lives of people and in the nations of people, who seek after Him.

The story I am led to remember is one about a time when evil and violent men did all manner of hateful things to one another. God got really fed up with all of their evil doings and sent a flood to put an end to all of our foolishness. After the flood subsided something new and better was rebuilt. You know the story I’m talking about, most of you do anyway.

I realize that story, about that flood, is not perfectly analogous to the situation of our smoldering nation. But then no analogy is perfect, is it? But for those of us who like patterns, and who believe God works good in the midst of bad….well…. we’ve seen God use a lot of water to wash away a lot of bad stuff in the past. It’s a pattern we’re familiar with. In the story I’m talking about, God also promises he will never again use water to destroy the earth. But you know what? He never said he wouldn’t use water to straighten things out.

I’m pretty sure God didn’t send that hurricane which has caused so much hardship in Texas. But. If He did, and if we allow the waters of that flood to remind us of who we are as a nation, then I’m OK with it. It needed to happen. And, whether or not God caused the hurricane which has, for the moment, brought us together as one people, we do, all of us, have this rare unexpected moment to start over, to extinguish the fires of hatred, mistrust, resentment and violence.

Houston will dry out. I suspect that when things “dry out” a new fire may be lit among us. I hope it’s like the fire God used in another story in my book. It’s a story about God leading a nation through some tough times. I hope, I pray, when I next hear “Burn Baby Burn” it refers not to buildings lit by a rioter’s torch, but rather to that fire lit again deep within the American soul, like the one God used to lead His people. Maybe it’s this same fire to which President Eisenhower referred when he said, “The real fire within the builders of America was faith. Faith in a provident God whose hand supported and guided them; Faith in themselves as the children of God.” I think this time we can choose which fire we light.

I hope this writing “ages well,” as they say. That is, I hope the good and noble thoughts expressed herein come to pass. I don’t know if they will or not. As I said, I am not good at predictions, but I am pretty good, most of the time at recognizing what is right in front of me. Currently I see an opportunity to return to who we are….seems in Texas they already have. Time will tell if the rest of us follow. I hope we choose wisely. I, for one, have had enough of the old fire. I’m glad it got doused. Time for something new.

Debate

Like a lot of the nation, politics has occupied a larger than usual portion of my idle thought time.  There’s not much I can say conclusively. But I have arrived at this: Political debate is pretty much useless. That probably can be said of debate in general, that is, that it is useless. But political debate….I’m pretty sure that it is always a waste of time. I can think of no single debate, I have engaged in – all of which, by the way, I won – in which my mind was changed, or one in which I persuaded my opponent to my point of view. Neither of these has ever happened. Debating another’s politics is a complete waste of time. Political debates are all the same, and they contain exactly the same components. Every. Single. Time. As far as I can tell, each of the component parts of political debate are, in the end, worthless and unpersuasive.

In Political debates the first phase is: The Debating of Useless Facts. This could also be called the “alternative facts phase.” Let’s pick a topic. It could be anything, but let’s start with something not too emotionally charged. How about, say, “lowering corporate taxes?” Some folks think, “No way. These rich jerks don’t pay enough. They should pay more, and my group gets to pick how much more.” Others think, “Ya know, it does make sense that if we lowered corporate taxes, businesses would make more money, hire more people, etc. who’d generate more tax revenue that we all then would benefit from.” Now, let’s look at the “facts,” the “data.” You trot out some. I trot out some. We both quote our “experts.” Mine of course, are better, for whatever reason. You may say, “but the economists of the CBO, who did study these things, say….” Then I respond, “Well, maybe. But Dr. I Neaumore, of the Harvard Institute of Something says….”Both arguments have their merit. The problem is you’re not smart enough to know which is right. I’m not smart enough to know. I went to Divinity School and Music School. You went to Whatever School, and most of the people passing these laws went to Law School. None of these – me, you, or them – are qualified or adequately educated to properly analyze anything like the long-term effect of lowering or raising corporate taxes. So, near the end of the “Useless Facts Phase” we are left with this: You and I, who know nothing about economics, have each picked experts, who disagree with one another, neither of who’s data we are capable of analyzing, to base our “factual” presentation upon. In the end, I think, we all just pick the “facts” we want to pick and rationalize our choice with….well….something. That’s why I always end up seeing your facts as being little more than an imagined hope. I expect you see my facts exactly as I see yours, so again, useless, pointless. But we shouldn’t stop here. There’s still a chance one of us could be persuaded (we delude ourselves) Even though we still disagree on the useless facts, our assumption – that we are smart – (me, just a little smarter than you, and you think you are a little smarter than me) allows us to move to the next phase of political debate, the Stupid Analogy Phase.

As a form of argument, I think almost all analogies are stupid. Why do we even try? I saw “analogy” defined as this: “a thing that is comparable to something else in significant respects.” This is a pretty good definition, I’d say. But so what? Because something is comparable in significant respects, doesn’t mean it isn’t wildly dissimilar in other respects. Political debate over gun control is loaded with meaningless analogies. For those advocating more gun laws, a favorite “go-to” analogy is often cars, and the laws in place governing the use of them. The gun control advocate says something like this: “Cars can kill people, so we have laws to regulate their usage so that this doesn’t happen? You wouldn’t allow just anyone to drive would you? You’d want them to pass a test wouldn’t you?” I have to admit that’s not a bad analogy, at least in the sense that it relates two things, guns and cars, that can kill people, and should be regulated…..I guess. But it’s kind of stupid for several reasons. First of all, while both cars and guns can kill people, the car was designed, and is always used to transport people from one place to another. A gun is designed first and foremost, to kill something, either an animal for food, or a person who wants to harm us. Those are very significant and dissimilar purposes. Therefore it’s a stupid analogy from the “get-go.” There are other reasons this is a stupid analogy, but I think this first one is enough.

Not to be outdone, though, are the analogies from the other side. Here’s one of my favorites, I’ve even used it. “Blaming guns for high murder and suicide rates is like blaming spoons for obesity.” I suppose there are some significant similarities between guns and spoons. Guns and spoons are usually metal. A gun can cause harm. A spoon used too much, can cause one to gain weight. That’s harmful too. But really, c’mon. This is stupid for pretty much the same reason as the car analogy. Guns are designed to kill something efficiently. Spoons are designed to eat efficiently. They are intended for very dissimilar purposes. Analogies are bad arguments and generally just as stupid as they are clever. Always. Never persuasive. Never. We can always come up with another if we try hard enough, and so can our opponent. They never work. They’re stupid.

So far we have discussed Useless Facts and Stupid Analogies. In my experience most political debates (and others) fizzle out at about this point; especially if we like our debate opponent. If we don’t really care about the other person, or are overly impassioned, we can always descend into that intellectual “pit of hell” which is the Enumerating and Naming of the Other’s Hypocrisy Phase. Now while this can be a lot of fun (judging other people critically, and pointing out there hypocrisy is one of my favorite past-times) it too, is always fruitless, never persuasive, and usually damaging to relationships. This Phase goes something like this:

You say, “How could you vote for him? He said, “Grab ‘em by the pu$$^.”
I say, “Well yeah, but that was a long time ago, but you didn’t seem to have any trouble with him (a completely different him) actually getting a ________ under the desk in the oval office.
You say, “Well at least that was with a woman. Your guy was messing with young male pages in the congress.”
I say, “Well at least he didn’t get ‘em pregnant, get drunk, drive off a bridge, and drown ‘em.”
You say, “You know what? You’re a poop-head.”
I respond, “Well, you’re a big doo doo face.”
“No I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” “Am not.” “Are too.” “You’re momma is ugly.” “Well…You’re ugly, and stupid too.” “Stupid, fat and ugly, stupid fat and ugly, stupid fat and ugly.” (this last should be done in a sing song fashion to the tune of “Ring a round the Rosies.”)
Hypocrisy abounds. There is always more and worse hypocrisy. You are limited in this phase, only by your willingness to prepare. So prepare well.

(The internet is a great place to prepare for this phase of debate. Facebook and Twitter are both excellent resources, but you will need to “un-hide” many people you’ve “hidden” should you wish to adequately prepare and anticipate what you’ll be confronted with.)

If the debate did not end after the Stupid Analogy Phase, it will likely end here at the Enumeration and Naming of the Other’s Hypocrisy Phase. If it doesn’t end here with both walking away in a huff (or worse), there is always the option of violence. I don’t like violence. Happily this rarely occurs.

I have heard it said, that we as a nation would likely do just as well, politically that is, if we were to select our leaders at random from a phone book. Part of me thinks this is a bad idea. (This is the part of me that thinks I’m smart.) Part of me thinks this is basically what we do anyway. So Dear Reader, my advice is this: Do the best you can. Vote how you will. Assume that others are doing the same as you, and are as smart as you (which is not really all that smart), that they love others as much as you (which is probably a lot), that they hope for the best for everyone (which is probably true), and enjoy what little time we have together. If you must discuss politics and feel compelled to share your opinion, save us all the trouble of trying to change our minds. Unless you find a different way to persuade, apart from these usual ways, you’re wasting everyone’s time, unless of course, you just enjoy that sort of thing.

Dad

        My Dad, Elva Carl Wagoner, told me in a private moment when I was about 6 I think, that he, at that point in time had, “now lived longer than he had left to live.” This is a confusing thing for a 6 year old child to hear or properly process. I have no idea why my father said this to me, or even more, why he said it when he did, but he said it. I remember. Further, I am surprised that I still have that memory. Who has many such memories, I mean memories of what their parents said to them when they were 6? I have hardly any other memories from that long ago. There are pictures or scenes my mind can conjure. There were long summer afternoons laying on my back with my friends, in my front yard, gazing at clouds, trying to see shapes of animals or trucks, playing Army or football in the side yard, summer nights pitching a tent and “camping out” in the backyard, catching lightning bugs in a jar with my cousins, but these memories are very few now, and they contain no dialogue at all, no words. Just pictures of something that once happened.

Later on, I remember a lot of the funny things Dad said to me. I remember a lot of his sayings: “If you’re gonna be stupid, you gotta be tough. When you argue with an idiot know one can tell who’s the idiot. You better take time to do it right, or you’ll have to make time to do it again.” I suppose I remember those, and there were so many more, because the ensuing years have proven them right. But the first thing, the very first thing I can really remember him saying to me was that, when he just turned 35, “I have now lived longer than I have left to live.” Clearly, something had prompted him to contemplate his mortality. I remember another time I came upon him looking into a little mirror my mother had him fix next to the back door just so she could check the way she looked before going off to church. He was just staring at himself. I was probably in my mid 30s by this point. I said, “Dad what are looking at?” He didn’t look away from the mirror. He just kept staring at his own face’s reflection. After just a little bit, still looking at his reflection he said, “I’m just staring at this old man here, thinking about what a wrecker time is.” He then turned to me and said again, “time’s a wrecker boy. Time’s a wrecker.”

Now dear reader, please understand, my father was not a morose man. Everyone enjoyed his company. He was quick with a joke. He never met a stranger. He was smart. He was strong. I am much weaker, I think. There was no one with whom I felt safer….in every sense of the word. I knew, just knew he would protect me from any danger, whether physical or otherwise. Right up to the abrupt end of his life I knew his solidness was there for me. This was perhaps implanted by more words. He once said to me, “I would, without blinking an eye, give my life for you, your sister, or your mother. Maybe nobody else, but for you all, I wouldn’t even have to think.” I have no idea what spurred this – I must have been afraid of something – maybe not – but nevertheless, I knew I had someone in this world that would literally die for me.

Dad wasn’t perfect. Life had scarred him up a bit, just as it does to us all. He was not without blemish. He had an unhappy childhood. It was filled with hard work, poverty, marital dysfunction and divorce – when divorce wasn’t cool. He hated his stepmother. I never met her by the way. He seemed distant from his mother. He was close to his sisters. Perhaps enduring together, what they endured, forged a solidarity, but evenso, I think I am closer to my sister than he was with his. I think he really loved his Dad, but would always mention that “good man as he was, he was a drunk,” My Dad smoked cigarettes most of his life, but to my knowledge he never had a drink himself, and he told me, with some degree of pride that “your momma is the only woman I ever bedded.” I have no way to know if these things are true, but I suspect they are. Dad wasn’t one to lie as far as I know. This, however, isn’t to say he was above “growing a story” or “filling in some blank spaces.” I suspect the stuff that didn’t matter whether it was true or not, might have had a bit of “poetic license” edited in.

The stories he told of his life, which I treasure and enjoy, grew over time. Nothing harmful or outrageous mind you, but they became more and more colorful with each retelling. I still believe them all to be true. Maybe not in the literal, factual sense, but they were true, at least to me. They are true to me even if I doubt their truth. Their accuracy might be challenged by those dedicated to factual precision, but in the end his stories served to define he who at least wanted to be, his ideal self, and they told of a past he wished to give to me. Also I have come to believe that real Truth is unburdened by fact or logic. So, any factual error Dad passed on was meaningless. Any effect of an exaggeration or conflation built him up, not for his own good, but for mine. I also wonder sometimes if some of these things, which I now might view skeptically were told so they he could give his son something he had been denied, a great Dad. How I feel about him now, should someone prove them all untrue, would not affect Truth of who he was to me. And really, in the grand scheme of things, after I’m gone, and my daughters are gone, even the Truth of Elva Carl Wagoner will matter to no one. The same will be true for the Truth of Carl Michael Wagoner. Only a scant handful of people are ever remembered, and even the truthfulness of their stories are written and re-written so many times, and so differently that the “facts” get lost. But Dad, the Truth is, as far as I am concerned, was a good man who would die for me. The rest doesn’t matter so much I suppose, even the really great stuff. The only Truth that matters is that I, his son, had a travelling companion on part of my life’s journey, especially the most vulnerable part, that I knew would die for me. The rest is filler, and this world will soon forget it all.

Earlier this evening I went for a short walk with my little dog. For reasons as unknown to me now as they were 52 years ago, I heard once again those words of my father, “I have now lived longer, than I have left to live.” But now I walk alone where Dad and I once walked together, and I am closer now to the end of my journey than he was when he said that to me. I am left no more morose, but every bit as sober as I remember him being upon that long ago occasion. The stories of my life, I imagine to outside ears, perhaps the ears of my daughters, seem more factually suspect than they once did. I’m sure these tales have grown over the years. They seem so to me. I am left to think, however, this is not so much because I want to be remembered a certain way, as it is that I simply don’t remember that much, and it seems a pity to have lived so long with so little to remember, just snippets here and there, images of events that flitter away now just as quickly as they did when I lived them, and there are such precious few words to remember. These gaps need to be filled with something, some words. If we really can’t remember what was, it seems a good thing to put forth something ideal, something that might have been or should have been.

I’ll never really know how my father would assess his fatherhood, whether he thought himself a “good” father or not. I do know I have quite a long critique of my own fatherhood. I know there were 4 or 5 years that I deeply regret, and for which I’d give myself a D+ at best. The rest I’d grade out better than that. I have no idea what my daughters will one day say or write about me, and I hope they will not over weight my failings. I also hope that they knew, whether I said it or not – who can remember – that I would have without hesitation given my life for them and their mother, because I would have, and still would. If I failed to tell them along the way that they were my greatest joy and treasure, I hope I at least showed it. I hope they remember me as being strong. I hope they remember that I tried.

My dad was a good dad. I wish he was still here, and hardly a day goes by, especially if I am scared, that I don’t miss him. He wasn’t perfect, and he’d be the first to tell you that, but he was as close to perfect as I’ll know in this life. He was perfect for me anyway. Could he have done better? Who can say? Maybe. Perhaps not.

I was there as he died. Before he lost consciousness, he was rambling nonsense. He kept saying something about going to Georgetown (a city near us) and other such pabulum. But then, just as the light was leaving those clear, pale blue eyes, he fixed them upon me, his son. He said to me, his son, these the last words I would hear from him. He said, “Everything’s taken care of.” I said, “What? What? What are you talking about Dad?” He repeated, “ It’s all taken care of.” And then he died.

I’ll never really know what he was talking about. I’ll never know what the “everything” was, or how it was, “taken care of.” There is the possibility that those words were just the last incoherent ramblings of a dying man’s addled brain. But his eyes were so clear, and looking directly at me. He didn’t live long to explain that utterance, so those words are now liberated, unfettered by their orator’s intent. They can mean whatever I want them to mean. I may re-interpret them differently as my own circumstances change, but they were his last gift to me, so they are mine to do with now as I wish, to attach meaning how I will. Today, I choose to think he was telling me in a round about way, that he did the best he could. That I didn’t need to worry, that he’d done enough for me. I didn’t need him anymore. He did do enough. I suppose I no longer need him, but I do wish more of him remained in my memory.

Whether or not I interpret his dying message to me differently in the future, my current assessment will remain steadfast. Any future interpretation will only be a longer assessment of those last words. This will remain: He did do enough. He did do the best he could. I know he would have died for me. That’s pretty close to perfect. If he could have done better, I do not see reasonably how. He took care of what he needed to. I was fortunate to have Elva Carl Wagoner as a father. I hope he knew that. If I told him that, I hope he remembered it. I’d like to think I did. I might have – but I forget.

In a Field, By a Road, Near a Little White Church

 

That picture there, the one above, as pretty as it is, does not do justice to what I actually saw, what I experienced, when I took it. Like all photographs, this one is a moment – an instant, a mere split second – frozen in time. It has been cropped and adjusted a bit, in the same way we crop and adjust all of our memories. You might enjoy the scene. I hope you do, but it leaves out so much. For instance, because of my inadequate photography skills, I couldn’t capture the magnificent streaking gold and yellow of the sunset just over to the right of this image, It was magnificent, but I had to choose between the green pasture or the golden sky. Tough choice to be sure. this image, won’t let you hear the ducks that were flying over head, softly honking as they sped off to wherever it is that they go at night. You can’t hear the hooves that pounded sod as I approached . You can’t hear the snorting or mooing. This photo doesn’t carry with it the pleasant scent of the blooming flowers in the field behind me, nor does it allow you to feel the gentle breeze that brushed my face. This photograph, might move you beyond this particular moment and cause you to recall something similarly pleasant in your own memory. I hope it does. But it was so much more to me.

For me, this photo is almost an after-thought. I almost didn’t take it.  It’s a picture of the field next to my church. There’s nothing particularly unique about this field. It’s one of probably a hundred others just like it nearby. I drive by it, and many of the others, several times a week. You might think, exposed to such beauty often as I am, I would come to a place where I took this sort of pastoral tranquility for granted, but I really haven’t. I don’t often stop to actually ponder it, but I most often do, at least consciously appreciate the beauty that is so regularly a part of my life. Last night, though, I did reflect upon it. There, in the midst of all that beauty and teeming life I had a “God moment.” I thought this time, “I am gonna take a picture and share it.” Doing this caused me to think about this moment all the more.

Surely you know about that to which I refer, these “God moments,” I mean. Whether you are, as I am, a believer in God or not, I know you’ve had moments like I did last night when I gazed at that field. Whether you believe there is a Divine Creator or not, I know, you’ve stood on a beach somewhere, or stared at a clear night sky away from the city, and thought of how small you are. Surely you’ve heard a song so beautiful that you wanted to cry and weren’t sure why. But wherever you were, whatever you were doing, I feel certain you’ve been overcome with gratitude for the reality that you were where you were, and doing exactly what you were doing at that exact moment. I know too, that just as I did to that photo, you cropped it, adjusted it a bit, and saved that moment of yours in a special place. Perhaps you haven’t any need to ponder any further or deeper than the moment. Not so for me.

These moments are so blithe, so profound, so very wonderful. Moments such as are represented by this photograph, fill me with so much gratitude for everything, EVERYTHING. What you see in this photo, and what you don’t see, all of it requires me to think of my beautiful Kentucky, my beautiful America, my beautiful wife, my beautiful daughters, my chickens, my dogs, my health, Bach, Doc Watson, the plate I ate my breakfast from, my lovely little country church, my friends, all of it, EVERYTHING. And then I think: none of this was put here for me. It would exist even if I did not. I just happened upon it. All of it, everything I love, that I value, I just ‘fell into.’ It seems, as I enter the home stretch of my pilgrimage down here, that all of this wonder which surrounds me just sort of happened to me. I didn’t do much of anything to deserve any of it. The most credit I can reasonably take is that I didn’t do much to muck it up, or at least, not enough to muck it up beyond recognition. Those cattle, those fields, all of it, everything, have been a magnificent gift. All of this requires me to “thank” someone or some thing.

I have heard it said by some of my fellow believers in God that they just don’t see how the atheist survives the hard times. I suppose I agree with this, but in all honesty, suffering – my own suffering – is not something I do well, even though I believe in God. Fear challenges my faith in the Divine. When faced with suffering, though, I am grateful for what little weak faith I do possess, and it has helped me limp through some fairly awful stuff. But I’m led to believe that even the non-believer has ways of coping with suffering. They make it through somehow too. I’m not sure, in the final analysis, that my belief in the almighty gives me much of an advantage in the midst of suffering.

But suffering was not part of my contemplation as I looked at that field, by a road, near my little church. As I stood on the edge of that beautiful field, I contemplated the good, and the beautiful, and the timeless. I considered my profoundly valuable insignificance, your profoundy valuable insignificance. I then remembered the words of the German poet Von Schiller. These are the words Beethoven used at the climax of his Ninth Symphony, “Ode to Joy.” Von Schiller , who I am sure was inspired by something as I was by that field, was led to pen this timeless line “Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.” In English it is rendered, “ Brothers over the Starry Canopy a loving Father must dwell. I was reminded and enormously satisfied that I could thank someone or some thing. I’m glad I wasn’t left to walk away from that moment thinking that the field was just part of some cosmic crap game. It was important for me to think it was  gift to me, or someone like me, that it was put there  on purpose. Like Von Schiller I too believe somewhere a Loving Father Dwells. I hold him responsible for the beauty around me. So Perhaps this writing may serve as a sort of “thank you” note.

Anyway I do think this is an asset, this reality of mine that I have someone to thank. That has to be an asset, to thank God. It is for me anyway, even if it only serves to make me happier. And, by the way, it does. Admittedly, this need to thank God may not be based in reason, but it is the only response which seems to make sense to Von Schiller and I.

One other thing. Whether it’s an “advantage” or not I can’t say, but believing in God does allow me also to not only live in beautiful moments such as the one I experienced last night, but it also points beyond that instant as well. It hints of something far more magnificent than I can imagine. Earlier this same evening, standing on the steps of my church, taking in the beauty and quiet of that special place, my solitude was interrupted by the arrival of a friend and Elder of the church. “How ya doin’ Brother Carl,” he asked. “Just Fine. Standin’ here takin’ all this in,” I said. “It’s somethin’ isn’t it?” “Sure is.” We both stood there for a moment, then he spoke again. “You know, I reckon Heaven’s gonna be even better than this, but I sure have a hard time seein’ it.” I was quiet. I really thought about what he said. I considered what Heaven might be like. Then I said, “I can’t really see it either, Brother. This is awful nice.” He nodded. “It sure is.” We left it there….for that moment….but you see, we both believe, he and I that we will see something better someday. We appreciate what we have, but think there might even be more.

I hope you enjoy the photo. I am very thankful to be able to share it with you. Whether or not you believe as I do, I have passed along “thanks” to the one who made it possible. Oh, and Happy Easter!