March 28, 2015

Speech 101.....

.... I gave this speech just a few weeks ago while in college....... I do so hope that you enjoy.......

Good morning, class.

Today I have been asked to give an informative speech, just like the rest of you. And I would like to begin my speech with a simple, pointed question. How many of you like poetry? Raise your hands, and let me see. Now, I notice that most of you ladies raised your hands while most of you gentlemen did not, and that is understandable. Poetry is something that most people associate with love, unicorns, and fluffy touchy-feely bunny rabbits, right? And besides, what macho man is going to get up in front of a group of people and say that he loves bunny rabbits?

Well, so far in this class you have heard me ramble on about the passionate love I have for my car, Vivienne, the military, and the 2nd amendment. Good lord, the last impromptu speech I gave I shot this poor fellow with my finger gun and argued that we should all arm ourselves!

And if you thought that I was going to stand up here and tell you that I love petting bunnies, you'd be wrong. However, I AM quite prepared to stand here and tell you that I love poetry. And hopefully by the time I finish this presentation you will realize that you love poetry as well. Today I am going to introduce you to my favorite poet, Robert W. Service.

Now, I realize that most of you think of poetry and imagine Shakespearean sonnets, Byron waxing on about crushed love, or Percy Shelly wistfully wringing his hands over lost sweethearts, tragic death, or some such other overly emotional thing..... after all, who would not fall in love with the lines from that famous poem, "she walks in beauty like the night.... of cloudless climes and starry skies and all that is best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes"?...... I imagine most brunettes hear those words and swoon with delight!

Instead I want to show you that poetry is simply the expression of an emotion..... scary, funny, intelligent, maybe a story put to verse..... but regardless, a poem can be a beautiful form of entertaining story telling..... and who does not like a good story? Now, Robert Service is a favorite of mine because he embodies a lot of the traits that I enjoy, share myself, and desire to emulate...... he is entertaining, he has a kooky sense of humor, he loves rhyme and word play, and he doesn't take himself too seriously.... which, if you pay attention today you will see that I am much the same myself!

Robert W. Service was born in Lancashire in 1874.... the first of 10 children, life was hard and after attending school in Glasgow, Scotland he immigrated to Canada in his early 20s. The Klondike gold rush was on and he dreamed of striking it rich as a prospector, but this was not to be..... he found the work too hard and the climate too rough and became a banker instead. But in Whitehorse, Canada, he found himself surrounded by the prospectors and those novices who wanted to strike it rich. Sourdoughs, they were called. He heard their tales and began to write poetry about them. And before long, his doggerel became so popular that he was known as The Bard of the Yukon....

Service's sense of humor and love of verse allowed him to tackle more than a few stories that your average "literary" poet wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole..... in one story, he wrote of a fellow cremating his buddy and the things he had to overcome to do it.... .that poem was famous all over the world back in the day and it was called "The Cremation of Sam McGee"...... but, as an introduction to Service, I want to begin by telling you a bit about MY favorite of his, "The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill".... a poem about a fellow taking a contract to bury his best friend if he happened to freeze to death alone in the Yukon........ how different from Shakespeare, Byron, and E.E. Cummings is THAT?.... so, here goes........ see if you can appreciate the rhyme, the meter, and the word play.....


I took a contract to bury the body of blasphemous Bill MacKie,
Whenever, wherever or whatsoever the manner of death he die —
Whether he die in the light o’ day or under the peak-faced moon;
In cabin or dance-hall, camp or dive, mucklucks or patent shoon;
On velvet tundra or virgin peak, by glacier, drift or draw;
In muskeg hollow or canyon gloom, by avalanche, fang or claw;
By battle, murder or sudden wealth, by pestilence, hooch or lead —
I swore on the Book I would follow and look till I found my tombless dead.
For Bill was a dainty kind of cuss, and his mind was mighty sot
On a dinky patch with flowers and grass in a civilized bone-yard lot.
And where he died or how he died, it didn’t matter a damn
So long as he had a grave with frills and a tombstone “epigram”.
So I promised him, and he paid the price in good cheechako coin
(Which the same I blowed in that very night down in the Tenderloin).
Then I painted a three-foot slab of pine: “Here lies poor Bill MacKie”,
And I hung it up on my cabin wall and I waited for Bill to die.

Years passed away, and at last one day came a squaw with a story strange,
Of a long-deserted line of traps ’way back of the Bighorn range;
Of a little hut by the great divide, and a white man stiff and still,
Lying there by his lonesome self, and I figured it must be Bill.
So I thought of the contract I’d made with him, and I took down from the shelf
The swell black box with the silver plate he’d picked out for hisself;
And I packed it full of grub and “hooch”, and I slung it on the sleigh;
Then I harnessed up my team of dogs and was off at dawn of day.

...... how is that for an intro??....... so, the poem continues and he talks about the grandeur of the mountains.... the harshness of the weather........ manly stuff, I tell you...... but then he finally finds his friend, Bill...... and he is frozen in such a position that it is impossible for him to get him into the coffin that he had brought...... so, in typical Robert Service fashion he does the best and most honest thing that he can........ here's the ending...... and with this you will see why I love Service's sense of humor so much.....


Well, I thawed and thawed for thirteen days, but it didn’t seem no good;
His arms and legs stuck out like pegs, as if they was made of wood.
Till at last I said: “It ain’t no use — he’s froze too hard to thaw;
He’s obstinate, and he won’t lie straight, so I guess I got to — saw.”
So I sawed off poor Bill’s arms and legs, and I laid him snug and straight
In the little coffin he picked hisself, with the dinky silver plate;
And I came nigh near to shedding a tear as I nailed him safely down;
Then I stowed him away in my Yukon sleigh, and I started back to town.

So I buried him as the contract was in a narrow grave and deep,
And there he’s waiting the Great Clean-up, when the Judgment sluice-heads sweep;
And I smoke my pipe and I meditate in the light of the Midnight Sun,
And sometimes I wonder if they was, the awful things I done.
And as I sit and the parson talks, expounding of the Law,
I often think of poor old Bill — and how hard he was to saw.

.... SEE?..... who writes a poem about sawing up your poor frozen friend?

At the end of the day, while this poem is extremely whacky and a bit off color, it IS poetry..... and it is lowbrow...... surreal, sure..... but wow, it is still an entertaining story, is it not?

But there is more to Service than just his Yukon tales....... see, he also had a military side...... his brother was killed early in World War I and Service volunteered to be an ambulance driver for the Red Cross.... and out of that experience came his next book of verse The Rhymes of a Red Cross Man... here, let me read you the foreword dedication.....

(Reading from book)

I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes
In weary, woeful, waiting times;
In doleful hours of battle-din,
Ere yet they brought the wounded in;
Through vigils of the fateful night,
In lousy barns by candle-light;
In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,
On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;
By ragged grove, by ruined road,
By hearths accurst where Love abode;
By broken altars, blackened shrines
I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes.

I've solaced me with scraps of song
The desolated ways along:
Through sickly fields all shrapnel-sown,
And meadows reaped by death alone;
By blazing cross and splintered spire,
By headless Virgin in the mire;
By gardens gashed amid their bloom,
By gutted grave, by shattered tomb;
Beside the dying and the dead,
Where rocket green and rocket red,
In trembling pools of poising light,
With flowers of flame festoon the night.
Ah me! by what dark ways of wrong
I've cheered my heart with scraps of song.

So here's my sheaf of war-won verse,
And some is bad, and some is worse.
And if at times I curse a bit,
You needn't read that part of it;
For through it all like horror runs
The red resentment of the guns.
And you yourself would mutter when
You took the things that once were men,
And sped them through that zone of hate
To where the dripping surgeons wait;
And wonder too if in God's sight
War ever, ever can be right.

Yet may it not be, crime and war
But effort misdirected are?
And if there's good in war and crime,
There may be in my bits of rhyme,
My songs from out the slaughter mill:
So take or leave them as you will.

..... How heartfelt and sensitive........ and beautiful, even in the shadow of the horrors of war....... we, you and I, and Robert Service are all emotional, intelligent people...... and whether we express it in poetry, song, writing, or any other manner, we all have to deal with the world that surrounds us........ I do that by relishing the words and the tales of people like Robert Service and Ogden Nash...... they show me that I shouldn't take things to seriously....... that I should enjoy every moment........ that I should polish my sense of humor each and every day...... and that I don't have to be a literary Goliath to pen words of my own that are of value to me and to others........

So now, in conclusion, you have been introduced to a great friend and companion of mine..... Mr. Robert W. Service...... simply a fellow traveler with us on this planet who only sought to entertain by giving us a peek inside his head with rhyming tales of The Yukon, flannel shirts, and the occasional impromptu lakeside cremation or dismemberment of a frozen friend........ and I hope that you have a new outlook on poetry and how it can enrich your life...... and that poetry isn't for chicks..... and it isn't about "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"..... Find your poet, fellow students..... I guarantee that there is one out there that you will fall in love with..... hey, don't do it for me, do it for yourself...... trust me..... Real Men read poetry........

.... now, my speech is over and I thank you........ but if you wish, I can quickly finish the rest of The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill if you want to hear it...... otherwise, I will take my seat..... and I hope you now love Robert W. Service as much as I do........

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December 10, 2014


..... when I was a little boy I grew up listening to the tales of my Appalachian grandparents...... they'd talk of endless game in the forest, spending the summers out away from the farm roaming the mountains.... camping, fishing, and hunting..... taking with them only a sack of flour, a poke of salt, a bedroll, and a cloth sack full of coffee....... everything else that they needed could be provided by the mountains...... medicine, protein, fruits, and nuts....... they knew how to live off of the land a hundred years ago - and they did....... happily......

..... earlier this month I read an article that absolutely blew me away....... it struck at the core of the stories that I had grown up on...... and it made me appreciate the smaller things that surround us each day that we take for granted........

..... The Appalachian region stretches from western Pennsylvania all the way south to the edge of northern Alabama...... an enormous area comprising millions of square acres of hardwood forest..... for centuries the southern area had been the home of all branches of my family...... western North Carolina, western Virginia, northern Georgia, and southeastern Tennessee..... the earliest ancestor in the area was Joshua Whitaker in the early 1730s.... the latest was my namesake's line who was in Rutherford County, North Carolina in 1755.......

..... anyway, back to my point....... I was awestruck by a line in the scholarly article that I read....... it stated, "with the death of the chestnut, an entire world did die, eliminating subsistence practices that had been viable in the Appalachian Mountains for more than four centuries.".......... preceding this are these lines for your amazement...... "In many ways, the death of the American chestnut symbolized the end of a waning, albeit arguably vital, subsistence culture in the Appalachians. The loss of the tree no doubt gave additional advantage to the forces of industrialization that were gaining a stronger and stronger foothold on the regional and local economy. No longer to range hogs and cattle in the woodland commons, trap fish in the free-flowing streams, or gather chestnuts on the hillsides, the rural mountaineer increasingly looked to the Milltown and urban center for economic salvation. The environmental abuse of the mountains, along with their permanent removal from the rational land base, made it extremely difficulty for mountaineers to continue a semi-agrarian, and intimately forest-dependent, way of life."

....... let that sink in for a moment and remember your history......... see, the American chestnut tree made up just over 20 percent of all the forest in Appalachia for generations and generations........ Indians feasted on the nuts for millennia before whites arrived...... bear, deer, squirrel, and all manner of other wildlife gorged themselves on stocks of chestnuts that would literally cover the ground for hundreds of acres five inches deep..... once white settlers arrived they would turn their hogs out into the mountains and let them graze on the natural bounty before the cold-weather hog-killing season arrived........ and as early as 1860 the whole east coast knew of the superior quality of Virginia Ham and cured ham from Tennessee and Kentucky for that very reason....... hey, feed a hog all winger on wild chestnuts and how can it NOT taste fabulous?......

.... but in 1904 a fellow in New York imported a Chinese ornamental chestnut tree for his horticulture business....... and it was infected with a fungus that the Chinese chestnut is immune to but the American chestnut was not...... the result was that the disease began to spread...... south and south and south........ 4 million chestnut trees, many with a diameter of 12 feet or more, were slowly dying where they stood along the mountain ridges and valleys...... the destruction was total and complete....... and by 1940 there were no American chestnut trees east of the Mississippi river..... the blight had taken them all and left only grey, sun bleached skeletons of once great chestnut trees......... the logging industry was crippled....... but the mountaineers?....... they could no longer continue to live as their ancestors - my ancestors - had done for 350 years....... the life of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer who milked his own cows, grew his own vegetables, hunted his daily venison, harvested the mountain honey for sugar, and grist his own meager corn meal for bread were gone.......

.... with the removal of that tree from the environment, a way of life that had existed for 400 years was no longer feasible.... they could no longer count on the protein from the chestnuts as a boost to their mainly vegetarian diets..... their livestock could not graze on the natural bounty of the nuts...... they could no longer gather nuts from the mountainside and wander to town to trade them for money with which to buy "school shoes" once a year....

.... when that tree died, so did their hope of ever staying in the mountains....... and thusly, they moved down and into the cities....... I find the entire tiny aspect of American History absolutely fascinating.....

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July 29, 2014


...... so, having been raised in and around a very small town in the Tennessee Valley - just off the western slope of the Appalachians - I often hear stories from the locals that just make me shake my little red head.........

...... today I visited the local barber shop for my bi-monthly shearing and the following small talk by me morphed into something totally unexpected...... it was just we two, you see - the 73 year old barber and myself......... so, to the best of me recollection, the conversation wandered gently and steadily as described below.......

Me rising from the barber chair: ...... ahhhh, you always do the finest job, sir...... now my hair looks fine but I have to go home and curry this damnable beard...... say, are you ever called upon to shave folks very often?

Him, raising an eyebrow and placing his hand to his chin: ..... yannow, not a lot any more...... but back when I first started barbering, why, we'd have five shaves to every one haircut just about every single day..... yes, sir........

Me:, that is surprising!....... I guess it has just gone out of fashion as of late..... having folks go to the barber for a straight razor shave....... hell, I've only had a shave like that once..... I was in Bangladesh at the time the shave only cost me twenty-five cents...... scariest quarter I've ever spent, I'll tell you.....

Him:...... well, see, this was back when the railroad still carried passengers..... every stop they'd be walking in to get a quick shave before they made their final push on to Knoxville, Chattanooga, or Atlanta - depending on the direction the train was going...... yep, we'd have five shaves to every haircut........ say, that reminds me.......... I used to have a friend who would come in every single day for a shave back then...... he was a railroad detective for the L&N here in town.... real high roller.... rough customer....... anyway, he was in getting his shave one morning and Old Lost Tom came in......... Old Lost Tom was a guy who was left shell-shocked after WWI and he used to wander around town all day in beat-up old pants and his undershirt...... he was in a pretty bad way but everyone just left him be...... anyway, he sticks his head in the door one day and yells over to me, "hey, where can a man buy some rubbers around here?"....... well, I told him that he could go around the corner to Anderson's drugstore ..... all he had to do was ask the fellow at the back and he'd fix him right up......... well, let me tell you, that railroad detective never let me hear the end of that.........he thought it was almighty funny..... and once a day for the next two years he'd stick his head in the door and yell, "hey! got any rubbers? I need me some rubbers!"....... then, of course, he'd leave off laughing.... .and I would be left to explain the sordid story to my patrons - much to my embarrassment.......

Me: ...... he sounds like a character...... but I have a feeling that you broke him from that, eh?......

Him, moving through and taking a seat where the customers usually wait:...... well, it went like this....he did that trick one day when one of his fellow workers was getting his hair trimmed.... and after I explained the situation to him, he told me of a story that concerned my railroad detective friend...... it seems that he had been chatting up a certain young lady passenger on the train once and had been called away...... upon his leaving, his co-worker, having been looking for him, asked her if she knew his whereabouts....... "who", she had replied in her best Atlanta drawl, "that ole bull dick?? ..... why, railroad detectives are all the same.... he's likely in the caboose boozing!"...... well, see?...... detectives are "dicks"...... and railroad detectives are called "bulls"....... so, the street savvy lady had correctly titled him with a more than appropriate sobriquet, as they say....

Me:.. .... BWHHAAAHAHAHAHAHA..... good lord, baby Jesus........ what did you do?

Him: .....well, I did as his friend advised, of course........ the next time my railroad detective friend stuck his head in the door and yelled for the rubbers, I quickly replied, "why, you get out of here, you old bull dick! You know they ain't nothing around here that'll fit that scrawny pecker of yours!"......... and do you know what?......... after years of abuse?........ I only had to do that once, and he never tried that little trick again.........

Me: ..... sir, thank you for the haircut...... and thank you for the story........ I love the haircut, but I appreciate the tale much, much more.........

.... and with that, I left....... my goodness....... if you have never lived in a small southern town, you truly do not know the countless gems and treasures that you are missing out on daily......... you truly can't make this stuff up.....

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June 14, 2014


..... if you can read the Declaration of Independence without getting a tear in your eye then there is something very wrong with you and your understanding of American History.....

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May 11, 2014


..... this past semester at college was an interesting one....... in spite of irritating my communist American History II professor, I still managed to pull a 91 for a final grade, and I found a laughingly large amount of satisfaction in that particular A....... but the most fun, unexpectedly, was in Music Appreciation.......

.... for our final "project" we had to write the final chapter of our text book and submit it for grading...... each chapter focused on a song, the melody, the lyrics, the tempo, the timbre, etc.... and we were asked to pick a song that we enjoyed and analyze it musically......... I, of course, chose a song that I listen to almost daily and that most folks have probably never even heard...... my professor certainly hadn't.... and she teaches music!......

.... anyway, I awoke this drowsy Sunday morning with lines from the fist verse of this song replaying over and over in my head for reasons that my age-addled mind cannot fathom........

"I sat on the porch without my shoes
And I watched the cars roll by
As the headlights raced
To the corner of the kitchen wall"

...... when I was growing up I lived at the wooded end of a dead-end street...... prior to the 911 adjustment of the road naming convention it was called Addison Switch Road...... now, of course, it is the much less interesting "County Road 511"..... personally, I like Addison Switch much better, but the public's safety must be maintained for the Greater Good..... and bureaucrats do so love their tidy numbered streets.....

..... when darkness fell, it was dark....... there was no traffic on my childhood road after lights out..... there were never any "headlights racing to the corner of the kitchen wall"....... that is, with the exception of the summer nights that I spent with my Great Uncle Robert and my Great Aunt Louise...... Robert owned a large, sprawling farm in the town of Madisonville where he grew acres upon acres of tobacco every summer....... and my cousins and I were drafted each summer to swell the ranks of his makeshift army of workers to harvest it......

..... although his farmland stretched deep into the countryside, his tiny farmhouse say just beside a fairly busy road beneath three enormous and ancient maple trees..... the road was always quite busy by my dead-end standards, and cars would pass by at least every ten minutes or so......

.... after working in the fields for him all day in the hot sun, we would come home for dinner..... and I would spend the night sleeping on the sofa in his living room wrapped in a tufted old afghan that Louise had crocheted....... or a hand-pieced quilt that her mother had quilted 75 years before I was born....... and as I would begin to fall asleep I would hear the approach of a car........ zipping down the old country road in front of their house.... and as the sound of the tires on the tarmac crunched louder and louder I would open my eyes and stare at the ceiling........ humming, humming, humming along, and then the light...... bright, all at once...... a sliver of light in the corner of the living room on the ceiling...... slowly sliding across the wall...... past the recliner..... downwards..... and into the kitchen...... and then the rush as it slipped up the hall and out the other window........

.... the car had passed....... and soon, I fell asleep exhausted.......

.... my teacher seemed to enjoy my choice of song even though she had no clue who John Prine was...... sometimes education flows both ways, I guess....... and we students can enrich our mentors as much as they do us........

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